Do you know this kind of person? He or she always seems to “suffer” for the greater good. They’re constantly sacrificing their own happiness and fulfillment for others, making sure that everyone has what they need, except themselves. And they do it willingly and selflessly – so long as everyone around them knows it. Yep, that’s your friend (or family member) – the martyr.

A martyr complex, or victim complex, is a form of passive-aggressive behavior and is an unhealthy way of trying to gain attention, approval, and ultimately their way. People with this mentality often see themselves as the victim of life’s unfair circumstances and want to make sure that others recognize their “strength” as they power through while making things better for others, even as their own life is so unfair and unhappy. Ultimately these people are emotionally draining and can create a very unhealthy dynamic within their relationships.

Why People Develop a Martyr Complex

People who develop a martyr complex are often dealing with self-esteem issues, a diminished sense of self-worth, and possibly even depression. Their desire to be valued and important to others becomes a driving factor in their behavior. And because they have little confidence in their own real value as a person, they find ways to manipulate circumstances and other people into seeing them as a victim requiring their attention and sympathy.

Take, for instance, the mother who allowed her life to become strictly about her children, neglecting her own personal growth and individuality (her issue by the way – not the fault of the children). She may see her value in her children’s lives diminishing as they grow. Feeling that she is no longer needed and that her own identity and worth are disappearing, she utilizes guilt and a passive-aggressive approach to force her children to value and need her. She may make them feel like she “gave-up” everything for them, or repeated reiterate all of the many things she did for them at the expense of her own life and happiness. This is very destructive and toxic behavior and will ultimately create a divide in the relationship rather than closeness.

Although a mom is an easy, albeit stereo-typical, example, development of a martyr complex is not by any means limited to mothers. These behaviors can actually start in childhood as children either see role models behaving this way, or are made to feel like they themselves have no value and try to create it by constantly doing for others. They are looking for validation and seek this through needlessly creating their own suffering in order to force others to provide confirmation of their worth.

Signs You’re Dealing With a Martyr

So how do you know if you are dealing with someone who has a martyr complex? There are some definite signs. See if any of these seem familiar.

  • Quid pro quo. Martyrs will often portray their efforts as selfless. After all they do help or assist all out of the goodness of their own hearts, right? No. Someone with a martyr complex is actually looking for a quid pro quo, although they will never say so. What they want, however, aren’t favors or help from you. They are seeking an important and valued a place in your life, your praise, and dependence. After all, they did (insert action here), so the least you can do is include them in your life.
  • Always a yes, never a no. A martyr will almost always say yes to, well, everything. And usually with a heavy sigh and resignation. This way you know that they are sacrificing greatly, putting themselves last (again), just for you.
  • Never at fault. Most martyrs keep a mental list of the hardships they have endured. And with only minor reluctance, if any, they are able to tell you all the wrongs they have suffered, all at the hands of others. Accepting responsibility for their lives and any set-backs is immensely difficult, if not impossible.
  • Always put upon – but it’s okay. Have you ever talked to someone who complains about all the many things they have to do for others? They are exhausted, it’s too much, if only there was someone else who could do these things, etc. Generally this list is followed by the obligatory, “But it’s okay” and sometimes an “I don’t mind” for good measure.
  • No, I can do it – you don’t need to help. After all this complaining you would think offers of assistance would be welcome, but when dealing with a martyr they aren’t. Most martyrs will refuse help, insisting that they can do it on their own. The fact that they were able to do the many things, and do them all on their own, helps increase their own perceived value and the empathy they receive from others. Accepting help would diminish that and perhaps imply that they could be replaced.
  • They couldn’t have done it without me. Once help has been given, problems have been fixed, or projects completed, there are typically a number of ways that a martyr will ensure others understand the importance of their role in the endeavor. It will rarely be direct, however. It more likely will be in more passive-aggressive comments like, “I don’t know how they would have managed (implied ‘without me’)”, or “It was just lucky I had the time.”

Dealing with a person who has a martyr complex can be very frustrating. It can also be mentally draining and try your patience. It’s important, however, to understand that although manipulative and somewhat duplicitous, a person behaving as a martyr isn’t likely doing so to be malicious. As mentioned above, their behavior is born out of insecurity and a need to be valued (something we all want).

Patience and understanding with these people is key to working with them. In some cases that will be the best you can do. In others, if you are close to the person, taking time to point out their behavior may be useful. It may be that they have no real idea what they’re doing because they’ve been doing it so long. In these situations it’s possible that the person suffering with a martyr complex will be inspired to seek help in better understanding their behavior. Ultimately, that pursuit can lead to a happier life for them and stronger, more honest relationships.

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