Thursday, December 6, 2012

The People that Exploit Those that Suffer from the Martyr Complex

My former student Dave (who happens to be an excellent student of human behavior) made an excellent observation about the martyr complex post. The comment warranted another post on the topic because this dysfunctional dynamic is so prevalent in relationships.

[For a quick primer on martyr behavior, check out this link shared by my friend Michael: The Martyr Victim Complex Described]

Dave talked about the fact that it's easy for others to exploit martyrs. Since their own needs are a very low priority and they derive pleasure from self-sacrifice, they rarely if ever say no. They will dutifully do whatever is asked of them. On the surface, the martyr seems like a great person. Their seemingly helpful, generous personality characteristics easily draw people in.

Unfortunately, that comes at a heavy price. The martyr is acutely aware of their exploitation, and expects recognition for their sacrifices. The exploiter rarely gives said recognition, however. Worse, the exploiter isn't willing to make the same sacrifices as the martyr. Both of these dynamics create intense anger and resentment within the martyr. Since the martyr gains their feeling of self-worth from their perceived sacrifices, they're powerless to change. 

What results is a vortex of negativity. The exploiter continues to use the martyr who willingly complies, but that complicit behavior creates overwhelming negativity. That negativity manifests itself in a variety of ways, but is never overtly attributed to the martyr behavior. After all, that behavior has to persist. The martyr can't stop being a martyr. The only way to break the cycle is to escape the situation. The exploiter has to separate from the martyr.

I grew up in an environment where martyrdom was the norm. So did Shelly. It took us a long time to recognize the martyr pattern and fully understand how and why it was so destructive. The difficult part of dealing with martyrs is disengagement. Martyrs will do anything you ask them to do, but the costs are monumental. It's extremely difficult to free yourself from a martyr.

Our solution is simply avoidance. As a result of our experiences, we appear to be fiercely independent. In reality, we're just hyper-vigilant about letting martyrs in our lives. Martyrs aren't always obvious... one the surface they may appear like genuinely nice, helpful people. Both of us hate when people do things for us unless we're absolutely positive they do not exhibit martyr tendencies. We both have an extremely strong aversion to anyone that appears to need attention, constant affirmations, are overly agreeable, compulsively want to "help", or seems too nice.

Why avoid those characteristics?

Those are the hallmark signs of the martyr. They need recognition for their sacrifices. Not all people that exhibit these characteristics are martyrs, but we're acutely aware of the difficulty of escaping the martyr trap. Observing people's long-term behaviors across a wide variety of situations will reveal the difference between martyrs and other non-martyr personalities.

As a result, we tend to surround ourselves with fiercely independent introspective people that seem to have a high level of self-awareness. These are the same characteristics we strive to instill in our children.

Is it overkill?

Perhaps. But experience has taught us a valuable lesson. It's tempting to get sucked into the martyr's world, but the cost is far too high. Martyrs don't change unless they recognize their behavior as dysfunctional... and that rarely happens. Martyrs see their behavior as evidence that they're good people... saintly even. In the unlikely event they are aware of their behaviors and the negative effects, the patterns are so deeply ingrained change is impossible without extensive therapy. The solution requires the martyr to learn an entirely new behavior pattern and constant vigilance to avoid regressing back to the dysfunctional behaviors.

My advice- avoid martyrs like the plague. If you are in a relationship with a martyr (romantic, friendship... whatever), you're probably trapped. If the relationship is valuable, they can change... but it requires a lot of work on their part. You can also learn to adapt to life with a martyr, but you'll be on a significant emotional roller coaster on a regular basis. If it's not a valuable relationship, it's probably best to move on. Life is too short to waste with those that breed negativity.

So what's a healthy focus we should all strive to accomplish? I would propose we should take are of needs in this order:
  1. Take care of your own needs (feed yourself).
  2. Take care of the needs of your significant other (feed your relationship).
  3. Take care of your kids.
  4. Take care of everything else of consequence (feed your job, religion, hobbies, friendships, etc.)
Fir yourself, strive to follow this order. It's okay to deviate if necessary. If your kid catches on fire, it's probably best not to finish that turkey sandwich. Strive for following this order most of the time. If you have a significant other that falls into the martyr pattern of behavior, encourage them to follow this order as often as possible. If the behavior is serious, consider professional counseling. It IS possible to overcome the martyr complex.

Does anyone have experience with the martyr complex? Do you have a martyr in your life? Are YOU a martyr? Share your story in the comments!



  1. My mom is a martyr, I found that out a while ago and I don't know what to do about it. She wasn't like this all the time, but it has gotten progressively worse. I don't even have anyone to talk to about it, it's not like she would really listen. I've never felt so stuck or alone before.

  2. I have been doing some digging on martyr syndrome and I realized that me to a T. Growing up my mom was bi polar and VERY negative on life. She always seemed to remind me of my mistakes and only of my mistakes. So I have always felt and still do (I'm 31) not good enough and like a faliure to life. I now see I am being a martyr in my relationship. I now know I subconsciously did so just to be appreciated and praised. Pretty immature huh? I feel so ashamed and embarrassed. I guess all I can do is stop this cycle. Good luck to any of you who are going through this.

  3. My sister is a martyr. She's too "giving" and "nice" and can't say no to anyone. I have tried my best not to exploit her all these years, but all I get is guilt, guilt, guilt! because I can't give fill her psychological black hole of need. Everyone thinks she's so "nice" and I'm mean to her. I've had to grow tough to be able to resist her psychological manipulations. She will lie in a blink about even unimportant matters so that you'll feel sympathy for her or not think badly of her. I reflexively resist her manipulation but can't seem to avoid the guilt trip! If she was sincere I could accept but over 50 years I know her self sacrificing gestures and gifts are part of a sick need that I don't want to participate in! I recently thought, maybe I should let her give, it makes her happy, so I've been trying, and I guess I'll keep trying to accept at least when it seems harmless. I mean this is a woman who will take a large group out to dinner and insist on paying, but nobody but me realizes that she's using her rent money to do it. These people wouldn't want her evicted so they could have a free dinner. She's very self destructive in this way, and if you're her room mate, it makes for uneasy living! !! Somebody tell me I'm not the crazy one, the mean one, for making her unhappy by not cooperating with her delusion! Thank you.

  4. I have a client who has martyr complex. She asks me to do things and I always make up excuses not to go. I always feel guilty and it's hard saying no to her over and over again, but everything in me tells me to avoid her like the plague! I can second guess myself and feel sorry for her, and feel like such a cold emotionally unavailable rejecting person, but I know I am not trying to hurt her by not being friends with her; I'm just trying to protect myself. I've dealt with this sort if person before. My sister has Borderline Personality Disorder and when I've tried to extend myself to her because I care about her I always seem to get sucked into her crazy making dysfunctional vortex. I don't know how to navigate that terrain and keep myself sane, so I just avoid it. I'm proud of myself for Keeping my boundaries but I wish I didn't feel so guilty about it.