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Martyr Complex: Causes, Signs And Helpful Tips

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Traditionally, whether in history lessons or in works of English Literature, a martyr has always been a glorified persona—someone who is happy to give up something (most often their life) for the betterment of others, generally the good of the country.

However, today, a martyr complex refers to something completely different—a person who sacrifices themselves for the sake of others, without any necessity for the same, and feels good about putting someone else or something else above their own needs, often at a cost.

Unfortunately, the martyr complex is quite common these days, present in the majority of the population in varying degrees, and glorifying the complex in mass media doesn’t help matters.

Most folks with this complex may not even realize that they do, but psychologically, this can be quite a serious situation if not addressed.

Here’s all you need to know about the martyr complex and how to address it if you see signs in people close to you (and in yourself, too).

 

The Martyr Complex—A Deeper Understanding

The martyr complex, also sometimes called the “victim complex” is quite a destructive behavioral pattern. While everyone has been a martyr of sorts at some point in their lives, people with this complex are martyrs on a habitual basis, harming themselves and people in their circles.

Eventually, being a martyr becomes a way of living for such people—being martyrs makes them feel good about themselves. The act of being a martyr generally springs from very good intentions and often is the only source of validation they have for themselves.

As mentioned before, people use the martyr complex and the victim complex interchangeably; however, despite the many similarities that the two conditions share, the two conditions are different from each other.

 

Why Does a Martyr Complex Evolve?

There are many reasons for the development of a martyr complex in people. It could either be self-imposed or a product of various societal and upbringing conditions.

Martyr complexes usually develop from childhood, a period in our lives that predominantly shapes us and often defines the rest of our lives. Generally, the complex evolves as a result of our parents, the values they hold, and the imposition of the same values on their children.

Children often grow up being told that their parents have sacrificed a lot—dreams, goals, hopes, and leisures—to give them the kind of upbringing they had. Since little children idolize their parents, this kind of behavior gets imbibed by them, consciously or unconsciously.

Another important factor contributing to the martyr complex is the society we grow up in and any cultural conditioning we are subject to.

Many cultures, for example, glorify women, especially mothers, as selfless and sacrificing, always putting the needs of the family before their own. Children from such cultures often exhibit signs of a martyr complex through their childhood and well into their adult lives.

Sometimes, professions also lead to the development of a martyr complex, especially in folks working in the service industry.

Lastly, martyr complexes are a common side effect of low self-esteem. People with low self-esteem may find validation in being martyrs, which may feel like all they have to feel good about themselves.

While that is not the case, glorifying being a martyr and the wrongful praise heaped on such actions by religion, society, and older family members may instill the firm belief that it is so.

A martyr complex also provides an escape from having to take accountability and responsibility for our actions, as it’s easy to blame someone or something else for any failures.

 

Signs of Martyr Complex

The martyr complex, fortunately, is recognizable by many signs. If you see the following signs in yourself or people you’re close to, the presence of a martyr complex is a strong possibility, and professional help may be necessary:

  • Low Self-Esteem: Low self-esteem is a major contributor to the martyr complex, as mentioned earlier. Behavioral patterns such as moodiness, judging excessively, dismissing or brushing off compliments and any affectionate behavior, and the like all set the stage for the complex to develop—as it often does.

This also leads to them actively looking for attention, acknowledgment, and praise, with them often going to great lengths to create a dramatic situation for the same.

  • Glorifying Martyrdom: A person who idolizes a martyr, whether it’s someone in the family or a traditional hero, is highly motivated to adopt the same behavior, thinking it will make them more like their idols.
  • Social Factors: People born into a religion, culture, family, country, or community where gender roles are strictly defined and expectations are set are more likely to have a martyr complex.
  • Childhood Abuse: Any physical, sexual, psychological, and emotional abuse in the formative years can lead to a martyr complex. In fact, such people tend to gravitate towards abusive relationships (romantic or otherwise) in their adult lives too.
  • Self Portrayal: People with a martyr complex, though they may have low self-esteem, tend to project a persona of self-sacrifice, care, and righteousness—the quintessential “good” person or saint. They also often go to great lengths to reassure themselves and those around them of their innocence. Additionally, they may exaggerate any pain or mistreatment they are going through and are often obsessed with being “right”.
  • Denial: There is often a strong denial of responsibility for negative things that happen to them, even if it is through their own choices (the number of choices they need to make is often compounded by their inability to set personal boundaries and say “no”).

The blame is placed on other people or uncontrollable factors such as God, their situation, or their environment, instead of active participation in solving their issues. Even if the problem is solved, there’s always something more to find fault with.

  • Emotional Manipulation: People with a martyr complex portray themselves as the sufferer or victim in most situations, inducing guilt in others and forcing them to behave as per the sufferer’s needs.

 

Dealing with the Martyr Complex

Whether you see signs in yourself or others, here are a few ways to deal with the martyr complex and even overcome it, eventually.

In Others

  • Don’t encourage or glorify excessive sacrifices, gifts, or any favors from them. Set clear boundaries.
  • Be objective in your acknowledgment of their hardships. Instead of expressions that reinforce the idea of the person being a victim, say things that acknowledge the situation (“great work!” as opposed to “you poor thing”, for example).
  • Talk to them about their condition with clear, objective examples. Though you may most likely be met with denial, don’t get argumentative or defensive. Pick the right time and place (a quiet place without distractions works). Tell them you value them, but don’t coddle them.

Additionally, never personally attack them; always talk about their behavior and actions.

  • Encourage seeking professional help, such as seeing a therapist or signing up for self-help courses, or even reading helpful literature.
  • Lastly, always be kind. Consider where the person is coming from, emotionally, mentally, and culturally. A martyr complex is often the product of these and has generally been ingrained over a long time. Progress might be slow in such cases, but it is completely worth it when it happens.

In Yourself

  • Setting boundaries for yourself will also help tamp down any martyr-like tendencies. Define your limits, and if it feels like someone is overstepping them, practice saying “no”. It doesn’t need to be harsh; you can follow it up with an explanation, if necessary.

Convince yourself that it’s okay to refuse and that you have choices.

  • Communicate how you’re feeling, whether it’s with a close friend or a therapist. Don’t keep emotions bottled up; try to avoid exhibiting passive-aggressive behavior.
  • Self-care is a buzzword today, and with good reason. Take care of yourself physically and mentally, with enough good and healthy food, sufficient exercise and sleep, taking breaks when you need it, and recognizing, acknowledging, investigating, and nurturing your feelings and emotions (the RAIN method).
  • Ask yourself questions. Why do you sacrifice so much? Will not doing something for someone else harm the relationship? Do you feel an inability to speak out because of the lack of a safe sharing space? Do you feel like you’re in an unequal relationship where you’re the one constantly doing things for the other person?
  • Speak to a therapist if you need to. There’s no shame in doing so; doing so doesn’t make you weak. 
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The Bottom Line

The martyr complex has often been dismissed because of the conditioning that exists around it. However, it can be quite a big deal, negatively impacting those with it. Strained relationships, a constant feeling of dissatisfaction and being trapped, and burnout are all serious risks associated with the martyr complex.

Always understand the issue, whether it is in you or someone else, and don’t be afraid to seek help when necessary. Once you overcome or even reduce the presence of the complex, you’ll notice more positivity and good things happening around you and to you and take joy in them.

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