The Dark Side of the Martyr

But I have also learned that resentfully playing martyr is like cheating on our homework—it may get us what we want but not fairly and not with our honor or self-respect intact. There is no good substitute for calmly stating what we want and need and fairly listening to another person about how what that person needs is different. This means we have to listen honestly and thoughtfully, and to request honestly and thoughtfully, so that we can help each other get the problem solved and the job done. It may also mean giving in on some of the high standards that make us feel safe, acknowledging anger without getting defensive or capitulating, and giving up some of our moral superiority for doing it all and getting nothing back. ~Wendy Ulrich, Forgiving Ourselves: Getting Back Up when We Let Ourselves Down

I have to first qualify this quote by mentioning that I am not addressing anyone’s behaviors, except own. (My fairy Godmother likes to pretend to play the Martyr, but her approach is entirely too direct to apply to cheating).

So! One of my favorite chapters in the above book is the “Unrighteous Unselfishness”. How can unselfishness be unrighteous?

  • By sacrificing, serving, problem solving, and enduring at unhealthy extremes
  • By making us feel we are “earning” our value
  • By disabling those that may be perfectly able
  • By falsely building moral superiority
  • By setting ourselves up to be taken for granted
  • By contributing to others’ feelings of guilt (guilt tripping)
  • By contributing to the illusion that we neeeeeed others’ appreciation to avoid being invisible/inferior

Sound familiar? This section really gave me a slap in the face. Wake up, already!

Service, and sacrifice are the pleasing fruit of love, and vice versa. I enjoy serving, both my family and community. I do not mind or resent sometimes going without so that someone else can have their needs met. But when resentment starts setting in, it is an important signal for me, that something is not right.

That something could be that I am trying to meet my needs inefficiently. For example, maybe I’ve agreed to do something in order to alleviate my feeling of guilt, therefore making me feel morally superior by doing that something, all the while hating every moment of it. Instead, I could just say no, and learn to assert and accept myself (faulty human and all), and get my own work done, which will also make me feel better about myself. Make any sense?

Or that something could be that I’m lonely and feeling insecure, or like a bad mother, so I alleviate the pain by indulging my children, when instead, I really should by consistent with boundaries and take some time enjoying myself with those who value my company.

That something could also be a very healthy signal, that I’m being used in order to gratify someone else’s desires. This is the something I am most likely to ignore. All abusers and users are excellent at getting their victims to give them what their selfish heart requires, in order to feed their own illusions and illness. As Ulrich explains,

The less powerful members of any society, family, or group often learn to overattend to others in an effort to deserve protection or care. Children who have been excessively blamed or hurt in the past by people they depended on for survival often expect connection to always come in a mixed bag that also includes being used, criticized, devalued, or left unprotected. When essential relationships have come in the ugly gift wrap of abuse, seduction, or neglect, or when most of the attention we got as kids was somehow connected with being hurt or humiliated, then hurt and humiliation will feel familiar and even necessary for us to get love. Hurtful connection beats no connection, and suffering may even give us the illusion of feeling engaged and alive instead of lonely and dead inside.

Since almost all of us were both caressed and paddled by the same hand, all of us to some degree see pain as a part of closeness. For some, however, this connection is tragic and self-destructive. For adults, extreme unselfishness in relationships can deter growth in both the giver and receiver. We don’t grow because we don’t get to feel loved as an equal but only tolerated as a servant. The other person doesn’t grow because he is allowed to treat a fellow human unfairly and believe he deserves it.

This is a cycle that was modeled expertly to me, and I refuse to perpetuate it. I CAN BE TAUGHT!! I am still a faithful believer in God, in sacrifice, in serving, uplifting, and contributing. But I’m also becoming a believer in….wait for it….MYSELF! While some may cringe in abhorrence of this “self worship.” I rejoice in it.

I was never “allowed” to love myself before! I wasn’t allowed to even value myself enough to enjoy the benefit of FEELING, whatever I was feeling. I learned all my feelings indicated my selfishness, and I was taught instead to focus on someone else, ANYONE else. I always had to rely on someone else’s love and approval in order to feel valued. I really can’t say whether these perceptions were self inflicted from an immature understanding, developmental deficits from early trauma, the result of imperfect parenting, or culturally taught. Most likely all were contributors.

Regardless, I’m growing up, and learning that I have both no control and all control over my destiny. And no matter who I serve or don’t serve, and what I do or don’t do, I have value, I matter.

Resentment is an important emotion, that shouldn’t be ignored or brushed aside or even quickly forced to be replaced. It is a signal to be examined. Why do something I resent doing? Sometimes there are good reasons, and during those times, realizing I have a good reason will dissipate my resentment naturally. If there isn’t good reason, I’m learning to just say no!

I wonder if my culture gives Martyrs a bit too much attention and credit? Were they truly Martyrs if they were resentful of their roles? How would we go about balancing our actions and beliefs to demonstrate value beyond martyrdom?


6 thoughts on “The Dark Side of the Martyr

  1. This is the first thing read when I woke up. I read it on my cell phone and then had to come to my computer!

    My thoughts as reading….. ouch, ahhh, awesome, and ouch again! I love the way W. Ulrich puts things. It is so true!

    I will comment more when I clear the sleep from my eyes:)

    • Yes, BIG OUCH for me too. But so true. I believe it isn’t just abuse survivors that suffer from this. Patriarchal religions tend to enforce the illussion that all unselfishness is righteous, particularly to its women. While I’d like to believe that much of it may be inadvertent, not all of It is. It is convenient to have an uncomplaining servant–the neck that “upholds” the head. I’m going for equally yolked…in all things. So I choose to speak up, instead on continuing to wear myself out building resentment.

  2. My father is a person that plays being a martyr to the hilt – in some ways I suspect he revels in it. And my parents have a dynamic where my father gets everything he wants and my mother gives in to everything. Unfortunately, I think if you spend too much time being the martyr, you end up neglecting other aspects of your life.

    • I completely agree. It takes a lot of energy keeping up that kind of dynamic, and all the while neither person has their needs completely met. They end up in this relentless cycle of codependency and resentment. The whole chapter is so good. I like to go back and read it because I had a similar pattern modeled to me. Sometimes it’s just better to let go, say no, and let them figure out how to meet their own needs. At the same time, the martyr finds value in themselves–something other than martyrdom.

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