Home » Blogs » Psychoanalysis Now » The Game of Martyrdom and Its Effects

The Game of Martyrdom and Its Effects

Martyrs photo
Photo by

The truth hurts, but lies destroy.

Playing games is a way of lying to yourself and others while also avoiding the truth. This has an immediate positive effect on your life, and there are also a number of other benefits.  But eventually, like all games, it creates more conflict.

Take the “martyr game” for instance. It can be played by anyone, male or female, young or old. A martyr may say, “If I don’t do it nobody will,” as he or she cleans the home or clips the hedges. Or, “I’ve got to do everything around here.” Or, “Nobody cares how this place looks except me.” Martyrs castigate their children or spouses for not doing enough, but when the spouses or children do try to help, they can never live up to the martyr’s standards. No matter how hard they try, the martyr finds something wrong. “Never mind, You’re just making things worse.” When friends come over, the martyr complains to them about the lazy family and gets lots of sympathy.

Eventually the kids and spouse don’t want to help anymore because the martyr game turns them off. This is fine with the martyr because now their laziness is confirmed and the/she feels morally vindicated. Thus the game (1) provides a sense that the martyr knows better than others; (2) makes the martyr feel morally superior; (3) is a way of getting sympathy from others; and (4) serves as a way to act out anger on the family (“never mind, you’re just making things worse”) in the guise of complaining about his/her lot in life.

If someone were to tell the truth, if someone were to say, “Your attitude is hurtful to me,” the martyr would most likely fly into a rage and defend himself/herself as though life depended on it. And, indeed, it does. People become imprisoned by their games, by their lies. Their self identity is built on such lies, and therefore they must continue those lies no matter what the consequences..

There are thousands of psychological games that people play. Indeed, many years ago Eric Berne wrote a book called Games People Play, which codified some of these games. He wrote about alcoholic games, marital games, sexual games, and a host of others. Before Berne Anna Freud wrote about games when she described the mechanisms of defense. They both detailed the benefits of games–which all seek “secondary gratifications” according to Freud.

The martyr can never be free and can never be spontaneous. Imprisoned b their games, they cannot make healthy adjustments to events in life. Martyrs can only react in one way; as a victim. Those who carry their martyrdom to an extreme can’t have deep or real feelings. The feelings they most often have are “crocodile” feelings, that is, they have histrionics designed to advance their games. “How can you say that to me?” they may cry out in deep despair to anyone who doubts them. Because they are locked in their game, they cannot do the kind of ordinary give and take that real relationships require.

People in the martyr mode cannot listen to others nor empathize with them, so they are unable to truly love other people. The end result is that their lives are empty and lonely and they are constantly making themselves and others miserable. While they seem to be superior and on top of things, in reality they are not in touch with their feelings and are barely managing their depression. Over the years, there will likely be a build-up of stress which will corrode their mental functioning and their physical health.

You can hide from the truth for a while, but you can’t hide from it forever. And yet people sometimes continue to avoid it until the day of their death, a death which may be gradual but steady as they live without being in touch with what is going on in their mind and body. Not being in touch and internalizing feelings creates stress that is linked with diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

Every game that people play has secondary gratifications.. Because the benefits of games are immediate and give you the sense you are in control of yourself and others, they are generally preferred over the truth. Martyrs prefer to live the lie, and therefore they miss the primary gratification of being at one with life.

And it is not just individuals who play games, but also families, social groups, churches, political movements, and whole countries. When countries work out strategies and schemes for managing their relations with other countries, they are playing games. It would work much better if they had honest, respectful conversations with other countries, even enemy countries.

Martyrs should be told that they are martyrs and that this martyrdom is hurting them and the people around them and preventing them from enjoying life. This will hurt their feelings, and maybe, as mentioned above, invoke a rage reaction. But eventually it may release them from their prison compulsive behavior.

If the truth hurts, it hurts because it lays bare the lies. And that’s a good thing.

The Game of Martyrdom and Its Effects

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment



APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2015). The Game of Martyrdom and Its Effects. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 5, 2019, from


Last updated: 14 Feb 2015
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.