You probably know someone with a “martyr complex” or a “victim complex,” but maybe you didn’t know that’s what it’s called. We all sacrifice our time, money, energy, and happiness for others sometimes. Someone with a martyr complex believes that they have no choice but to continue to sacrifice their needs and desires for others; they take it to the next level. They are exhausted, angry, depressed, stressed-beyond-belief…but they won’t stop doing the things that are killing them because they are getting something from it; their self-esteem and self-image are unquestionably tied up in these activities.
Many people who really don’t have a choice – they care for someone who is ill or has special needs, for example. That’s not being a martyr. Signing up for 50 different charity organizations, refusing to let others do things for themselves (that they are more than capable of doing), planning elaborate and unnecessary celebrations and Holiday events, and insisting on working way more hours than are required or necessary are examples of things that someone with a martyr complex might choose to do. They don’t do it silently, either – oh no, trust me, you’ll know exactly what they’ve been up to because they will brag/complain about it pretty consistently. People with a martyr complex rarely ask others for help, but complain incessantly that no one ever helps them. In fact, they often turn down offers of assistance. Individuals with these sorts of issues do things that look wonderful on paper or in photos, but in reality, they are simultaneously exhibiting resentment and probably a touch of rage. They hold it in until all of this closeted emotion begins to trickle out like dangerous lava…and then they feel guilty about what they’ve said and done when they felt taken advantage of and overwhelmed. So they will try to make it up by doing a bunch more things that they shouldn’t need to do, and the cycle continues.
The problem is that once you start to do these things, it can feel almost impossible to stop. How do you explain to your son that this year’s birthday party will be…oh, maybe like 10% as elaborate as the last ten? How do you tell to your boss that though you’ve been putting in 50 hours of work for the past three years, you’re gonna’ see how the 40-hour thing works out for you? People with a martyr complex feel a great deal of guilt and shame when they cease to do the things that they have built their self-identity around. They believe that they are valued not for who they are, but for what they do for others.
If you are considering that you might have a martyr complex, it’s pretty easy to figure out if you’re right – just make a list of all of the things that you do and note how many of them give you warm feelings. Do you feel truly happy when you go to those meetings or participate in those charity events? Does having 12 people over for Sunday dinner every week make you feel good, or are you just doing it because you feel obligated? In fact, do you do anything that doesn’t feel like an obligation? We all have to do things that we don’t want to do, but life is too short to do things that we both don’t have to AND don’t want to…