A "Martyr Complex" is a trait most of us seldom recognize in ourselves and are offended when the term is applied to us. This complex describes a behavior that is selfless to the point of consistently denying one's own needs and desires to put others' needs first, or to acquiesce to someone in a situation where both of you desire the same thing. One feels noble and self-sacrificing and in some way, however trivial, conveys this feeling to the recipient of the good deed.
Women in general and mothers more than fathers, tend to suffer from this complex. Mothers, by nature, are givers. They will put their children's needs before their own and this behavior often extends to husbands, parents and friends. For this reason, I shall use the pronoun "she" in this article.
It is kind, generous and nurturing to deny oneself in order to enable the goals of others in certain situations. It is NOT a martyr complex when you are generous with both time and material possessions, but when this type of behaviour is dependent on constant validation and verbalized appreciation it is perceived as a martyr complex by loved ones and friends alike.
Those of us who are labelled with this complex are also extremely sensitive to any type of constructive criticism at any level. If a boss or, (God forbid), co-worker casually remarks on some aspect of our performance or behaviour in the work environment, the martyr cannot treat a relatively harmless statement as such and move on. She perceives constructive criticism as a personal attack and allows a feeling of unfairness to gnaw at her until she ultimately seeks the reassurance of others that she has been unjustly criticized. Quite often, as well, she cannot rest until the guilty party is made aware, usually with a sarcastic remark or misplaced humor that she has been wounded far more than what is normal. The criticism of a loved one or good friend is almost a mortal blow and festers like an infected wound until we have relentlessly and needlessly made the guilty party aware of how deeply we have been hurt and receive some type of assertion that we are, in fact, still loved and respected. We are usually intelligent, humorous and quick-witted. Our humor is often self-disparaging (another tactic that invokes validation that we are liked by those we seek to please).
It is my opinion that the martyr complex often goes hand in hand with a deep, ingrained need to please others, probably formed in childhood and carried into adulthood. Low self-esteem and self-worth are character traits that have developed over a long period of time and can only be satisfied by constant validation from others that one is worthy of love, admiration and affection. Feeling good about oneself is a direct result of what others think of us. We know this is fundamentally damaging and self-defeating, but no amount of positive reinforcement seems to expunge deep feelings of insecurity and lack of self-worth. It is really unfortunate that those of us branded as martyrs or victims do not know how to change this behaviour. We know how others perceive us because loved ones and close friends will often tell us that we are chronic martyrs when we think we are just being kind and thoughtful. Being kind, thoughtful and generous are lovely character traits admired and respected by others. These traits are not the problem â€“ it is the need for constant validation and appreciation of our kindness, thoughtful deeds and generosity that invokes disdain and mild irritation on the part of others.
With all of the self-help tools available today, one would think that recognizing this martyr complex (and that it negates in most minds whatever good we have done), we would use all of the tools at our disposal to actively work on changing this behavior. We do not like this perception of us and we don't think we deserve it. Unfortunately, our need for acceptance, verbal appreciation and validation are every bit as strong as the natural instinct to be selfless with those we love.
I have no expertise on this matter to speak of. I can only write about what I know of my own nature with its strengths and weaknesses. The next time you roll your eyes in exasperation at a friend or loved one who has done something nice for you and then cannot let you forget it (I'm not THAT bad), just remember that below the genuinely kind and loving exterior is a deep-rooted sense of needing to please to prove worthiness of your love, respect and admiration.
For some reason, regardless of how genuine the good deed, with absolutely no expectation of anything in return, there will be moments when the need to be verbally appreciated and validated will surface because that need is inherent in her basic nature.