In psychology, we use the term ‘martyr complex’ or ‘victim complex’ to refer to those who choose to feel and act like a victim. Similar to a people-pleaser, a person with a martyr complex will sacrifice his or her own needs to serve others. But martyrs also learn helplessness — feeling they have no choice and are a victim to other peoples demands.

There certainly are true victims people who are being hurt or have been hurt, people who are controlled, and people who cannot change or escape, or they will be hurt or killed. However, there are also many adults with codependency or a martyr complex who have been hurt, but are not truly helpless and can choose to live differently.

There are families and cultures where martyrdom is encouraged, valued, and expected (especially from women). You may have grown up in such a family.

Lets take a look at one family to see how a martyr complex can develop:

Sam was only five years old. His mom lost her temper and yelled at him, as she often did. Sam started to cry as any five-year-old would. But instead of comforting him, Sams mom makes it all about herself. She starts to cry: Im the worst mother ever. I never do anything right. Sams mom has knowingly or unknowingly manipulated this situation so that she is now the injured party and Sam is comforting her. Its OK, Mama. Youre the best Mama. I know you didnt mean it. Little Sam needed his mothers love and affection and will do anything to please his mom.

Notice that Sams feelings were never acknowledged, his pain was never comforted. Sam learned early on that he shouldnt have feelings or needs. He was there to take care of his mothers needs, to make her feel better. And if he didnt, there were consequences. His mother would withhold all affection. Shed give him the silent treatment and retreat to her bedroom, leaving Sam and his little sister alone for hours and hours.

Sam was valued not for the person he was, but for what he could do for his mother. He could comfort her, he could entertain his sister, and he could bring mom her medicine when she had a headache.

Not surprisingly, Sam continues this behavior in adulthood. He does everything for everyone else. Sams well-liked and successful. Why wouldnt he be? He has no boundaries and on the rare occasion that he says no it comes with a heavy dose of guilt. Sams exhausted from overextending himself.

Deep inside hes afraid no one will want him or love him if he does anything to displease them. By age five, he already knew that his moms love was conditional and that he had to earn her love.

Hes unaware of most of his own feelings and needs. After work, he binges on fast food and beer to de-stress and keep his feelings at bay.

But Sam can only keep his feelings tucked away for so long. They start to bubble up as resentments, and then as snide remarks said under his breath, or passive-aggressive moves. For example, he frequently complains to his girlfriend when she has to work late.

Sam, like all of us, wants to be loved, accepted, and appreciated. Hes burnt out and resentful because hes constantly trying to prove his worth by doing everything for everyone. You dont have to be at the mercy of others hoping theyll love you, proving your worth, and confusing pity for love. At best, theyll love the fake, people-pleaser self youre showing them. This kind of love is never satisfying because youre not expressing who you are, your feelings, and your real self.

If youre not getting what you need in your relationships, take responsibility and start asking for what you need. People cant read your mind or read between the lines of your passive-aggressive comments.

When you start expressing your feelings, wants, and needs, and setting boundaries, some people may be angry or even leave. This is normal. When you change, those around you have to change, too. As you ask for what you want or need, it will become clear that some people were only sticking around because of what you could do for them. They were taking advantage of you. This is a sad and hurtful realization that leaves you with an important choice. Are a bunch of users really better than being alone? I dont think so, but you should decide for yourself.

The truth is, when you stop acting like a victim, youll start attracting a new group of healthy friends who are interested in you as a person, not just what you can do for them. These are the relationships you want. Healthy relationships have a give and take. You need to give and receive. This is how you really rid yourself of anger and resentment.

I dont mean to say its easy to distance yourself from friends, family, or lovers. Its scary as all get out to worry that youll be all alone, that no one will ever love you. Start small and see what happens. Maybe tell your coworker that you cant cover for him while hes on vacation or tell your husband that you need an hour of personal time this weekend. Some people may leave. Some people will adjust. You will have healthier, happier relationships. Youll gain self-esteem and confidence.

This, of course, will feel very strange. Youre trying to undo some long-time patterns. It takes practice to even figure out what youre feeling and what you want. Practice and give yourself time. Journaling and therapy are excellent places to practice.


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Photo by: E Mvia Flickr