There are days that I wake up and think, “I just can’t do this anymore. I am doing too much. I have too much on my plate. Why doesn’t anyone ever help me?” Since you’re here I’m going to assume you have had similar feelings before. The pure overwhelm of everything has been piling up on you. You are a “yes” woman. Every time someone asks you to help or do something, you’re the girl for the job, regardless of what else you have going. I bet if you look around, this is the case in your entire life: your work, your friendships, your family.
If you are like me, you get caught up in wondering why everyone around you is always a “taker” and why no one ever takes care of you. You are a giving, caring, loving soul. Why won’t anybody reciprocate those actions? Why won’t people love you the way you love them? This is something I have struggled with my entire life. Experts would tell you that there is some underlying trauma or lack of love I suffered from as a child. I’m telling you that it’s just in my nature. I don’t really care how it got in me; what I struggle with is getting it to go away.
You see, what I have come to realize after many years of self discovery, some seriously deep self talk, an incredibly supportive husband, and a strong dose of reality checking, is that I “suffer from” (more correctly, “I have“) a martyr complex. I know, that’s a big statement. It’s also very hard to admit. <—- see I did it right there! I made it look like a sacrifice or vulnerability (it is, but my point is that I didn’t have to point that out).
Martyr complex is the unrealistic sense of necessity to endure and sacrifice for others in order to gain sympathy, love, and affection. It isn’t always a conscious thing. For me, I had been doing it for so long that it has taken years for me to come terms with the fact that I do it. Even then, I still haven’t grasped how to completely eliminate it from my personality. Dealing with a subconscious martyr complex requires full consciousness of your own actions, always.
I didn’t start admitting my problem until a few years ago. As with every marriage, things aren’t always smooth (although the past few years have been immensely easier since my husband and I have both been working on bettering ourselves). During one particular rough patch, Tanner pointed out that I don’t accept love or help or anything without feeling guilty, which always led to him feeling guilty, which always led back to me feeling worse. See the funnel of despair? He also pointed out that he didn’t want me resenting him (another classic martyr move) every time I did something for him, so I needed to pipe up and verbalize (COMMUNICATE) when I didn’t want to do something or needed him to do something instead.
How do I know that it’s martyr complex and not just that I surround myself with the wrong people or that I have poor relationships? It couldn’t possibly be ME? Right? The hard truth is sometimes “me” is exactly the one at fault. Self accountability is so freakin’ important. Even if it was “only the people around me” (which at one time it was), the fact of the matter is that I let that be the case. I let those people into my life! I let people walk over me and kept quiet about it. Consciously or subconsciously, I felt like that was what I deserved. Shoot, some part of me expected it. Some part of me ate it up. Working out all of those self-esteem issues IS not easy. That’s right IS, because “was” hasn’t happened for me yet. Here are the 3 big signs of martyr complex that finally clicked with me and put me on a path to improving myself.
You Don’t Need Help: You’ve Got This, ALWAYS
The first big classic sign of martyr complex that finally hit home to me. I am a “yes” girl. I always have been. I participated in every club that would ask me in high school. I went to every event I was invited to in college, without regard to how low my social battery was that day. I would offer everything I owned personally to help in the event someone came up short. I let everyone borrow anything, even though I quickly learned that meant NEVER getting it back. At work, I would take on any task that didn’t quite make deadline. I would even ask for more work when my assigned tasks were done because I didn’t think that being finished with my assignments before someone else was done with theirs was fair to THEM!
“You were so busy trying to be my savior that you left me all alone.”Gayle Forman, Where She Went
Take a look around you and what you are involved in right now. How much of it was because you wouldn’t or “couldn’t” say no? Now, out of that, how much do you actually need to be doing? If you are seeing a pattern (be honest about it), you may have a bigger problem: martyr complex.
So you are doing everything and more at work. At home, things are no different. The dishwasher hasn’t been loaded, but if someone else tries, they’ve done it all wrong and you just have to redo it anyway. Someone put the laundry in the wash, but hasn’t moved it over. If you don’t move it over, surely no one else in the house will. So add that to the to-do list. You have no energy left from overexerting at work, and honestly, you don’t want to cook. But hey, if you don’t make dinner, no one eats; or so you convince yourself. Trust me, cold cereal and take-out can be your friend. You really don’t HAVE to cook all of the time.
To top it all off, if anyone ever asks if you need them to handle some of what you have taken on, you tell them that you have a handle on things and all is well, even if you are crying into your pillow at night because of the overwhelm. The house chores are falling behind because you have too much else going on and God help you if you let someone help you get caught up. You don’t need help. You’ve got this, all of this. Right? This is martyr complex.
Your Cup Runneth Empty – A LOT
That overwhelm you’re crying into your pillow about? Yeah, that happens when you take on too much, which I do regularly (working on this one still). The second big sign of a martyr complex that caught my attention is that I, sometimes, honestly believe I have the world on my shoulders, and only my shoulders. That drains a person to the very core.
There is a saying, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” It’s referring to self care. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re too empty to help others. If you have a martyr complex, you probably don’t believe you have time for self care, or you aren’t important enough to be very high up on the to-do list. You “suffer” in self inflicted silence and then try to keep pouring from an empty cup.
I always missed that part when I was first faced with the realization that I have a martyr complex: self inflicted. That’s right, on a subconscious level I love to feel needed, like no one could do it without me. I create exaggerated situations (usually focused on other peoples needs) in my head that aren’t realistic and then fret over how to “fix” it or eliminate the problem. Bombshell moment: they can do it without me. I am replaceable.
This is true for work, friends, and family. People are resilient creatures when they need to be. You aren’t the only glue for the situation. It is such a tough pill to swallow. I struggle so hard with this. I am constantly internally talking myself and my importance up. I have struggled with low self-esteem my whole life and this mindset is what I came up with to cope with it. It’s NOT HEALTHY.
Don’t run yourself into the ground. You don’t have to! The people around you can and will rebalance themselves when you stop. You driving yourself to the brink isn’t actually helping anyone. It’s hurting you instead! If you are constantly at the end of your rope and are always feeling like you are stretched to thin it may be a sign of a bigger problem. This could be martyr complex.
“Yeah, But YOU…”
My husband’s personal favorite: “Yeah, but YOU…” fill in the blank with any number of things I have kept score of and pent up for entirely too long. The third big classic sign of martyr complex that rang true with me: blame. Everything you do for someone, in some way you blame them for having to do it. If they would just… If they only… If they wouldn’t…
Because you are “yes” girl, you take on too much as it is. Because you are a martyr you keep doing it and you do so quietly. All the while you are building resentment for those around you that you claim to care about. But you won’t let them help you; so why do you resent them for not helping (or not even trying anymore, if this is a life long problem for you)?
You keep all of these little blaming sessions to yourself. You don’t verbalize anything, until you do. It never ends well. One statement from this person you love so much sets you off. Then the list comes out. Everything they ever did or didn’t do, you throw back in their face in one big, ugly, heated, monologue. You’re important. They couldn’t do it without you. You are the reason they have it so easy. They should be grateful, damn it!
I can’t explain why this is the case, but it is. Almost every article or paper I have ever read on the topic has brought up the blame aspect of martyr complex. Whether it is expressed as underappreciation, what if’s, or simply “you didn’t”s, blame is always part of it. It makes you feel more important. It damages everyone you interact with in some way or another. If this feels like something you can relate to, it’s quite possible you have a martyr complex.
All Is Not Lost: You can recover
Like I’ve been saying, it’s not a simple thing to overcome. It takes full awareness of what you are doing. You will have times that you don’t want to face what you are doing, but the only way to change what you do in the future is to know what you do and how you react in the present and the past. I already know you are strong enough; look at what you put yourself through because of this! You just have to redirect that strength into a more positive pursuit.
I’m still working on it. I invite you to point it out if I ever slip and work my martyr complex into my writing. Constructive criticism is a good thing, and I welcome it. If you want to ask about my adventure on a better path to being less of a martyr and more of a positive, even soul, please do! Full transparency here. I can’t get better without accountability. You probably can’t either. But we CAN do it!
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.Dr. Kurt Smith – What is Martyr Complex? 6 Signs Someone in Your Life Has One
Sign up for my newsletter and keep up to date with new posts!