We’ve all come across Martyrs in our lives. These are the people who come across as being unusually helpful, agreeable, self-sacrificing, and even “saintly.”
Due to specific cultural, societal, or religious upbringings, these people have adopted the following false beliefs and perceptions about life:
- They must willfully suffer in the name of love.
- Everything will fall apart if they aren’t there to hold it together.
- They are responsible for everyone else’s well-being and happiness.
- Other people are responsible for their unhappiness, hardship and mistreatment – not them.
- Because they sacrifice so much, other people must agree with, obey or appease them 100% of the time.
- If they are no value to anyone, they are worthless.
Those suffering from the martyr complex also possess a deeply neurotic core belief that “they are bad” and thus must reassure themselves of their innocence through self-sacrifice and displays of self-aggrandizement. Unfortunately, the Martyr’s deep-seated belief that they are inherently “unworthy” means that they unconsciously attract/set up situations where they will be abused or taken for granted – consequently manipulating and guilt-tripping others – thus reconfirming their belief that they are “bad” and therefore deserve “bad things.”
Essentially, if you live with a Martyr, you’ll find that they are constantly finding ways to prove that they are good, while at the same time inviting situations that make them feel “bad”; for example, staying in abusive relationships, allowing themselves to be used, stirring up unnecessary arguments, creating drama.
So what can you do if you’re on the receiving end of a martyr complex? We’ll explore that in this article. However, if you feel as though YOU are the one struggling with a martyr complex, please read this and this article.
How to Live With, Love and Interact With a Martyr Complex Sufferer
Try searching “how to deal with a martyr complex sufferer” online, and you won’t find a lot of useful advice. In fact, there is virtually NOTHING (at the time of writing) on the topic that I have found that is remotely useful. Most people recommend “just ignoring” these types of people, and in my experience, that is completely useless, not to mention destructive.
So this article, I hope, will be a like a nugget of gold.
I’ve had a lot of experience with Martyr’s, and I’ve seen this complex exhibited in both sexes, a wide range of ages, and many different races – and I’ve also lived with them before. What I’ve always found is that Martyr’s tend to be sensitive types of people that suffer from low self-esteem. Thus excessive self-sacrifice is used as a way of regaining that sense of “goodness” and “worthiness” that they feel they lack. When a Martyr’s sacrifice is not acknowledged (and to them it must be frequently acknowledged with a 100% outpouring of gratitude … OR ELSE), they build up an immense amount of anger, resentment and bitterness. This later erupts in fierce arguments, silent treatments, emotional manipulation and blackmail (such as causing others to feel guilty or ashamed), and health problems.
I know all these things because I have been there before and continue to deal with Martyrs in my life. When you do not give a Martyr his or her sense of worth through praise, adoration and worship, there is hell to pay. Why? Because you are depriving them of the one thing they desire the most: to feel good about themselves.
So what do you do? Most people either play the Martyr’s game, or completely reject them altogether and verge on blatant exploitation. But luckily these are not the only two paths – there is actually another path, which I call “the path of the middle” which causes the least amount of harm to you and to them.
Here it is:
1. Stop accepting excessive gifts, favors, and expressions of effort or sacrifice from them.
The more you take from a Martyr, the more they’ll expect from you, and the more likely they will feel resentful towards you and create drama in the future. Of course, I don’t mean completely rejecting anything a Martyr has to do or give to you – I actually recommend that you accept something from them once in a while just to let them know that you aren’t completely snubbing them. But ensure that you don’t rely on the Martyr, because you could very well be perpetuating their complex. This is very important. You need to learn to be as self-sufficient as possible.
For example, if you live with a parent or family member that is always cooking for you, tell them honestly that you would prefer to cook your own food for most of the week and give them a reason why (e.g. you want to be more independent, you want to learn how to cook, etc.). On the other hand, you could volunteer to help each time they cook, taking away their individualistic desire to self-sacrifice.
2. Acknowledge or agree with them, but don’t fulfill their need for pity, approval or sympathy.
For instance, if you have a friend who tells you how she stayed up all night knitting a blanket for the local fair that you run, don’t give her pity or sympathy (after all, that was her own choice). Instead acknowledge details about the situation, e.g. “Yeah, it’s going to be a big fair” or, “It must look really nice” or, “What yarn did you use?” NOT, “Oh, you poor thing” or, “Wow, you must be feeling so tired” etc.
Another example could be your partner telling you “I spent all morning scrubbing the kitchen – 3 hours non-stop. Now my fingers are swelled up.” In response to this, you could acknowledge or agree, e.g. “Yes, I noticed that it was really dirty. I would have liked to help” or, “It smells nice – did you use tea tree oil?” NOT “Wow, I’m sorry that I didn’t do it earlier!” or, “Thank you so much, you’re an angel.”
With the Martyr it is much better to express your appreciation of them through actions rather than through words. Also, by not giving the Martyr pity, approval or sympathy, you don’t set yourself up to be guilt-tripped or manipulated, and you don’t actively enable their self-destructive behavior. Instead, they have no choice but to deal with the unnecessary extremity of their actions.
3. Be courageous and speak to them honestly.
First of all you need to realize (and probably already do) that being honest with anyone feels uncomfortable. If you open up to the Martyr in your life about how you feel, you will likely be met with denial, tears, or offense – or a combination of all three. Even so, if you care about the Martyr in your life, you need to plant that seed within them, letting them know that they really do have a problem which needs to be worked on. Here are some do’s and don’ts when it comes to having a heart-to-heart with the Martyr in your life.
- Organize or find an appropriate time to talk (that is not full of distraction or drama). The kitchen and bedroom is a good place, as well as the outdoors (in a quiet place).
- Open the conversation by telling them how much you value them and appreciate their effort.
- Follow by letting them know that you’ve noticed how their behavior tends to be unnecessarily self-sacrificing, and the detrimental results of this behavior on both you, your family/friends, and them.
- Be aware that they will most likely go into denial instantly. On the other hand, they will probably point the finger at you and start criticizing your flaws to take the attention off them. Be aware of your own tendency to get offended and defensive (which will ruin the entire conversation), so acknowledge what they say, agree with them, but re-establish what the conversation is about.
- Give them clear examples of their behavior. Be aware that they will try to argue their case, and listen to it (because there is a chance YOU could be wrong). But also remember to keep on-course and give them good reasons why you are bringing the subject up.
- They might lapse into self-pity, in which case you can comfort them, but also talk to them about the need for them to take time to love and appreciate themselves rather than always expecting others to.
- If they agree that they have a problem, talk about how to resolve it. E.g. They could go see a therapist, or they could enroll in a self-help course, or buy a book on the topic. You could even volunteer to let them know in the future when they are slipping into the Martyr role to give them helping hand.
- Don’t become defensive, angry or argumentative. YES it is tempting, but you need to start the conversation from a place of calmness and understanding. People who suffer from martyr complexes are almost always completely unaware of what they’re doing. Their behavior is the result of a lack of self-awareness and self-love.
- Don’t criticize THEM personally, only their BEHAVIOR. Talk in terms of “I’ve noticed that the behavior you show …” or “Your behavior is unsettling …” INSTEAD OF “You are manipulating me,” “You’re always doing this …”
- Don’t talk to them when they are already stressed out or busy. Have the conversation in the right time and place.
- Don’t expect the conversation to go perfectly. Likely it will be challenging, and you might need to revisit it quite a few times before it sinks in. In other cases (in the instance of old people), the conversation could be completely pointless in terms of expecting them to change. But being open about how you feel really helps to clear the air and it helps to encourage the Martyr in your life to be more self-aware in the future.
Understanding why a person in your life has a martyr complex is the best way of forgiving them, loving them and living with them. This doesn’t mean that you need to approve what they do, or allow yourself to be manipulated, but it does mean that you can experience more freedom and happiness, not letting pent up emotions ruin your mental and emotional health.
So let me know below in the comments what you think: at what point is it worth ending a connection with a martyr? And how have YOU dealt with Martyrs before in your life?