The martyr complex – what is it and what can be done about it?


Those who have this complex are generally those people who seem to be extremely helpful and agreeable, who are willing to sacrifice any time to help others. Behind this kind of behavior are beliefs like "I'm not good enough, so I have to sacrifice and please others for them to love or appreciate me," "if someone doesn’t need me, it means I have no value", "the well-being and happiness of others depend on me", "it is normal to suffer in the name of love ", "in my absence, everything will fall apart", "other people must agree with me and reward me for my sacrifices".

These people are constantly seeking for ways to convince themselves that they are good and valuable people - for example, they sacrifice themselves for others, but at the same time they often find themselves in situations that make them feel bad: they accept abusive relationships in their lives, they accept others to use them, they don’t set healthy limits and boundaries with others, it's hard for them to say “no”.

What are their characteristic traits?

They appear to others as "good", "gentle" and "righteous" people who do everything possible for others to be well. But the renunciations, compromises and sacrifices they make are ways in which they try to convince themselves of their kindness, goodness of their heart and importance, and at the same time ways to subdue others by frequently using manipulation and emotional blackmail: “After all that I have done for you I expect you to do this for me too"," I sacrificed for your sake, so you too, in return, should sacrifice for me / please me ". When they don’t get what they want, they victimize, they dramatize and exaggerate about the difficulties and problems they have had to endure.

So, in dealing with others, they often use manipulation and emotional blackmail, seeking appreciation, recognition and attention for their sacrifices, and they often have unrealistic expectations - others should read their mind and meet their needs. They have an obsessive need to be right and they can become quite suspicious or even paranoid about others’ intentions.

Another key element is that those who have this complex don’t take responsibility for their lives, decisions, and choices, but they seek to blame others, usually friends or family, for their failures, renunciations or unhappiness. They don’t take the initiative to solve or at least fix their problems, but they prefer to adopt a victim position seeking for others’ compassion and pity. Even if they get help, they will soon be looking to cling on to other problems and they will try to find new reasons to complain.

What might be the causes?

Childhood experiences, physical, psychological or emotional abuse, and family influences by taking on parental values ​​and patterns - for example, if a parent has given up his dreams for his family, sacrificing and adopting a victim position, the child can end up to value self-sacrifice, renunciations and compromises.

Cultural and social influences - in a culture and in a society that promotes suffering or sacrifice as a virtue, it may take a long time and a lot of individual work to understand that these things are in fact dysfunctional and destructive. Also, rigid gender roles, religious beliefs and social expectations have a significant contribution. A culture where, for example, it’s normal for a woman to give up her plans and dreams to devote herself to the role of mother and wife, that is, a culture where self-renunciation is promoted, favors the development of this complex.

A person who has this complex usually has a low self-esteem, he sees himself in a negative way, he considers himself not good enough and therefore he seeks to obtain others’ validation, approval, and acceptance usually sacrificing himself for them.

The more we feel worse in our own shoes and the more we think we are worthless people, the more we try to mask this by adopting the image of a good, gentle, empathetic and loving person, looking for the goodwill of others.

When the martyr sacrifices himself for the sake of another, or when he does so much for others that they become dependent on him, he feels important and valuable.

How do we behave with people who have the "martyr complex"?

For these people the most important thing is to feel important and valuable. They seek to get others’ sympathy and they want to be adored, worshiped, rewarded and appreciated by them.

But the more you receive from such people, and the more you accept for them to do more for you, the higher their expectations and claims will be. That doesn’t mean to reject them and totally refuse them, but don’t rely and don’t become dependent on them. Don’t accept nor ask for what you alone can do or solve, otherwise you are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Martyrs willingly choose to do things they don’t necessarily want, and which often are not even necessary, they choose to sacrifice and suffer to receive others’ recognition and compassion. In this case, they expect you to pity them, to show them compassion and sympathy, and they even try to induce you guilt feelings if you don’t please them. But by doing these things, you reinforce their destructive behaviors.

For example, someone close to you can say that after coming from work he stayed up all night and cooked for you because he knew you were going to visit him. This person is complaining and at the same time highlights the sacrifice he made for your sake, although a much simpler solution would have been to order something to eat or go out to a restaurant if necessary. In this case, if you feel sorry for him, you will reinforce the idea that his sacrifice is a noble thing.

Instead, thank him, show your appreciation, but be honest and say that you have noticed his tendency of sacrificing, that all extreme things are not helpful either to him, nor to others and that there are alternative solutions. Give clear examples and argue why you think such a behavior is not beneficial.

Don’t expect for a positive reaction, most likely at the beginning he will deny it and he will be mad at you, but it’s important to stop encouraging these behavioral patterns.

What can you do if you have this complex?

Redefine the role you have in your relationships. By sacrificing yourself, by tending to do too much for others, by taking over their tasks or what they can do for themselves, you are positioning yourself over them and encouraging them to become dependent on you. It would be ideal to place yourself on an equal position with other people. Trust them that they could manage on their own and trust yourself you could do the same thing. Think about the benefits of such a role. Being aware of the benefits, you become aware of your needs. Then think about what other healthier and more functional ways exist so that you alone can meet these needs. Now you are the one who "nourishes" others and the one who expects others to "nourish" him. Ask yourself what other roles would fit you and would resonate with your authenticity.

Once you change yourself and stop behaving in the same way as before with those around you, there will surely be people who will resist you, who will not agree that you are not as you were before. If we talk about close people, tell them that at this point you are going through some changes and that you are no longer willing to go back to the old patterns. If they will understand and support you, it means that the relationship can continue but in another way. If not, in the end you haven’t lost anything because those who discourage you now are those people who were encouraging your martyr complex before.

By personal development or by going to therapy you can become more aware of the masks, needs, expectations, destructive or dysfunctional patterns that have guided you so far. By learning to love yourself, to respect yourself, to give yourself what you need, to become aware of  your problems and to "work" with yourself, you can overcome this martyr role and redefine your relationships with those around you.

Notice the situations where you tend to act as before, and consciously decide to act differently. You can ask the loved ones to draw your attention whenever you return to the old patterns.

At the end, I invite you to tell me if you have met such people in your life and how they influenced you or if you are one of them and if it’s something you would like to change.

Dr. Ursula Sandner


2 comentarii pentru “The martyr complex – what is it and what can be done about it?

  1. My mother is not just a martyr, she imposed it (still does) on me growing up, throwing me under the bus time and again in her quest to sacrifice for other people. She has a lot of other mental issues too, what I suspect include BPD & some narcissistic characteristics (though I don’t think she is full on NPD). A lot of what she imposed on me in her martyrdom games included things like giving away my toys & games to her friends’ and other relatives’ kids, withholding me food until chores were completed. Either with her or she’d ship me out to do things for neighbors/friends/family that included hours away. She’d take me to paint rooms, a shed, mow yards, clean, whatever errands I’d have to go along w/ when I was growing up or do on my own when I was older. She wouldn’t let me eat anything before going. She herself withheld too. She even begrudge me hydration hreaks. I became heat intolerant to this day. She herself used collapse from heat & exhaustion til they made her rest. When I was 4 I got chicken pox & shortly after meningitis. She took me to play with a friend’s kid who had c.pox so I’d “get it & get it over with”. She thought I was faking being sick with the meningitis. Dad ended up taking me to the ER against her protests. I was supposed to be a flower girl at this time at her best friend’s daughter’s wedding. I felt like death. Excruciating headache & vomiting. The day of the wedding she was still yelling & crying trying to get me to put on my flower girl gown. I just could not in spite of the consequences. She beat the crap out of me with her hands and the belt. I represented ultimate shame & failure in her mind, convinced her best friend & her daughter thought that. This article is enlightening but it doesn’t touch on how masochistic martyrs can also be quite the abusive sadists too.

  2. If anyone reading is also trying to process abuse at the hands of a martyr mother, as for mine, this article describes her to a T. As for how she’s imposed that dynamic on me, she punished me harshly in childhood to keep me silent about mistreatment inflicted by other children & also certain adults. I was expected to suck up & take it. My adulthood has been peppered with her sheanigans making other people happy at my expense. Such as having my certain pets taken & killed cuz my cat were in the neighbors yards & they complained. She even hired tree butchers to cut out & remove things the neighbors complained about my leaves, sticks & buds were dropping or blowing in their yards. She still will contract me out to do things without checking if I will, or can. She cares nada for what my schedule or plans are. She expected me to magically be available at a second’s notice. She has ways to punish me if I can’t/don’t. She’s very passive aggressive. Like she did when I was a child w/my toys and dolls, she was going to give away my bicycle about 4 yrs ago to a woman who’s not even a close friend of hers, because the woman commented to her she wished she had a bike like mine. It was an insane battle. I had to put my bike in my house to keep her from taking it. She told the woman I didn’t want it anymore. This woman was someone mom went out of her way to cater to. Over the years I’ve bought new doorknob lock assemblies so she can’t get inside & cause daamage like this. One thing this article doesn’t mention is how they self impose what they perceive are other people’s judgment. They are quite delusional. I decorated quite elaborately for Halloween one year. None of my neighbors or her friends decorated for Halloween & certainly not like I did. It shamed her. So she trespassed & removed the offending decor. My advice to anyone dealing with a person like this is cut contact. They will not change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *