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Martyr Complex: What It Is, 20 Signs of Martyr Syndrome & Ways to Fix It

Someone with Martyr Complex lives feeling like a victim, and keeps others happy through self-sacrifice. Learn how to read the signs of Martyr Syndrome, what it is, how it works, and how to fix it. 

martyr complex syndrome

Women are often pleasers by nature. Some of us more than others! Those people might have a martyr complex.

Women often have heightened empathy and compassion. Many put their family, friends, and even strangers’ needs ahead of their own, choosing to be the selfless martyr. 

When you think of a Martyr or Victim Complex, you likely think of just one definition. In reality, there are many.

What is a martyr?

The term martyr, according to Merriam-Webster, refers to “a person who is killed or who suffers greatly for a religion, cause, etc.” Another definition, which is not so empathetic or complementary, is “a person who pretends to suffer or who exaggerates suffering in order to get sympathy.”

Additionally, there is one more nuanced definition of the Martyr Complex – because it is really something much more complicated. Those of us who suffer, always sacrificing ourselves, do so with a dual purpose.

We feel an obligation to help others, but all the while, we want to believe that we are kind people. If we don’t give in or sacrifice ourselves, there is a hidden fear that we aren’t the great people we want to believe ourselves to be. [Read: How to feel good about yourself and kick ass in life]

What is the Martyr Complex?

The simplest definition of a person with the Martyr Complex is someone who actively looks for opportunities to help someone else by suffering through an emotionally painful experience.

It sounds like a really noble and selfless thing to do. But rarely do people with the Martyr Complex behave as they do for purely selfless reasons.

Even those who die for their religion often do so to earn their place in heaven, don’t they? So, what is it that we gain when we behave as a martyr?

We get the privilege of feeling ‘better’ than others, and subconsciously believe we deserve to be liked as a result. [Read: How to care less and stop giving a damn what people think]

Why do people get Martyr Syndrome? 

Most people with Martyr Complexes develop them in childhood. In many types of families and cultures, martyrdom is encouraged, expected, and valued – especially in women.

For example, they may have been taught by their parents that they need to take care of another member of the family. And if they don’t do that, then there will be negative consequences for the child. 

The parents might withhold affection, give them the silent treatment, or otherwise emotionally abuse the child if they don’t comply.

When things like this happen, the child doesn’t feel valued for the person they are – only for what they can do for their parents or other people. [Read: When people use you – stop being a doormat and feel in control again]

This, in turn, leads to low self-esteem and self-worth that continues into adulthood. Saying no to other people makes them feel guilty and bad about themselves. That’s why they continue to say “yes” to everyone and everything.

And deep inside, the person is afraid no one will love them if they do anything to displease another person. They think that love is conditional, and they need to earn other people’s love.

Martyr as an insult

These days, if someone called you a martyr, don’t feel flattered. It’s often a passive-aggressive and snide remark. In almost all instances, when someone is called a martyr, people associate the word with a person showing the signs of a Martyr Complex. 

This kind of martyr is someone who actively looks for people to self-effacingly help, and then gets hurt when their efforts aren’t extolled and honored. [Read: 25 signs of covert narcissism and the games they play]

When you give in to people continually, they lose respect for you. If you don’t put yourself first, then why should anyone else? 

It’s not as if people will consciously disrespect you. They will just begin to take for granted that your needs are lesser than theirs. 

The more they take, the more upset you get when you’re unrecognised. Before you know it, you begin thinking that other people are always ungrateful and take advantage of you. [Read: 16 reasons why you’re always being taken for granted by others]

The truth is, you set the tone. You create your own situation. This is happening because you aren’t respecting yourself. 

If you look at your life, then you might recognize that you are a lifetime martyr, peacemaker, errand-runner, the first person on everyone’s list when they have a chore or “to-do.” 

You might have a victim mentality, all by your own effort, and thus suffer through a Martyr Complex because you aren’t being appreciated for what you are doing for others.

How to recognize signs of the Martyr Complex

If you try, you can pinpoint behaviors in your life that led you down the road to resentment and self-depreciation. There are signs you may be feeling and acting like a victim to your own detriment. 

If you do any of the following self-defeating behaviors, you’re looking for the wrong type of validation. And chances are, you too, are suffering from the Martyr Complex! [Read: 20 signs you’re a people pleaser but just don’t see it yourself]

1. You are often upset by the reactions of others when you do things for them

Often, we do things for people, thinking we do them just to be nice. After we do them, we are disappointed by their ‘lackluster’ reaction. There is an impossible level of gratitude those with the Martyr Complex expect.

Unconsciously, we hope something will come from kindness. We expect either adoration, or people to think we’re nice, remembering all that we sacrificed to help them out.

People with Martyr Syndrome may act like favors are no big deal, but are then shocked when those they help aren’t overly thankful. [Read: Attention seekers and why they go looking for drama]

2. You say “yes” when you would rather say “no”

Someone with a Martyr Complex says “yes” even when they want to say “no”. You constantly put others before yourself. What that creates is a chaotic, unsettled, and stressful life.

Although you’re thinking you’re helping others out, you always put yourself in a position that makes you stressed out and upset.

To others, you appear to be aloof and perpetually short-tempered, which is the exact opposite of the way you want others to see you. This is a recipe for frustration! [Read: Stop pleasing people, learn to say no, and start feeling awesome instead]

3. You make friends with people that others can’t get along with

People with a Martyr Complex constantly seek acceptance. You go out of your way not just for those you love, but for anyone you engage with. 

When someone doesn’t pay attention to you or acknowledge you, you work extra hard to win them over. That includes finding people with the toughest personalities to appease.

Hoping you’ll find a diamond in the rough, you always go for the most distant, withdrawn, or difficult person in the crowd.

After all, pleasing these tough nuts is harder than pleasing regular people. In turn, you hope for a lot more gratitude. [Read: 10 Tips for setting boundaries with difficult people]

4. You say “yes” even when you don’t intend to follow through, then make excuses

A person who acts like a martyr often says “yes” with no intention of following through. Saying “no” is such a difficult thing that you say “yes” at any cost.

Naturally, you can’t possibly be in two places at one time. Therefore, instead of being the self-sacrificing person you want to be, you become is someone unreliable or uncaring. Feeling like your heart was in the right place, you don’t take responsibility for letting people down or not following through.

You usually end up being viewed less favorably than if you had just said you couldn’t or didn’t want to do something. [Read: The signs you’re an attention seeker even if you don’t realize it]

5. If you say “no’, you worry someone won’t like you

You think people like you not for who you are, but for what you can do for them. If you do things simply to get people to like you, then you sacrifice yourself without reason.

People should like you not because you put them in front of yourself, but because you have value and bring something to the table.

6. You do things for other people even though you don’t feel appreciated

Human beings are inherently selfish. So, if there is a person who will do things for others that they don’t want to do themselves, many people take advantage of that.

They’ll feel relieved that someone else is doing their “dirty work.” [Read: How to stop being taken for granted in relationships – 15 strong ways]

If you have a martyr complex, those kinds of people make you feel very unappreciated. And that’s probably because you are!

The people you help take you for granted and don’t ever see the value in what you do for them – but a martyr will do it anyway.

7. You often try to do too much

Because you don’t know how to say “no”, you put too much on your plate in life.

When people ask you to do favors – or even if they don’t ask you at all – you do it, and you do it all. This fills up your calendar and overwhelms you. [Read: How to live a simple life and 17 steps to find joy in slowing down]

After all, there are only 24 hours in a day, so you are limited in what you can accomplish. You still need to eat and sleep. 

If you find yourself sacrificing all your time for the benefit of others, then you probably have a Martyr Complex.

8. The people you spend time with make you feel bad about yourself

If you surrounded yourself with people who appreciate you and don’t take advantage of you, then you wouldn’t have to do everything for them.

They would naturally see the value in the things you do for them, and they would reciprocate. [Read: Low self-worth – 5 steps to see yourself in a better light]

But someone who has a Martyr Complex surrounds themselves with people who take them for granted. As a result, they feel bad about themselves. 

Then, it’s a vicious circle. In order to feel better about themselves, the martyr just keeps giving to other people.

9. You consistently feel dissatisfied with your job or relationships

A martyr is a martyr in all areas of their life. It’s not like they’re just a martyr with their significant other or family. They are martyrs with everyone. [Read: 15 Types of toxic relationships, what causes them, and how to get out]

So, if you feel pretty much everyone in your life is ungrateful, then the problem could be you. Not that they are great people for taking advantage of you, but still, you are allowing it.

10. You have a pattern of taking care of others in relationships

You are constantly on the lookout for other people’s needs and how to fulfill them. It’s like you have a special antenna for what needy people are thinking or feeling.

The problem is that this comes at the expense of your own needs. In fact, you probably don’t even know what your needs are.

You spend all your time focused on other people, until it doesn’t even occur to you to look after yourself. [Read: Are you a giver who is feeling unappreciated in a relationship?]

Why is having a Martyr Complex harmful? 

At first glance, the actions of a martyr sound great. They sound like loving, kind, and giving people. That’s certainly often true. But it can be harmful to be that way too. Here’s why:

1. Strained relationships in your life

The martyr is always giving and other people are always taking, and this puts strain on their relationships. 

People in a martyr’s life don’t appreciate or respect their codependency. And as a result, the martyr eventually becomes resentful. If you suffer from a Martyr Complex, be responsible in asking for what you need. Don’t assume that people can read your mind (or read between the lines of your passive-aggressive comments)! [Read: 21 Secret signs of a bad relationship that signal a bad future ahead]

2. Burnout

Someone who chooses to fill up their daily schedule with everyone else’s problems will get burned out. 

Human beings only have so much physical and emotional energy. And when it’s constantly being sucked out of them, then they will hit a wall of exhaustion.

3. Lack of positive change

When the martyr has strained relationships and burnout, then there needs to be a change. They may or may not consciously know this. [Read: 17 Life secrets to smile more often, feel great, and laugh your stress away]

Either way, they usually don’t take any steps to change their behavior. When that doesn’t happen, the pattern continues to spiral downward.

How to stop your Martyr Complex in its tracks

Just like any habit, being a martyr is something that can be changed. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy. It will take some effort, but it is so worth it in the long run.

Here’s how you can stop being a martyr:

1. Make time for self-care 

Make a commitment only to do things that not only make others feel good, but that make you happy too. [Read: 34 Life-changing steps to fall in love with yourself all over again]

You are worthy of the same treatment as everyone else. People with Martyr Syndrome often think that the only way to get people to like them is to put others first. This isn’t true!

Always doing things for everyone to your detriment leads to a lifetime of dissatisfaction. Never focusing on those things that make you happy only leads you down a desolate road. [Read: What really makes you happy may not be what you think]

2. Work on communication

Most martyrs aren’t good communicators. Instead of telling people what they are thinking and feeling, they keep it inside. 

They think that talking about their needs and emotions will push other people away. But it won’t.

So, try to be vocal about your needs and desires. Tell other people that you don’t feel appreciated and feel taken advantage of. Share your emotions with them and try to get them to see life from your perspective. [Read: How to communicate in a relationship – 16 steps to a better love]

3. Set boundaries

The main problem with martyrs is that they can never say “no”. They always say “yes” when someone asks them to do something, even if they don’t. 

So, you need to learn to set boundaries and tell people that you are not a doormat. You have needs, so you are going to start paying attention to them too. Figure out what you’re feeling and what you want, but give yourself time; you’re trying to undo a long-term pattern.

You can start with something small. Maybe telling your coworker that you can’t over their shift, or telling your husband that you need an hour of personal time this weekend. Then progress to distancing yourself from friends or family who take advantage of you. Some people might be angry, but all these will be positive changes in your life in the long run.

4. Talk to a therapist

Since a Martyr Complex often begins in childhood, it can be a huge part of someone’s personality.

Because of that, they might not even know how to be any different. They have spent their whole lives prioritizing the feelings or needs of other people while keeping theirs tucked away. [Read: Alone time – why you need it, how it helps, and how to make the most of it]

So, it is very beneficial to talk to a therapist if you can afford to. A trained professional will help you figure out your own needs and how to change your behavior to make yourself happy.

What purpose is the Martyr Complex serving for you?

If you always put others first, stop and ask yourself what is it that you get out of it. People repeat behaviors because they serve some purpose. 

What is it that you gain from always putting yourself second to others? If you yearn for acceptance, self-sacrifice is not the answer. [Read: Feeling unappreciated? 31 satisfying quotes to empower you to move on]

The road to happiness means choosing things that make you happy and minimizing those that disappoint you. Often for martyrs, their behavior never gets the desired response.

This leads them to do more of the same, always searching for the recognition they desire from those around them.

How to deal with the Martyr Complex

Maybe you’re not the martyr yourself, but you know someone who is. You probably feel sorry for them and want to help them. So, here are a few things you need to do to help someone who plays the victim: [Read: Playing victim – 13 signs and reasons why it makes your life way worse]

1. Stop accepting favors

Since people who suffer from a Martyr Complex will sacrifice anything for anyone, you will have to be the one to put your foot down. Set the boundaries yourself by refusing to accept favors from them. 

Don’t let them sacrifice their own needs – especially over yours. Help them uncover their own needs and encourage them to meet them.

2. Don’t satisfy their need for compassion

You can’t change a martyr; only they can change themselves. You want them to change, but you also need to accept and love them or who they are right now. [Read: Emotionally damaged – how people get that way, 26 signs, and how to heal from it]

That doesn’t mean that you have to respond when they expect to be rewarded for compassion. You have to let them be themselves, but keep encouraging positive change.

3. Express your concerns directly

As we said earlier, most martyrs are not good communicators. So, you will have to step up and do it for them. 

If you know a martyr in your life, let them know that you are concerned about how they never say “no” to anyone, and how that is burning them out. You can’t beat around the bush either. You have to be direct and firm so that they really understand what you are talking about.

[Read: 16 strategies to finally get your shit together]

If you have signs of a martyr complex, it’s time to reevaluate why you do what you do. Take steps to change your behavior to get what you want out of life, instead of always sacrificing yourself in the hope that others will thank you for it!

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Carol Morgan LP
Dr. Carol Morgan
Dr. Carol Morgan has a Ph.D. in communication and is a professor at Wright State University where she loves corrupting young minds. As a relationship and succes...