There's a thin line between being accommodating and self-sacrificing. The former has to do with choosing a path of flexibility, while the latter can become unhealthy or disempowering. If a persistent pattern of self-sabotage or guilt emerges, chances are that a martyr complex is lurking under the surface.
What is a martyr complex?
A martyr complex is a psychological term that describes someone who self-righteously sacrifices themselves or their needs in favor of others. While a martyr complex is not a clinical diagnosis, it is an identifiable pattern of behavior that can be healed through therapy and self-reflection.
"A martyr is someone who sacrifices something of themselves in order to protect that of another or to protect something that holds great importance to them," Michele Goldman, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, tells mbg. "Someone with a martyr complex operates through this pattern in their relationships, in an intense and pervasive way."
She says that people with this type of psychological pattern might look for opportunities to sacrifice themselves because in the past this kind of behavior was rewarded in some way. Therefore, they look for opportunities to sacrifice again and again.
While this pattern of behavior seems selfless, much like people-pleasing behavior, it can be harmful to everyone involved, according to clinical psychologist Carolina Estevez, Psy.D. A martyr complex is also linked to feelings of guilt, shame, and worthlessness. Estevez says people with a martyr complex may be unable to say no to any request that comes their way.
"People with martyr complexes not only have a victim mentality, but they may even go out of their way to put themselves in distress," she notes. Additionally, if the gesture is not met with recognition, a martyr may harbor resentment toward the people they initially intended to help.
Goldman notes that this type of interaction style is usually deeply embedded into behaviors, so much so that it becomes an automatic pattern that is hard to break.
Signs you may have a martyr complex
Even if these patterns are deeply embedded, there are several recognizable signs of a martyr complex. That said, it is important to note that resonating with simply one of these signs does not automatically spell a martyr complex. Rather, it is about a combination of all these signs and a consistent pattern of interaction developed and demonstrated over time:
You demonstrate self-sacrificing behavior.
Engaging in self-sacrificing behavior is a primary sign of a martyr complex, according to Goldman. This behavior must be a pervasive pattern in all situations and relationships, not just a one-off occurrence for specific loved ones. This self-sacrificing "will be seen in multiple areas of someone's life," Goldman says, "with a partner, friends, children, at work or in past relationships, etc."
You help others who do not show appreciation back.
A telltale sign of a martyr complex is continuing to help others who are repeatedly not appreciative of your sacrifices. "The martyr will recognize their efforts are going unacknowledged or unappreciated, and they will continue to help others despite the lack of appreciation," Goldman says. While it is possible that the martyr is also an enabler, martyrdom is marked by a consistent and repeated pattern of self-sacrifice for any and everyone, even those who don't deserve it.
You feel hopeless, defeated, and distressed.
Estevez notes that people with martyr complexes not only have a victim mentality, but they may go out of their way to put themselves in situations of distress. While you may feel like your acts of sacrifice are for a noble cause, you may suffer with feelings of helplessness or defeat. "The major difference between a martyr complex and other forms of complexes," Estevez explains, "is that the person suffering from a martyr complex is actively choosing to put themselves in situations where they are hurting themselves in order to help someone else."
You lack balance in your life.
If all your attention is focused on helping others, like family, friends, and co-workers, or you are consistently overextended or jumping through hoops at work, this may be a sign of a martyr complex. Goldman says that not balancing self-care and instead putting your attention toward saving others might be a sign you are engaged in a martyr complex.
Martyr complex vs. victim complex
A martyr complex is often conflated with a victim complex, but they are different. "Some people use these terms interchangeably, and the differences between them are rather subtle," Goldman notes.
A martyr complex is something people engage in willingly, even if it results in negative consequences, says Goldman. A person suffering from a martyr complex will continue to actively put themselves in situations where they are hurting themselves.
With a victim complex, Estevez says, "an individual may feel like they're unable to do anything to change their situation or take action against those who have wronged them." A victim complex occurs when, at their core, a person feels as if they are a victim of life circumstances that they will never gain control over, Goldman notes. As a result, these individuals may take little responsibility for their own actions and adopt the feeling that the universe is against them.
Martyr complex vs. savior complex
There are quite similar patterns of behavior between a martyr complex and a savior complex. Both will sacrifice their own needs for the needs or wants of others; however, Goldman says the main point of difference is the messaging.
"If the phrase of the martyr is 'I'll sacrifice myself for you,' the phrase of the savior is 'I will sacrifice myself to fix you,'" Goldman explains.
Individuals with savior complexes believe it is up to them to save others, whereas the martyr may not have that same sense of duty or responsibility, Estevez adds.
What causes somebody to develop a martyr complex?
A martyr complex usually has its roots in childhood experiences. "People with martyr complexes often grow up in environments where their needs were not met and their emotional boundaries were violated," Estevez says. "This could be due to a parent or guardian who was unable, unwilling, or uninterested in taking care of them."
Experiencing physical abuse, neglect, abandonment, or emotional abuse can also lead to someone developing a martyr complex.
Goldman also says the oldest child might learn to be self-sacrificing if they were asked to care for younger siblings. In this way, having an absent parent might also result in a martyr complex.
A martyr complex can also develop later in life. In some cases, an individual may develop extreme feelings of self-sacrifice if their empathy turns to guilt. For example, if someone feels that they have become too successful or if they have survived something that other people haven't, their sense of appreciation and guilt can turn into self-sabotage.
How to overcome your martyr complex.
With the right mindset and strategies, it is absolutely possible to overcome a martyr complex. The first step is to recognize that you have a martyr complex. This means acknowledging that you have been sacrificing your own needs and wants for others’ and admitting that you feel a sense of self-righteousness or resentment as a result.
After recognizing the pattern, try to identify the triggers that lead to the martyr mindset. For example, it may be that when someone asks for help, you are reminded of a situation from childhood when you were unable to help, so now you’re overcompensating. Or, it could be that you’re most triggered by not being appreciated for your help, but you feel too ashamed to acknowledge that you’d like recognition.
Learning to set healthy boundaries is key to overcoming a martyr complex. This means learning to say "no," and how to communicate your needs and limits clearly and assertively.
In overcoming a martyr complex, self-care is also vital. Practicing self-care can take time, but establishing a pattern of recognizing your own feelings and needs will eventually boost your self-confidence. Be sure to take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health, and prioritize activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
Overcoming a martyr complex is challenging, so it's important to seek support from trusted friends and family members, who can help you see when you’re slipping back into old habits. Seek help from a mental health professional to help identify patterns, provide accountability, and offer guidance as you work through the process.
How to deal with someone with a martyr complex.
Dealing with someone who has a martyr complex can be challenging, but there are some simple steps that may help your relationship.
Acknowledge their efforts.
People with a martyr complex often feel like they are the only ones putting in the effort, so acknowledging their contributions and thanking them for their efforts may help to ease feelings of resentment on both sides.
Let them know it’s okay to say “no.”
Individuals with a martyr complex may have trouble saying “no,” so be mindful of what you ask and take a hint that a delayed or belabored “yes” may really mean a “no.” Encourage them to set boundaries to feel less overwhelmed and to lead a more balanced life.
Support them in shifting their mindset around martyrdom.
Try putting yourself in their shoes to understand their perspective and communicate with them without judgment. If you are close with a person who suffers from this pattern of behavior, reinforce that you love and appreciate them for who they are, not what they do for you.
Last, support them in seeking help from a mental health professional who can work through their feelings with them and provide healthy coping mechanisms.
The martyr mother.
The martyr complex can play out in parenthood and may be particularly common among mothers. Making sacrifices to care for your child is a part of parenthood; however, there should be balance.
“Some parents want to do everything for their child,” Goldman says. When children are small, it is appropriate and necessary to be self-sacrificing. However, the extent of sacrifice should change as your child grows. It is necessary for children to develop a sense of autonomy and confidence. After all, they have to learn from their mistakes.
“Parents who do everything for their child make it so the child learns how to be helpless,” Goldman notes, adding, “This is highly problematic for the child moving forward in life.”
The narcissist martyr.
A narcissist describes people who are self-involved to the point where they ignore the needs of those around them. While this may seem contradictory to the martyr complex, sometimes a martyr complex can actually be a sign of covert narcissism. A covert narcissist is someone who has narcissistic tendencies of self-importance and a lack of empathy, but they don’t overtly display it.
Like a covert narcissist, a narcissist martyr lacks boundaries. They may be highly insecure and self-conscious, and so they may act in a manner to please others or place others’ needs above their own. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies or narcissistic personality disorders are addicted to feeling special, and this feeling may be derived from acting as a martyr.
What is an example of a martyr complex?
Someone with a martyr complex consistently sacrifices their own needs for that of other people. For example, they might always take on way more than their fair share of the work of a shared responsibility (and then complain about how stressed they are), or – although they never receive praise or thanks – they will repeatedly help someone who does not acknowledge their contributions. These behaviors can often be seen by observers as enabling other people.
Is a martyr complex a sign of narcissism?
A martyr complex can be a sign of narcissism, but it isn’t always. Individuals with narcissistic tendencies differ from person to person. Typically, narcissists display tendencies to feel inherently superior and special, so a person with a martyr complex may seek out or justify this feeling of self-importance by making sacrifices for others and being lauded for it.
There are clear, telltale signs to identify whether you or a loved one has a martyr complex. Whether it’s the tendency to self-sacrifice or neglect your personal needs, a martyr complex can permeate one’s life, negatively affecting family and work.
Remember, overcoming a martyr complex is a journey, and it may take time and support to make lasting change. But with persistence and expert help, you can develop a healthier and more fulfilling mindset around your relationship to others and yourself.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.