How to Conquer the Martyr Complex

Whether you’re the self-sacrificing soul who takes on too much or the poor resented schmuck on the sidelines, this dynamic is bad news. Ingela Ratledge found a way out.

martyr-complex
Photo by Stanley Chow

Overdo. Complain. Repeat. Sounds like the worst motivational slogan ever, right? Welcome to how I roll. Biting off more than I can chew is standard procedure for me. (“Sure, I can volunteer for the spring carnival and make a résumé for my niece and cook multiple options for dinner!”) And so is feeling fried and resentful later on. I’ll corner my husband for a thorough debriefing on my saintliness, hoping he’ll be overcome by a powerful mix of gratitude and admiration (gradmiration, anyone?). Instead, he typically says, “Oh, you didn’t have to do all that.”



Of course, he’s right. In addition to juggling life’s many nonnegotiables, I’m taking on tons of extra-credit assignments—and accomplishing them through gritted teeth. I’m being…the M-word.

I have plenty of company. We’re surrounded by folks who perpetually sacrifice themselves and then kvetch about their lot. The question is, to what end? I get zero thrills from playing this unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. I’m weary of holding a grudge against those who swan around unburdened by phantom obligations.

In an effort to reach for my own oxygen mask first, I hit up a team of experts for a crash course on the martyr complex: where it comes from, why it keeps many of us in its clutches, and how to tame the beast.

Blame History

“The concept of self-sacrifice can be found across all religions and cultures,” says Candida Moss, PhD, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Myth of Persecution. “If you live in the Western world, you are still influenced by the social values that mattered thousands of years ago.” Yep, she adds, even if you’re an atheist: “Dating back to ancient times, martyrs were regarded as brave, virtuous, and strong.” The critical difference is that historical martyrs, like Joan of Arc—as well as more modern martyrs, like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela—had higher goals. “Real martyrs stood for something,” says behavioral science expert David Emerald, cofounder of the Bainbridge Leadership Center. “For them, the suffering was not the point—it was secondary to their fight, and that’s been misplaced in current culture.”

Everyday modern martyrdom generally has no grand mission behind it. The office sad sack who’s forever raising her hand for soul-crushing assignments or the beleaguered sister-in-law who refuses to let dinner be a potluck—they’re not looking to save the poor or free a population. “They overdo it because they want their personal world to feel better,” says Pam Garcy, PhD, a Dallas-based psychologist and life coach. “They’re seeking fulfillment, connection, and a sense of importance.”

And there are plenty of triggers right in our own small worlds. As we grow up, many of us see influential figures—parents, teachers, clergy, or others in positions of authority—putting the needs of other people first; gradually we learn to equate sacrifice with goodness. “Subconsciously, you might start emulating that behavior as a way of pleasing people and receiving love,” says life coach Jen Mazer, author of Manifesting Made Easy.

Security!

But why are some of us more susceptible to this messaging than others? Much of it boils down to basic issues of self-worth. “Typically, martyrs don’t know how to validate and love themselves very well,” says Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist in San Jose, California. “They feel that their value is in serving others—so if they stop doing that, they will have no value.” Alas, altruism and ulterior motives make strange bedfellows, which is why bending over backward doesn’t offer a golden ticket to the promised land. Says Martin, “Martyrs don’t get a lot of warm feelings from doing good deeds.”

So what’s keeping us in this racket? Partly it’s a matter of control. “Martyrs think that if they don’t do something, it won’t get done,” says Mazer. Or at least not properly. “The martyr operates on the assumption that he or she knows best and has the answer rather than an answer,” says Emerald, because the alternative—that our contributions aren’t actually essential—is downright destabilizing. “It’s a stab to the ego to admit that the world does not depend on you,” explains Emerald.

Also, funneling the bulk of your energy into external situations provides a handy distraction: It gives you a pass on addressing your own vulnerabilities, goals, and shortcomings. How could you possibly be expected to finish that master’s, quit a job you despise, or make it to the gym when you’re so busy taking care of everything else?

“As a martyr, you don’t have to take personal responsibility,” says Mazer. “You can project your unhappiness and blame outward.” You may be trying to cover up the fact, says Garcy, “that you have no clue how to get from where you are to where you want to be.”

The Big V

Hunger for validation is the most common motivator of martyr behavior—but it’s hard to find satisfaction along those lines. “You keep doing things for others, thinking that in the end, the praise is your reward,” says Emerald. “But there’s never going to be enough— it becomes like an addiction.” That’s why martyrs are perpetually fishing for compliments, which (whether they’re aware of it or not) often takes the form of complaining.

Parenting expert Joanne Kimes, coauthor of The Stay-at-Home Martyr and a recovered martyr herself, recalls how frustrating it was to chase that particular dragon back when she was volunteering for every committee around. “Even during the rare times when I might get 12 seconds of applause and people saying, ‘Thanks, Joanne,’ I’d be like, ‘That was not worth the three weeks of backbreaking, up-all-night worry.’”

When the accolades inevitably fall short, martyrs frequently go for the door prize: pity. “They draw attention to injustice by whining and blaming,” says Garcy. Naturally, that’s a bummer for anyone on the receiving end, so it’s no surprise that resentment crops up on both sides of the “martyr-martee” relationship.

Breaking the Cycle

Can you stop the behavior if it’s deeply ingrained? “Yes,” says Mazer. “Change begins the instant you commit to it.” Like any big overhaul, it’s an ongoing process. Here are some strategies.

Lower the bar. You want things done your way and on your timeline—but that’s going to have to shift if you want out of this loop. Accept that not every piece of business is life-or-death, and adjust your standards. “If I send my husband to the market, I know he’ll come home with different brands than I would have,” says Kimes. ‘But that’s still one less thing for me to do—and one less thing is wonderful.”

Delegate and cut. List all the activities on your docket for the next month (plan library fundraiser, set up Mom’s new computer, register kids for camp, etc.). Says Mazer, “Circle the things that light you up.” Find a couple to cut; mark what you can delegate, and to whom, with imperfect (but sufficient!) results.

Express your intentions. Communicate to your inner circle—judiciously—that you’re going to cease being a one-man band. Emerald says to be very specific: “Since you have to be at work early, I’ll take the kids to school, but we need to revise the plan for pickup.” Then truly give your peeps the chance to pitch in—minus the criticism. With coworkers, “there’s no need to explain yourself,” says Mazer. “When you say you’re not available, people turn elsewhere. They catch on.” Kimes was pleasantly surprised at how painless it could be to extract herself: “I told the booster club, ‘You know what? I’ve done my duty. I’m retiring!’ The reaction from everyone was, ‘Good for you!’”

Perform daily acts of selfishness. Force yourself to take what’s yours, like unused vacation time or a regular lunch break. “Practice leaving the office on time,” suggests Garcy, “or setting a time to go to bed and honoring it, even though there’s endless stuff to do.” If an unexpected scenario happens—say, a snow day—consider what would be easiest for you. “There’s such a sense of guilt moms get every time they’re not being super-woman,” says Kimes.”I used to think my daughter cared that I was volunteering at school—and it turns out she didn’t give a crap! And I was missing time with her to do it.” If you’re uncertain about what really counts with your loved ones, ask them.

Take a beat. Moving forward, you’ll be presented with endless opportunities to play the savior—and temptation is unavoidable. But before you fall on your sword (“I’ll drive you to the airport at 6 a.m. on Sunday!”), Martin says to ask yourself these questions: Why am I doing this? If I take it on, what do I have to give up? Would I still want to do this even if no one ever knew about it? Maybe it won’t pass muster, or maybe it will. Generosity for its own sake does exist. Just make sure your agenda isn’t merely to earn brownie points—because as I’ve learned after collecting my fair share, they’re not worth much. “The problem with the martyr mentality is that you think someone, somewhere is keeping a tally,” says Moss. “Guess what: There is no tally.”

If You Live With A Martyr…

…we feel ya! The bottom line is, this isn’t your problem to fix—but here’s some advice to help steer everyone in the right direction.

  • Don’t encourage the victim mind-set. When martyrs enter into “poor me” mode, says Emerald, “avoid engaging in the back-and-forth of ‘Ain’t it awful?’ It makes you an accomplice.” (And it’s exhausting.)
  • Stand on your own two feet. If it’s been a few presidential administrations since you’ve done your own laundry/cooking/expense report (take your pick!), then it’s time to step up. “Stop taking advantage and pull your own weight,” says Martin. “For the martyr to relinquish control, you need to be willing to do more.” Another upside of independence: You’ll harbor less resentment. “If you’re constantly being rescued, that disempowers you and invariably leads to feelings of being ‘kept down,’” says Emerald.
  • Validate the doer, not the deed. “When your martyr is seeking approval, give her love instead,” says Mazer. Rather than offering a pat on the back for what she does, let her know how much you appreciate who she is. “Ask how she’s feeling, try to connect, and keep in mind that questions work better than answers,” explains Mazer.