Historically, a martyr is someone who chooses to sacrifice their life or face pain and suffering instead of giving up something they hold sacred. While the term is still used this way today, it’s taken on a secondary meaning that’s a bit less dramatic.
Today, the term is sometimes used to describe someone who seems to always be suffering in one way or another.
They might always have a story about their latest woe or a sacrifice they’ve made for someone else. They might even exaggerate bad things that happen to get sympathy or make others feel guilty.
Sound familiar? Maybe you’re thinking of a friend or family member — or even yourself.
Read on to learn more about how to recognize this mindset and tools for overcoming it.
A martyr complex can seem very similar to a victim mentality. Both tend to be more common in survivors of abuse or other trauma, especially those who don’t have access to adequate coping tools.
But the two mindsets do have some subtle distinctions.
A person with a victim mentality typically feels personally victimized by anything that goes wrong, even when the problem, rude behavior, or mishap wasn’t directed at them.
They may not show much interest in hearing possible solutions. Instead, they might give the impression of just wanting to wallow in misery.
A martyr complex goes beyond this. People with a martyr complex don’t just feel victimized. They typically seem to go out of their way to find situations that are likely to cause distress or other suffering.
According to Sharon Martin, LCSW, someone with a martyr complex “sacrifices their own needs and wants in order to do things for others.” She adds that they “don’t help with a joyful heart but do so out of obligation or guilt.”
She goes on to explain this can breed anger, resentment, and a sense of powerlessness. Over time, these feelings can make a person feel trapped, without an option to say no or do things for themselves.
Someone who always seems to be suffering — and appears to like it that way — could have a martyr complex, according to Lynn Somerstein, PhD. This pattern of suffering can result in emotional or physical pain and distress.
Here’s a look at some other signs that you or someone else may have a martyr complex.
You do things for people even though you don’t feel appreciated
Wanting to help those closest to you suggests you have a kind and compassionate nature. You may do these things just to help out, not because you want loved ones to recognize your efforts or the sacrifices you’ve made for their sake.
But when does helping out suggest a martyr complex?
Many people who are bothered by a lack of appreciation will simply stop helping out. If you have martyr tendencies, however, you might continue to offer support while expressing your bitterness by complaining, internally or to others, about the lack of appreciation.
You often try to do too much
Occasionally taking on some extra work or making a few too many commitments doesn’t mean you’re a martyr. But consider whether you regularly accept responsibilities that aren’t necessarily required of you.
You might feel like nothing will get done unless you do it yourself and refuse any offers of help. Even when you feel annoyed by the additional work you’re doing, you continue to add to your workload when asked. You may even grudgingly volunteer to do more.
The people you spend time with make you feel bad about yourself
Have a friend (or two) you just don’t feel good about seeing? Maybe they always want you to do things for them, make snide remarks, or even criticize you.
Even when toxic relationships drain you, it’s not always easy to break them off, especially when the other person is a family member or a close friend. But think about how you respond to the toxicity.
A helpful response might involve establishing boundaries and creating some distance between yourself and the other person.
But if you continue regularly spending time with them, only to find yourself thinking or talking a lot about how miserable they make you feel, you could have some martyr tendencies.
You consistently feel dissatisfied in your job or relationships
Unfulfilling jobs aren’t uncommon. It’s also not unusual to end up in a relationship that seems to have no future or falls short of what you imagined. But you can generally take steps to address either situation with some time and effort.
If you have martyr tendencies, you might notice this pattern of dissatisfaction in different areas across your life. You might blame others for where you’ve ended up, or believe you deserve something better because of sacrifices you made along the way.
Thinking others don’t recognize or appreciate your self-sacrifice can also contribute to anger and resentment.
You have a pattern of taking care of others in relationships
Looking back on past relationships could help you recognize martyr tendencies.
“A few relationship characteristics might point toward this issue,” says Patrick Cheatham, PsyD. “Some relationships are just structurally unequal, such as parents taking care of children. Or they might have periods of being lopsided, such as when caring for a seriously ill partner.”
If you notice a tendency toward self-sacrificing across multiple relationships in your life, it could point to elements of a martyr complex.
Questions to ask yourself
When looking at your relationships, Cheatham suggests asking yourself:
- Would you describe your relationships as somehow unequal? Maybe you feel like all you do is take care of partners who do little to meet your needs.
- Do you feel a consistent lack of space to discuss your own needs and wants?
- Do you believe not meeting the needs of your partner would put your relationship at risk?
Also think about the emotional side of things. Do you feel supported, secure, and loved, even during periods of inequality? Or do you feel bitter, resentful, or let down by partners?
Perhaps you even want them to feel guilty for not supporting you more.
You feel like nothing you do is right
Someone with martyr tendencies might “always want to help, never succeed, and feel punished as a result,” Somerstein says.
In other words, it seems that no matter what you do, people misunderstand your attempts to help or your efforts fall flat. Maybe they even seem to be irritated instead of grateful to you.
This might really frustrate you. You tried your best, after all, so the least they could do is show some gratitude. As a result of your annoyance, you might have an urge to make them feel guilty for not appreciating your hard work.
Martyr tendencies might not seem like a huge deal, but they can take a toll on your relationships, well-being, and personal growth.
Living with a martyr complex can make it hard for you to speak up for yourself.
According to Martin, people with martyr tendencies often have a hard time communicating clearly or directly, leading to relationship issues.
Instead of talking openly about your needs, you might use passive aggression or have angry outbursts when you continue swallowing your resentment.
If you think you’ve made a lot of sacrifices for a partner or other loved one, you might feel angry or dissatisfied if they don’t show gratitude or offer their support in return.
“Martyrs struggle to prioritize their needs,” Martin says. “They don’t practice self-care, so they can end up exhausted, physically sick, depressed, anxious, resentful, and unfulfilled.”
If you often give up your time to help others, do more than you need to at work or home, or don’t meet your own needs in general, you’ll probably feel drained and overwhelmed pretty quickly.
Even your emotional state can contribute to burnout. Feeling angry and dissatisfied most of the time can stress you out and exhaust you. It might also keep you from accepting help.
Partners, friends, and family can usually offer compassion, assist with challenges, or even give suggestions and advice. But if you feel frustrated and resentful of those you’re closest to, you’re less likely to accept their help.
Plus, if you continue to reject their support, they might eventually stop offering.
Lack of positive change
A general attitude of dissatisfaction often accompanies a martyr complex.
For example, you might feel trapped or stuck in your job, relationship, or home life. Some of these might change as the years pass, but you somehow end up in frustrating or thankless situations again and again.
You’re miserable, but instead of taking steps to create change for yourself, you might complain, regret the situation, or blame other people or events. Once you get out of one unsatisfying situation, you might find yourself in a new one before long.
In this way, martyr tendencies can hold you back from from achieving success or reaching personal goals.
A martyr complex can take a big toll on your quality of life, but there are ways to overcome it.
Work on communication
If you have martyr tendencies, there’s a good chance you find it challenging to express your emotions and needs. Developing stronger communication skills can help you get better at this.
Learning more productive ways of communication can help you:
- avoid passive-aggressive behavior
- express emotions, especially those of frustration and resentment
- keep negative feelings from building up
The next time you feel unheard or misunderstood, try expressing yourself using an “I” statement to assert yourself without making the other person defensive.
Say you have a friend who invites you over for dinner, but they always rely on you to find a recipe and do all the shopping.
Instead of saying “You make me do all the hard work, so it’s not fun for me,” you could say “I feel like I always end up doing the grunt work, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Helping out friends and family might be important to you. But if you’ve reached your limit (or you’ve already taken on more than you can easily handle), it’s OK to say no. Really, it is.
Burning yourself out won’t help your already heavy workload, and it could increase feelings of resentment later. Try a polite refusal instead.
You can soften it with an explanation, depending on your relationship with the person asking. Just remember there’s nothing wrong with taking care of your own needs first.
“It’s important to start saying no to things that interfere with your personal needs or don’t align with your values or goals,” Martin says.
Make time for self-care
Self-care can involve:
- practical health choices, such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals, and taking care of physical health concerns
- making time for enjoyment and relaxation
- paying attention to your emotional well-being and addressing challenges that come up
Talk to a therapist
Working through martyr tendencies on your own can be tough. Professional support can have a lot of benefit, especially if you want to learn more about underlying causes that contribute to patterns of self-sacrificing behavior.
Cheatham explains that in therapy, you can:
- explore your relationship system
- grow awareness around patterns involving self-sacrifice
- highlight and challenge any assumptions around your worth and the meaning of the relationship
- try out different ways of relating to others
If you know someone who tends to act like a martyr, you probably feel at least a little frustrated by their behavior. Maybe you’ve tried to offer advice, but they resist your efforts to help. It might feel like they truly just want to complain.
These tips won’t necessarily change the other person, but they can help you develop a perspective toward them that doesn’t cause as much frustration for you.
Consider their background
It can help to keep in mind that a lot of complex factors can play into this mindset.
While a person can learn to address behaviors that often happen as a result of martyring tendencies, they often don’t have much control over how these tendencies developed in the first place.
In some cases, cultural factors could contribute to martyr tendencies. In others, family dynamics or childhood experiences could play a role.
You may not need to understand the reasons behind their behavior to be there for a loved one. It’s often enough to simply offer compassion and support.
“Be kind always,” Somerstein encourages.
That said, compassion doesn’t have to involve spending tons of time with the person.
If spending time with someone drains you, limiting the time you spend together might be a healthy choice. Setting some kind of boundary can also help you offer more kindness and compassion when you do share space with that person.
A long-suffering life can take a toll on you, your relationships, and your health. Even if you don’t fully understand the roots of your martyr tendencies, you can still take steps to change this mindset and keep it from having a negative impact on your life.
If you have a hard time knowing where to start on your own, consider talking to a trained mental health professional who can help you explore these patterns more deeply.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.