The Martyr Complex

by Krishna on June 23, 2007

One of the most destructive behaviors in any relationship is the existence of someone with a martyr complex. As the definition from Wikipedia explains, a “person who has a ‘martyr complex’ desires the feeling of being a martyr for its own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need.” The characteristics of such persons include

  • They have the need to be a victim and complain always and relentlessly.
  • They take little initiative in trying to fixing any complaint.
  • If any problem is solved, but in a different way than what they proposed, the problem still exists, as far as they are concerned.
  • If any problem is solved according to their solution, they will find another problem to complain about.
  • If any problem is solved, it is because they complained about it.
  • They complain about problems that do not concern them in the least.
  • They do not appreciate any good things being done.
  • They lie and twist facts to prove their point.
  • They selectively forget, ignore or avoid any facts that may conflict with their point.
  • They resort to name-calling when everything else fails.

Politicians are a master of this behavior. For example, take your classic demagogue who rails against minority religions and cultures (take your pick from any country in the world). Usually, the citizens belonging to the primary religion would be more powerful, wealthy and influential than the minorities. Yet you will hear arguments that minorities are given special treatment and the country will be overrun. This results in horrible crimes like the Holocaust, Apartheid, Rwanda Massacre, etc.

Personal relationships are not immune to this. A standard case is that of the troubled teenager who blames his parents for everything going on in his life. And nothing that the parents can do can change this attitude. It doesn’t matter how hard the parents are working to buy all the things he wants. He blames them for not spending time with him. Now, if the parents listen to him and re-arrange their schedule, he accuses them of wanting something from him. Or tells them that it is already too late and they are wasting their time.

What can the parents do? Most of them desperately crave the same love and affection when the teenager was younger. Nothing they do seems to reduce the anger of the teenager. Anything they do is twisted and thrown back into their faces. I have seen many parents give up at times and get really angry. This does not help, of course, but now the parents start exhibiting irrational behavior. This includes not listening to any complaints and insulting the children whenever they get a chance.

Now, both sides are officially at war! Everyone is miserable, but they are also happy in a way, because now each side can justify what they are doing by pointing to the other. “They did this, so I am doing this.” “I tried my best, but nothing worked.” “He can do what he wants, but I am prepared for anything.” “It is only a matter of time, and then I will be free and happy.

To generalize, here are the dysfunctional dynamics that happen when someone starts developing the martyr complex:

  1. Other people take time to recognize this, but they do in time. They treat the person as “the Boy Who Cried Wolf”. The person loses all credibility. People start ignoring all their concerns, even if some are actually important, because they cannot make out what is truly legitimate.
  2. Other people can behave just as irrational. Since a martyr usually boasts that he was responsible for any change, people avoid doing anything that can be used by the martyr for feeding his ego. Sometimes the very fact that the idea came from a martyr is cause enough to abandon the idea. A martyr creates many enemies directly and indirectly.
  3. Since the martyr picks fights with anyone who disagrees with her, her friends have learnt to nod their heads at whatever she says, reinforcing her opinions. However, friends realize that too much close association with that person can be harmful. They behave like double agents by slandering the martyr in private and further lowering her image. Communicating any issue starts with, “Don’t think I am complaining like John Smith, but…”
  4. A martyr can spoil the well for others by flaunting rules and opposing authority, not for any good reason, but just because of their perceived issues. When this happens, other people start putting up new rules or exhibit behaviors to prevent such incidents in the future. Flexible policies can become inflexible, negatively affecting everyone.
  5. The martyr demands attention, but the opposite can happen with people leaving them alone and ignoring them. Take the example of some elderly people who crib all the time. They may actually be suffering from pain or disease. But, their relatives and caregivers cannot take their complaining any longer and abandon them.

Over time, the relationship can plumb the depths of hell. Resolve the situation as best as you can. In a future post, I will discuss strategies for handling martyrs, especially the need to differentiate between levels of martyrdom.

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