Breaking free of the Martyr Complex

One of the best things I have learned, and am still learning, is what a martyr is. I’m not talking about the dictionary definition of:

  1. 1.
    a person who is killed because of their religious or other beliefs.
    “saints, martyrs, and witnesses to the faith”

No, I’m talking about Martyrdom Syndrome or Complex, most specifically the tendency of mothers  and women to fall into the habit of being a martyr and just how problematic it can be.

I first encountered this term in this context when I discovered Flylady is this great little community for helping and supporting women learn to get organized. At the time, I worked full time and had trouble keeping my place clean and doing what was expected of me as a woman, girlfriend, and later wife. I was also struggling with depression and other issues. Flylady gave me some good structure.


It also introduced me to the idea of Martyrdom in that context. Discussing the martyr attitude in the context of just cleaning your house and having a good attitude in order to set an example was extremely helpful. I wasn’t ready to deal with all the ways in which my martyring attitude affected my life. How it made me co-dependent and how ingrained it was in my personality.

But I used her strategies, and they helped. I went through much, grew and learned a lot about myself after that point. Years later, I became a mom and became aware of the competitive nature of modern motherhood. How harshly we judge mothers, and how having my child made me eat my holier than thou attitude over and over again.

I’ve also watched, as I’m sure most moms have, the mommy wars, the one-upmanship, the shaming, and the guilt. Its not fun to try and raise a kid in a world where you just can’t win.

I recently came across this article and it really got me thinking. Why do we need to be so proud of our dedication to an ideal? Why do we need to focus on our sacrifices? Shouldn’t parenting be about raising kids and doing the best we can? We don’t need to compare ourselves to one another. Just because someone does it differently doesn’t mean its better, or worse, or wrong.

So after reading this, I went on a quest to figure out more about martyrdom. I looked through the DSM-5 for personality disorders that fit what I as looking for, and none of it really fit. Probably because in order for things to be in the DSM, they need to be actual disorders. What I was looking for is more of a personality trait.

Finally, I came across this page about the Martyrdom Archetype by Susanna Barlow. I particularly liked the line: “Archetypes are a means to understanding motives.” So while the Martyr or other archetypes may sound negative, they aren’t. I loved that. So I  dug into this article and needed to read more.

There are many archetypes, which are part of  Jungian psychology. I’ve yet to delve into all the interpretations and variations of this school of thought, but the idea of the Martyr works well for me in for this purpose. Though perhaps this interpretation isn’t entirely perfect, I’m going to plow ahead anyway.

As Susanna Barlow explained, there are sides to the Martyr that she discusses, the Shadow and the Enlightened. The Shadow Martyr is the type that I have covered mainly in this, and it is this manifestation that causes issues.

Self-sacrifice, when it is taken to the extreme, when we give and do not let ourselves receive, when we resent others because they are taking what we give, when we don’t feel appreciated, because we are giving with the expectation of praise… that is when it is an issue. That is when it is unhealthy.

We are often taught, especially as women and mothers, that we are supposed to be self-sacrificing. That we aren’t good enough unless we are giving our all. This is not a fulfilling or healthy situation to be forced into. We become resentful of our role, jealous of others who seem to have it better, angry that we aren’t getting what we need, bitter that no one else seems to be giving as much as we are.

After all, shouldn’t everyone see and appreciate what we are doing? Isn’t it good to be a martyr? Shouldn’t self sacrifice be appreciated? Shouldn’t the world see hard work and be thankful for all that is done for them?

Photo by Jonny Lindner at

Photo by Jonny Lindner at

And so we become naggers, harpies, bitches, snarky, passive aggressive. If being good, if working hard, if doing for others isn’t appreciated, well, they deserve to get a bit of snark or bitching aimed their way. And that attitude creates a cycle, a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

And there-in lies the problem.

The Shadown Martyr, as Susanna points out, is the manifestation of our poor relationship with ourselves.

The desire to sacrifice usually stems from a poor self image and lack of control. While they are quick to take responsibility for this they simultaneously feel powerless to change it. Only suffering and sacrifice make them worthy of anything although it is never quite enough.  Suffering can be a way for the Martyr to feel special.”

“It is never quite enough.”

I’ve talked about this before in my post “I Remember Falling”, if only briefly. It seems like the human condition is the constant pursuit of having ‘enough’ and yet, life is never enough.

It is tragic, it is sad, it is frustrating, and sometimes it can seem pointless. We all deal with these frustrations and difficulties in our own ways.

As I often tell my son, though, it is our attitude and our conscious choices that matter most. It’s not getting what you want, it’s being content that matters most. Just because everyone should get what they need in life, doesn’t mean they will. So be happy with what you have and do your best to make it better if you can.

Yes, sometimes we have to sacrifice. Sometimes we have to fight. But we should do it because its right.

And this, was the core of what Flylady was saying when she said, “stop being a martyr.” Lead by example. Do the right thing because it is right. Don’t expect other people to fall in line. Do your routine because it makes YOU happy.

Not because you want others to see it and praise you. Not because you hope by doing these things that your family, coworkers or friends will magically start doing these things too. Not because by doing these things you are somehow earning brownie points you can cash in later. Not because it makes you feel superior to others, or justified in your anger.

Do it because you want to. Because by helping and caring for others, you are fulfilling yourself, your life’s purpose. And if that doesn’t fulfill you, then make sure that you set aside time to do what does make you happy.

Now, I’m not perfect. I still slip into these patterns of self-sacrificing resentment and anger, but I do it less and less. I’ve learned that my hardships and difficulties are mine alone. I work to be present, conscious and aware.

And for the most part, I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t expect anything when I give. I don’t want anything. Giving is good enough. I do it because there are times that I am in need, and I appreciate people giving to me. And so, when I am able, I give to whoever I can.

I like the idea of Karma. I like to do good, to spread positive energy. To seek out happiness, joy and love, and have those be the attitudes I present and give to the world. Not because I expect or want anything. But because by doing so, my life will be better.

I have to remind myself of these things. Work at them, and keep coming back to this point. And just by writing this, I have reminded myself of WHY I think this way. Why it is important. And why I must not doubt my resolve to be a better person for myself. To be good for the pleasure of being good. Because it makes me happy.


Graphic by John Hain at

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