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Martyr Complex: How to Recognize and Stop Self-Inflicted Martyrdom

Martyr Complex

Martyrdom isn’t always a selfless thing. The martyr complex unconsciously leaves you searching for acceptance from others that won’t be found.

Women are often pleasers by nature. Some of us more than others! We have empathy and compassion possibly more heightened than our male counterparts. Most of us put our family, friends, and even stranger’s needs ahead of our own, choosing to be the martyr. When you think of a martyr complex, you likely think of just one definition. In reality, there are many.

What is a martyr?

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

Additionally, I think there is one more nuanced definition of the martyr complex because it is something much more complicated. Those of us who suffer, always sacrificing ourselves, do so with dual purpose.

We feel an obligation to help others, but all the while, 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]

Rarely do people with the martyr complex behave as they do for purely selfless reasons. Even those who die for religion, 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 being better than others, and subconsciously believe we deserve being liked.

Seeing the signs in myself

After years of examining my own behavior, I had an epiphany one day. I consider myself someone who always puts others first. If you need a dollar, I gladly give you my last. Need an errand run? I am always good to jump in the car. What I realized was how it made me a miserable person.

Not only did it hurt my personal relationships, it also wreaked havoc in my marriage. Always putting my husband’s needs ahead of my own, a destructive pattern of behavior appeared. [Read: 15 gender stereotypes we need to let go of]

The reason?

I did everything for everyone else thinking I expected nothing in return, but I was. I expected people to be grateful and to like me. My good deeds were meant to buy their love and affection. The problem? They didn’t know I was buying them.

Completely unaware, they took me at face value. To them, I was just a selfless person who enjoyed doing things for them and not in need of praise, thanks, or acceptance and love, the way I desired.

I gave in to my husband constantly, thinking that if he were happy, then I would be. The more I gave, the unhappier I became, and the more resentful I grew with him. Starting to take my martyrdom for granted, I felt he was selfish. The more I sacrificed, the more he took. I saw that giving into him all the time was not only not making him happy, it made me unhappy, too. It drove a wedge in our relationship.

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 wasn’t as if he consciously disrespected me. He just began to take for granted that my needs were less than his. The more he took, the more upset I got. Before I knew it, I began thinking he was ungrateful and taking advantage of me. [Read: Have modern relationships changed for the better or worse?]

The truth is, I set the tone. I created my situation. I was not respecting myself. Looking at my life, I realized I was a lifetime martyr, peacemaker, errand runner, the first person on everyone’s list when they had a “to-do.”

What are signs of a martyr complex?

I pinpointed behaviors in my life that led me down the road to resentment and self-depreciation. There are signs you may be playing the martyr to your own detriment. If you do any of the following self-defeating behaviors, you look for the wrong type of validation.

#1 You are often upset by the reaction 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 at their reaction. There is a level of gratitude those with the martyr complex expect.

They wholeheartedly do it just to be nice, but unconsciously, they hope something will come from it. They expect either adoration, people to think they are nice, or know all that they sacrificed to help them out. Those who have the martyr complex act like it is no big deal but are then shocked when those they help aren’t overly thankful. [Read: 20 signs you’re a people pleaser and don’t know it]

#2 You say yes when you would rather say no. A martyr complexer says yes even when they want to say no. They constantly put others before themselves. What that creates is a chaotic, unsettled, and stressful life.

Although thinking they help others out, they always put themselves in a position that makes them behave hurried, stressed out, and upset. To others, they appear to be aloof and perpetually short tempered, which is the exact opposite of the way that they want others to see them. [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. Those with the martyr complex constantly seek acceptance. They go out of their way not just for those they love, but for anyone they attempt to engage. When someone doesn’t pay attention to them or acknowledge them, they work extra hard to win them over. That includes finding those people with the toughest personalities to appease.

Finding a diamond in the rough, they always go for the most distant, withdrawn, and difficult person in the crowd.

#4 You say yes even when you don’t intend to follow through, then make excuses. A person who is a martyr often says yes with no intention of following through. Saying no is such a difficult thing that they say yes at any cost. A self-fulfilling prophecy, they can’t possibly be in two places at one time.

Instead of being the sacrificing person they want to be, what they become is someone unreliable or uncaring. Feeling like your heart was in the right place, you don’t take responsibility for letting someone down or not following through. Those who think they always must sacrifice themselves usually end up being viewed less favorably than if they had just said they couldn’t or didn’t want to do something. [Read: 16 reasons why you’re always being taken for granted by others around you]

#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 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. That means you don’t do anything for anyone that you don’t want to or put everyone’s needs in front of your own.

How to stop the martyr complex in its tracks

Make a commitment only to do things that not only make others feel good, but that make you happy too. You are worth the same treatment as everyone else. Those who believe themselves to be martyrs think that the only way to get people to like them is to put others first.

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

What purpose is the martyr complex serving for you?

If you always put others before yourself, 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.

The road to happiness means choosing things that make you happy and minimize those that disappoint you. Often for martyrs, their behavior never gets the desired response. It leads them doing more of the same, always searching for the recognition they desire from those around them.

[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.

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Julie Keating
Julie Keating

A writer isn’t born, but created out of experiences. No lack of subject matter, my life reads more like fiction than anything that could have been imagined...

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