In psychology, we use the term ‘martyr complex’ or ‘victim complex’ to refer to those who choose to feel and act like a victim. Similar to a people-pleaser, a person with a martyr complex will sacrifice his or her own needs to serve others. But martyrs also learn helplessness — feeling they have no choice and are a victim to other people’s demands.
There certainly are true victims – people who are being hurt or have been hurt, people who are controlled, and people who cannot change or escape, or they will be hurt or killed. However, there are also many adults with codependency or a martyr complex who have been hurt, but are not truly helpless and can choose to live differently.
Why would anyone choose to be a martyr?
There are families and cultures where martyrdom is encouraged, valued, and expected (especially from women). You may have grown up in such a family.
Let’s take a look at one family to see how a martyr complex can develop:
Sam was only five years old. His mom lost her temper and yelled at him, as she often did. Sam started to cry as any five-year-old would. But instead of comforting him, Sam’s mom makes it all about herself. She starts to cry: “I’m the worst mother ever. I never do anything right.” Sam’s mom has knowingly or unknowingly manipulated this situation so that she is now the injured party and Sam is comforting her. “It’s OK, Mama. You’re the best Mama. I know you didn’t mean it.” Little Sam needed his mother’s love and affection and will do anything to please his mom.
Notice that Sam’s feelings were never acknowledged, his pain was never comforted. Sam learned early on that he shouldn’t have feelings or needs. He was there to take care of his mother’s needs, to make her feel better. And if he didn’t, there were consequences. His mother would withhold all affection. She’d give him the silent treatment and retreat to her bedroom, leaving Sam and his little sister alone for hours and hours.
Sam was valued not for the person he was, but for what he could do for his mother. He could comfort her, he could entertain his sister, and he could bring mom her medicine when she had a headache.
Not surprisingly, Sam continues this behavior in adulthood. He does everything for everyone else. Sam’s well-liked and successful. Why wouldn’t he be? He has no boundaries and on the rare occasion that he says “no” it comes with a heavy dose of guilt. Sam’s exhausted from overextending himself.
Deep inside he’s afraid no one will want him or love him if he does anything to displease them. By age five, he already knew that his mom’s love was conditional and that he had to earn her love.
He’s unaware of most of his own feelings and needs. After work, he binges on fast food and beer to de-stress and keep his feelings at bay.
But Sam can only keep his feelings tucked away for so long. They start to bubble up as resentments, and then as snide remarks said under his breath, or passive-aggressive moves. For example, he frequently complains to his girlfriend when she has to work late.
You don’t have to be a martyr. You have choices.
Sam, like all of us, wants to be loved, accepted, and appreciated. He’s burnt out and resentful because he’s constantly trying to prove his worth by doing everything for everyone. You don’t have to be at the mercy of others – hoping they’ll love you, proving your worth, and confusing pity for love. At best, they’ll love the fake, people-pleaser self you’re showing them. This kind of love is never satisfying because you’re not expressing who you are, your feelings, and your real self.
The opposite of martyrdom is expressing your needs.
If you’re not getting what you need in your relationships, take responsibility and start asking for what you need. People can’t read your mind or read between the lines of your passive-aggressive comments.
When you start expressing your feelings, wants, and needs, and setting boundaries, some people may be angry or even leave. This is normal. When you change, those around you have to change, too. As you ask for what you want or need, it will become clear that some people were only sticking around because of what you could do for them. They were taking advantage of you. This is a sad and hurtful realization that leaves you with an important choice. Are a bunch of “users” really better than being alone? I don’t think so, but you should decide for yourself.
The truth is, when you stop acting like a victim, you’ll start attracting a new group of healthy friends who are interested in you as a person, not just what you can do for them. These are the relationships you want. Healthy relationships have a give and take. You need to give and receive. This is how you really rid yourself of anger and resentment.
I don’t mean to say it’s easy to distance yourself from friends, family, or lovers. It’s scary as all get out to worry that you’ll be all alone, that no one will ever love you. Start small and see what happens. Maybe tell your coworker that you can’t cover for him while he’s on vacation or tell your husband that you need an hour of personal time this weekend. Some people may leave. Some people will adjust. You will have healthier, happier relationships. You’ll gain self-esteem and confidence.
This, of course, will feel very strange. You’re trying to undo some long-time patterns. It takes practice to even figure out what you’re feeling and what you want. Practice and give yourself time. Journaling and therapy are excellent places to practice.
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Photo by: E M via Flickr