What's Behind the Martyr Complex?

27 May, 2020
Today's article is for those people who exploit the pleasure of placing themselves in the position of victims by making a lifestyle out of their sacrifices. The term for this is martyr complex.

The martyr complex is about people who put others ahead of themselves. They may even think that other people’s experiences are more important than their own. Thus, they adopt the role of a victim. In other words, they’re the ones who suffer the most and do so very intensely. This way of experiencing life is what psychology refers to as the martyr complex.

From psychology, one can understand that adopting this attitude is practically voluntary. This is because pain and persecution feed certain psychological needs. It’s common for people to justify martyrdom under the guise of love, duty, and sacrifice.

Curiously, the search for suffering also leads the martyr to feel better about themselves somehow. In their view of the world, awarding themselves a penalty is an act of kindness. This is because it doesn’t touch another person and, thus, makes them feel more valuable. However, this is a self-destructive pattern, as they decide to ignore their own needs. Thus, they find and perpetuate situations that distress them.

A seemingly upset woman.

The behavior of someone with a martyr complex

In order to identify a person who may have this complex, one must look at various behaviors, thoughts, and values. Among them, the fact that a person:

  • Considers themselves pious, heroes, or saints. In turn, they consider others selfish or insensitive, people who just don’t value other’s effort.
  • Tends to exaggerate their level of suffering to promote their image. In addition, they seek the attention and recognition of anyone who’ll listen to them.
  • Tends to have low self-esteem. This reflects on how they often say they don’t consider themselves worthy of anything and underestimate their personality.
  • Has a hard time saying no and setting boundaries. It leads them to burden themselves with more “favors”, chores, and abusive relationships. Similarly, there are some martyrs who, curiously enough, end up in the role of manipulators. These types take advantage of their victim situation to emotionally blackmail others and get what they want from them.
  • Doesn’t have strategies to solve their problems and, even if they do solve them at some point, there’ll always be new ones to lament.
  • Tends to look for ways to demonstrate their goodness and good intentions while they create situations in which another is the “bad guy”.
  • May be disappointed to see the reaction of others after they help them. Even though they don’t expect payback, they’re often not happy with how others react. This is because, deep down inside, they expect admiration for their oh-so-kind behavior.

How to act around these people

Relating to a person who has a martyr complex isn’t an easy task. This is because they constantly talk about how badly they have it and it can seriously affect you.

Also, because they try to make you feel in debt when they help you. Therefore, to deal with this person, you must implement three simple strategies:

  • Don’t accept favors or any other sacrificing behavior in your favor. The more you receive from a martyred person, the more likely it is for them to be disappointed with you and may lead to future conflicts. However, it isn’t a matter of rejecting everything, only of evaluating when it’s really necessary and trying to bring such a person to their own self-sufficiency.
  • Don’t contribute to the conversation when they talk about their feelings of grief and victimhood. Try not to offer compassion or try to reinforce their anguish. Instead, try to make comments that highlight only the positive results.
  • Have a conversation. If this person is important to you, then try to have a conversation by explaining that their behavior makes you uncomfortable and isn’t good for them. They’ll be defensive at first, but you can only help them if you speak calmly, appreciate their effort, and offer solutions.
Two women talking.

If you have a martyr complex

More difficult than treating someone with a martyr complex is realizing and admitting that you do. Therefore, if you believe that you tend to act like this, then evaluate your behavior as follows:

  • People’s reaction to your kindness bothers you. Or perhaps you don’t think they react as “they should”.
  • You often say “yes” when you really want to say “no”.
  • You make excuses after you volunteer for something you can’t do.
  • When you say “no”, you’re quickly concerned that others may replace you or value others more than they value you.
  • You quickly offer to help without carefully evaluating your options.
  • Finally, you feel that you often put other people’s needs before your own.

“The martyr sacrifices themselves entirely in vain. Or rather not in vain; for they make the selfish more selfish, the lazy more lazy, the narrow narrower.”

-Florence Nightingale-

Change the martyr complex mentality

Firstly, you must realize and acknowledge there’s a problem, as this is the most important step towards change. Then, you must look for other ways to act and understand they don’t make you a bad person. This is because being accepted or loved isn’t determined by what you do, but by who you are. Thus, striving to please and meet everyone’s needs is a mental burden that leads nowhere.

Find different ways to interact in your relationships. Take on a different role. Perhaps it’s time to take the initiative, make your own decisions, and start fending for yourself if you’ve lived your life around others until now.

It’s fundamental that, in this process of change, you consider whether this is a way of relating in a balanced way. Also, you must think about whether you’re placing yourself above, below, or next to another.

Above all, assume your responsibilities and respect the freedom of others. It’s time to assume your mistakes and understand that each person reacts and understands life in their own special way. Thus, yours shouldn’t depend on theirs.

Finally, talk to others about your change process. Surely they’ll understand and value it and may even help make it easier and more bearable. However, be patient. There’ll be people who may have taken advantage of this situation or who simply need more time to adapt to the new you.