The Martyr Complex: A Psychological Phenomenon, By ChiNna Okoroafor

Simply put, is a destructive pattern of behavior in which individuals habitually adopt suffering or self-sacrifice as a way to feel valued or evoke sympathy, love and admiration.

Most times when society says be humble, be patient, be resilient, be submissive, be tolerant; it actually means to automatically acquire the complex disorder of a martyr. It is an unhealthy behavior because it requires doing for others what they should be doing for themselves; giving more than you are receiving; and taking on more than your share of the responsibility for the survival of a relationship. For instance, taking care of people’s material needs, while expressing bitterness within or complaining to others.

Martyr complex is the reason why some individuals enable and endure abuse for years and defend their damaged spouses’ excesses. Some of them claim to be empathetic towards their abusive spouses, forgetting the fact that empathy has limits. They wear abuse like a badge of honor and confuse the bond of love with the ability to make themselves available to be taken advantage of. Another reason the martyr complex is considered a disorder is because it is often one-sided, and the sufferers do not provide services or help others with a joyful heart, but do so out of obligation, guilt or shame. So playing the martyr is a passive-aggressive behavior, and can be a sure sign of covert or introverted narcissism (a quieter, more reserved version of Narcissistic Personality Disorder).


I: Fertile wives who are childless due to husbands’ infertility, devaluing themselves and covering up their husbands’ erectile dysfunction (impotence) and/or sterility while their in-laws and pastors call them barren and shame them in front of the altar for the miracle of conception or fruit of the womb.

II. Women who downsize or shrink themselves in countless ways, denying themselves their true full expression of self in order to fit inside men’s limited capacity to love them. If you are really too much for someone, you should not plunge in or get involved with them, knowing that they are clearly committed to resisting the fullness of you. In other words, being aware that they will want to shrink you into something they can tolerate or manage. This is known as losing yourself or your identity in a relationship.

III: Husbands that overextend themselves in an attempt to control the outcome of their relationship by trying to earn or buy love, affection, loyalty, attention, submission and companionship. They ignorantly make themselves victims because their partners may habitually adopt a controlling technique as a way to keep them on the edge and anxious to please.

IV: Persons who are stretched thin because of all the things they have agreed to do for others. However, they may appear to genuinely care for others, but they are motivated by a need for recognition, power over others, or pride. They have weak or no boundaries and could hardly say no and even when they do, it comes with a heavy dose of guilt for them.

V: The first child of an underprivileged and large family suffers the martyr complex in great measure. This is because such parents are often endowed with a sense of entitlement and willingness to exploit others. They apply a narcissistic weapon of manipulation on their victims, known as emotional blackmail to pressure them into taking on the responsibility of being their siblings’ caretakers. This is when you hear them stressing that they carried that child for nine months and have done so much for him or her. It is also the only time such parents do not demand that their first son marry to give them grandchildren. A typical statement would be “over my dead body will you marry that girl”. On the contrary, they coerce their immature and dependent daughters into marriage in order to eradicate their family’s poverty. A typical line if she says she’s not ready is “how can you be so selfish?” In both instances, these unfortunate first children are not allowed to pursue their dreams, live a life of their own or even excel in their chosen paths. He or she must sacrifice everything, including happiness for the younger siblings.

People mostly develop martyr complexes as a result of societal/cultural conditioning. In other words, being born into a culture or family that has very strict gender roles and religious expectations, where martyrdom is encouraged, valued, and expected contributes greatly to individuals developing martyr complexes. Furthermore, the martyr role is essentially a dysfunctional coping mechanism for persons with an exaggerated sense of responsibility to others, low self-esteem and fear of abandonment. Note that there are many people born in families with religious and cultural expectations that turned out well and without any of such shortcoming or even trait of it.

Solution: The belief that people should play the role of martyrdom in their families and relationships is one of the reasons they get caught-up in the cycle of abuse. Individuals who have martyr tendencies will need to unlearn and relearn a lot of acquired self-destructive habits. They should practise saying “no” to some of the things people want them to do, which they are uncomfortable with. Also, they should stop assisting unappreciative people, if they are going to complain to others about the lack of appreciation from those they assist. Above all, they must vehemently refuse to be caught in a vortex. This will enable them to gradually break that sacrificial crutch, built up over time. It is not selfish to make one’s well-being a priority. One of the tactics entitled people use on their victims is to shame them into thinking that placing their personal interest first amounts to selfishness. People should communicate properly, set appropriate boundaries and make their objectives known in clear language. These are healthy life skills we should all practice! People should not think they are invaluable and responsible for others’ happiness. If you do not feel like doing someone a favour, do not feel an iota of guilt when you say “no”. If all these fail, seek professional help from a Licensed Psychotherapist.

– Chinna Okoroafor, A Licensed Psychotherapist & Certified Internal Family Systems Therapist, writes from Colorado Springs, CO, U.S.A


Disclaimer: This article is entirely the opinion of the writer and does not represent the views of The Whistler.