Life can be hard. There are people who have been injured – physically or emotionally – becoming victims of the destiny. However, there are also people who choose – more or less consciously – to become victims, they are those who suffer what in Psychology is known as a “martyr complex”.
What is the martyr complex?
“The person who constantly draws attention to his misadventures and sufferings is in danger of provoking himself a martyr complex and causing others the impression that he seeks compassion”, warned Martin Luther King.
The martyr complex involves the search for suffering or pain through different mechanisms to feel “good” with himself. It is a pattern of self-destructive behavior that leads the person to do everything possible to find situations that can cause distress and suffering.
Who makes the martyr is usually “sacrificed” in the name of love, duty or other value as it satisfies his psychological needs. As a result, he suffers unnecessarily while ignoring his own needs. Often this tendency to masochism leads him to maintain abusive or codependent relationships.
Why would a person want to be a martyr?
There are cultures, families or social groups in which martyrdom is encouraged and even people willing to sacrifice and suffer are seen with good eyes. In fact, it is the message that underlies the background of religions such as Christianism, in which “good people” are expected to lead a life marked by asceticism and penance.
Self-flagellation, a characteristic of some pagan sects that was absorbed by Christianity and spread on a large scale during the second half of XII century, included all kinds of physical punishments, such as lashes and sackcloths in the buttocks. With the passage of time this practice has been disappearing, although it has not been completely extinguished and mortification continues to be preached.
In certain cultures, women are also expected, for example, to assume the role of martyr and sacrifice themselves for their family. Those who renounce their hopes and dreams for the others are considered selfless, good, sacrificed, kind and example-worthy women.
These ideas, although we can combat them and even reject them on an intellectual level, are still very entrenched in popular imagination, so it is not surprising that the word “martyr” continues to have a positive halo.
That means that, deep down, the person with martyr complex assumes the role of victim to improve his image of himself. That person is seen through the eyes of surrender, so he thinks that it has no intrinsic value except as long as it satisfies the wishes and needs of others.
Deep down, people with martyr complex feel that they are not worthy of being loved, so they try to “atone for themselves” through the punishments and suffering they impose on themselves. They seek to redeem themselves by assuming heavy loads that do not correspond to them.
Generally they are people who, because of their life trajectory, have assumed that their feelings, emotions, ideas, needs and even their pain are not important, so they constantly silence them, thus turning off their own light. They believe that they are responsible for the happiness and well-being of others, beyond what marks common sense.
A parenthesis: The manipulative martyr
In some cases, the person with martyr complex takes advantage of his well-established victim position to generate punishment in others and manipulate them. It is a special type of martyr who uses his difficulties in life to achieve what he wants, presenting himself as a helpless victim who needs help.
This type of martyr usually gets rid of all kinds of responsibility in his life, putting it on the shoulders of others. By assuming a victim mentality and blaming everyone but himself, he projects his failures and disappointments on others and hopes they will help him.
If people do not, he will not hesitate to resort to his long list of sacrifices and sufferings to generate a sense of guilt and achieve his goals.
7 Characteristics of people who usually become martyr
1. They tend to idealize great characters in history who have sacrificed for the others.
2. They see themselves as good people, heroes or saints while considering that the rest of the world is selfish and insensitive.
3. They exaggerate their level of suffering, deprivation and mistreatment to appear as a sacrificed victim. They actively seek appreciation, recognition and attention through their “dramas.”
4. They have low self-esteem, do not believe they are worthy of being loved for what they are.
5. They have a locus of control extrenal, so they blame the others for their problems and refuse to accept responsibility for those decisions that have caused them pain or suffering.
6. They have a hard time saying “no” and setting limits, so they tend to fall into abusive relationships or, conversely, become manipulative people.
7. They do not take the initiative to solve their problems, but rather rejoice in them and, when they finally disappear, they look for new problems to lament.
How to deal with a person who plays martyr?
1. Stop accepting favors and expressions of sacrifice. The person with martyr complex will always look for ways to show that he is “good” and, at the same time, will create situations that make you feel “bad.” To end that scenario, it is important that you stop accepting his expressions of effort or sacrifice because the more you take away from a martyr, the more he will expect from you and the more likely he will feel resentful and create a drama in the future. Of course, it is not about rejecting everything that person offers you since in this way you will feel rejected, but you must make sure that this help does not involve a sacrifice for the person and you must work to be as self-sufficient as possible.
2. Accept him, but don’t satisfy his need for compassion. If you feel sorry for the martyr, you will be feeding his drama and his victim role. That is why it is important that, if that person tells you his problems with the intention that you feel sorry, you can help him see the situation from a more objective perspective avoiding phrases such as “por guy, you should feel very tired” or “what bad luck you have in life”. On the contrary, focus on the positive results he has achieved. When you don’t feel sorry for him or feed the kind of sympathy that that person is looking for, he will understand that you are not manipulable and will stop feeding his self-destructive behavior.
3. Express your concerns directly. Talking to a person suffering a martyr complex is often difficult, but it is often the only option to maintain a mature relationship. It is likely that his first reaction is to get angry, deny everything or feel offended. It is important that you do not resort to recriminations, but focus on how his behaviors make you feel and that you offer solutions to improve the relationship. Let him know that if you are touching that subject, it is because that person is important to you, but that you are not willing to move forward with that kind of relationship. Begin by recognizing that you value his effort, but then explain how that behavior is harmful to everyone.
How to eliminate the martyr complex?
The martyr complex ends up contaminating all the interactions that a person has with the others and blur his role in the world. It is common for these people to end up experiencing resentment because they do not receive everything they expect from the others. They are also likely to become passive-aggressive people who end up damaging relationships. How to get out of this situation?
• Understand that you have options, beyond being a martyr. We all want to be loved, accepted and appreciated. But it is important to achieve it for what we are, in an authentic way. Striving to please the others, trying to show your value, is tiring and will not give good results. In fact, it is important that you don’t confuse grief and mercy with love. This kind of love is not satisfactory because you are not expressing who you are, your feelings and your true self.
• Look for a new role in the relationship. We all assume different roles in our relationships. Some people adopt authority roles, others adopt equality roles and others accept submission roles. So far your role has been to sacrifice, but you can change it and assume healthier roles. Whichever role you choose, ask yourself: Is it a healthy role? Am I above, submitted or acting as an equal for this person? Ideally, you should play roles that create equality for both you and the other.
• Assume your responsibilities. Although sometimes it can be painful to assume that we have made a mistake and that, in a certain way, we have contributed to our problems, it is the first step to take the reins of our life and leave behind the role of victim. Draw a line between what you can change and what you can’t. Assume that happiness is a personal decision and that it is in your hands to make positive changes to make it happen.
• Prepare for the reactions of the others. If you have maintained relationships in which the others have taken advantage of your dedication and devotion, it is likely that these people feel confused by your change and even pressure you to return to the old role. The best way to address these reactions is to talk directly about the personal growth process you are experiencing.
Johnson, P. (2017) La historia del Cristianismo. Barcelona: Sipan Barcelona Network.
Kets, M. (2012) Are You a Victim of the Victim Syndrome? Organizational Dynamics; 43(2).