Having a martyr complex is like having a get out of jail free card.
It allows you to evade guilt and shame, bypass self-responsibility, and perhaps most importantly (and tragically), it allows you to dodge real life self-growth. Having a martyr complex essentially involves pointing the finger at other people or situations in your life and blaming them for your illnesses, disappointments, crushed dreams, and emotional turmoil.
So what is a Martyr? Do you have a Martyr in your life? And most importantly, do you tend to exhibit Martyrdom?
Firstly, What is a Martyr?
Traditionally a martyr is understood as a person who is willing to die for their country, religion or beliefs. These days, a martyr refers to a person who unnecessarily sacrifices themselves for others, while ignoring their own needs.
What is a Martyr COMPLEX?
What is a martyr complex? A martyr complex is a destructive pattern of behavior in which a person habitually seeks suffering or persecution as a way to feel “good” about themselves. We all have the capacity to be martyrs, but martyr complex sufferers adopt this as a daily role, often to the detriment of their relationships.
Having a martyr complex is a way of life as it taints every interaction a person has towards others and their role in the world. I say this because I have not only personally wrestled with a martyr complex in the past, but in the present, I also frequently speak with and mentor self-imposed martyrs.
Why Do People Develop Martyr Complexes?
Why do some people become self-imposed victims, and others become self-possessed champions? There are a number of potential reasons why, and all of them might help you to develop a more compassionate understanding of others and/or yourself:
Childhood experiences mold us significantly, and often martyr complexes develop out of adopting the twisted behavioral patterns and values of our parents. For example, if our mother/father were self-imposed victims who gave up all of their hopes and dreams for us, it is likely that we would adopt the values of being “selfless, sacrificial and kind.” As our parent’s and family members were like gods to us when we were little, we unconsciously adopt many of their traits.
Societal/cultural conditioning also contributes greatly to our tendency to develop certain complexes throughout life. For example, making a simple comparison of South American and North American tradition reveals a lot about differing cultural expectations. Latina women, for example, are traditionally expected to be motherly, nurturing, self-sacrificing homemakers. American women, on the other hand, are frequently encouraged to be active, successful, and even a little selfish, business women. Our cultural roots determine many of the thoughts and feelings we have about who we are, and who we “should” be.
Self-esteem and the subsequent development of our core beliefs is also a major contributor to developing a martyr complex. The worse we feel about ourselves, the more we tend to try covering this up by making believe that we are “kind, loving, compassionate and caring.” The martyr role is essentially a dysfunctional coping mechanism that requires serious shadow work. Being a self-imposed martyr also removes the need for us to take responsibility for our lives by scapegoating other people as the cause of our failures and disappointments.
The Martyr Complex Checklist
Here we’ll examine the martyr complex more in-depth. All signs and examples will be phrased in the third person.
1. The person has a martyr as their hero, e.g. Joan of Arc, Francis of Assisi, Gandhi, Jesus, or perhaps a parent or grandparent who abandoned all of their hopes and dreams in “service” of the family.
2. They were born into a culture/country/family that has very strict gender roles, religious creeds, or expectations.
3. They display signs of low self-esteem, e.g. inability to receive love or affection, negative body image, excessive judgmentalism, moodiness, etc.
4. They were abused as a child emotionally, psychologically or physically (e.g. by a parent, sibling, family member, church member, teacher, etc.).
5. They have stayed in an abusive relationship or friendship, even despite their ailing health and well-being.
6. They refuse to accept responsibility for the decisions and choices that have caused them pain or suffering.
7. They portray themselves as righteous, self-sacrificing, the “nice guy/girl,” the saint, the caretaker, or the hero.
8. They blame the selfishness and inhumanity of other people for their repression and oppression.
9. They seek to reassure themselves of their innocence and greatness.
10. They exaggerate their level of suffering, hardship and mistreatment.
11. They have a cynical, paranoid or even suspicious perception of other people’s intentions.
12. They have an obsessive need to be right.
13. They have a hard time saying “no” and setting personal boundaries.
14. They assume that other people can read their mind.
15. They emotionally manipulate or coerce people into doing what they want by portraying themselves as the noble sufferer.
16. They don’t take initiative to solve their problems or try to actively remedy them.
17. When the Martyr’s problems are solved, they find more “problems” to complain about.
18. They actively seek appreciation, recognition, and attention for their efforts by creating drama.
1. Jessica is in a relationship with Paul who is an alcoholic. Her friends have constantly advised her to leave the relationship for her health, but Jessica keeps insisting that she will “change” Paul and help him to be a better person – despite his reluctance to improve himself.
2. Antonio is constantly staying overtime at work without being asked to. When one of his colleagues is promoted to the position of regional assistant manager within the company, he guilt trips his boss by pointing out how “hard he works and how much he sacrifices” without getting anything in return.
3. Melissa is trying her best at university, and yet her mother is frequently asking her for help within the house. When Melissa explains that she “has a lot to do” because of her university study, her mother starts complaining how selfish and unthoughtful she is, and how she “has given up everything to get Melissa where she is.”
4. Jake and Flynn own a restaurant. When Jake suggests that Flynn “take a break,” Flynn responds by saying, “Without me, this place will fall apart. I have no choice but to stay here.”
5. Valentina and Rodrigo have been married for 20 years. When Rodrigo suggests that Valentina start painting again, Valentina says, “How can I? I have to continue taking care of my children; I have too much to do,” even though both of their children are self-sufficient teenagers.
How to Deal With the Martyr Syndrome in Others
As we’ve seen so far, those who suffer from the martyr syndrome believe that:
- 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 below:
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. Plan the conversation for 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.
How to Deal With the Martyr Complex Within Yourself
So what if you are actually the one struggling with the martyr syndrome?
Don’t worry. We all have our shadows, and you’re certainly not a terrible or horrible person (so please don’t think that!). You are a well-intentioned, yet misguided person who has probably been unaware of this issue for a very long time. And that’s okay.
The very fact that you’re ready these words right now and are willing to change shows how sincere you are in regards to changing your life and the life of others. Well done!
Below, I’ll offer some suggestions which will help you put to rest self-martyrdom:
1. Find a new role within your friendship/relationship/workplace
This is extremely important. As a species, we all have varying roles in our friendships and relationships. Some people adopt roles of authority, others adopt roles of equality and others accept roles of submission.
Your role has been the self-sacrificing nurturer; in other words, your role has been elevated ABOVE other people because other people have become dependent on you in one way or another. Thankfully, you can change this. You need to step out of your nurturer role and explore different roles that are authentic to you and feel honest. Here are a few examples of healthy roles:
- The lover
- The confidant
- The buddy/mate
- The adventurer
- The comic relief
- The helper (don’t get this confused with over-extending yourself)
- The peace maker
There are many other roles out there – but always ask yourself, “Is this a healthy role? Am I elevated above, below, or am I acting as an equal to this person?” Always seek roles that create equality both for yourself and for the other.
2. Take responsibility for yourself
Learn to take responsibility for your decisions, feelings, and actions. Although it can be painful and hard to do, taking responsibility allows you to draw a line between what you can and can’t change in your life. While taking self-responsibility can be difficult, it’s also very empowering. Instead of blaming others for your suffering, you’ll know that your happiness is no one else’s responsibility but yours – and you’ll therefore feel inspired to make positive changes in your life.
3. Prepare yourself for backlash
There will be mistakes, and there will also be people in your social circle who are confused, perhaps even alarmed or annoyed by your behavior. When a person in a friendship or relationship suddenly changes their role, there is inevitably a bit of drama. The best way to reduce the drama is to straightforwardly tell your friend/s, family members, partner or even colleagues that you are going through a period of self-growth that requires you to experiment. Clear, open communication is the best way to make your path a bit smoother. But don’t expect it to be. You might find that a particular connection in your life is not serving you because it is actually enabling your martyr role.
What can you do in such a case? If it is possible to repair this friendship, partnership or relationship, do so. Communicate, be patient, but don’t allow any person to hinder your healing process. After all, YOU have to live with YOURSELF for the rest of your life. Do you want to live an exhausting lie? Do you want to lie on your deathbed and reflect on a half-lived life? Or do you want to take the chance to start fresh, clear the slate, and experience the joy and freedom that comes with expansion?
The point is that you have to deeply, sincerely want to change, EVEN at the expense of potentially losing important relationships in your life. Be patient and give yourself time to think about this.
4. Practice inner work and involution
Involution (as opposed to evolution) is about shifting your awareness from the external world to the internal world. It’s about making self-growth and actualization your priority and letting go of the masks, pretentions and toxic behavioral patterns that make your life a living hell.
Two of the paths of inner work are self-awareness and self-love, and these are vital to healing the martyr syndrome. Cultivating these two properties can take months to even years. But know that the more these qualities are honed, the more clarity, confidence, and capability you have to truly love and receive love without conditions.
To help you become more self-aware you might like to start by asking someone you trust to help you out. You could sit down with your partner, explain your feelings and discoveries, and ask them to do a big favor for you: point out any time that you are slipping back into the martyr role. Let them know that you might be pissed off, defensive or hostile towards them for doing this in the future, but this is only because of your delicate self-esteem. Remember to thank them continuously for their effort.
Alternatively, you could keep a journal every day noting down your progress. You need to religiously write in this journal every day (even if you don’t feel like it), exploring what you did, how you felt and what you think in general.
Lastly, you can couple these self-awareness exercises with the cultivation of self-love. This article on how to practice self-care will give you some ideas.
I’d love for you to share below what you have learned about having a martyr complex, or dealing with people in your life who struggle with one.