Martyr syndrome by any other name
Dr. Lee Outlaw
Most of us are aware of the old saying, “Misery loves company”. For many people that saying can often move one step forward turning dependent and becoming, “Misery needs company”.
The idea of course, is that some people focus their entire life on either previous and present problems or difficulties attempting to draw attention to those life experiences. In turn, these individuals seem to enjoy and are even insistent on sharing these experiences anytime, anywhere and with anyone who will listen.
This personality disorder is referred to by many names: Martyr complex, Martyr mom syndrome, Martyr Victim complex, Martyr Personality Disorder, Relationship Martyrdom, Romantic Martyr Syndrome, Hero complex, Heroic Martyr Syndrome and even to some extent, Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissism and Social Anxiety Disorder (or SAD).
Although each varies slightly, regardless of the associated label, they each tend to fit into the general “learned behavior” classification of Martyr (or Martyrdom) syndrome. The important thing to emphasize here is that this is a real and genuine personality disorder and a legitimate mental health issue which should not be taken lightly.
Because this is generally a “learned behavioral problem”, it is important to remember that these individuals are unstable and can be dangerous (extremely dangerous) to both themselves and others. The very use of the term “martyr” with the associated disorder is indicative as to the limit that these individuals are willing to go in order to emphasize their condition.
Generally speaking, Martyr Syndrome is a condition in which a person uses their suffering, self-sacrifice, and role as a victim to manipulate others into psychologically rewarding them for their ongoing misery. In other words, these individuals actually enjoy their suffering and unconsciously see it as a means of self-gratification and (to some degree) personal accomplishment.
Just like full blown narcissism, these individuals usually hide their personal belief that they are superior to everyone else and entitled to the very things for which they claim no desire. They actually hide deep emotions of envy and the desire to exploit their situation. They are controlling and manipulative without empathy, guilt or remorse.
Many of these individuals also tend to laugh at everything, leading many psycho-therapist to believe that some with Martyr Personality Disorder might also have a degree of connected Hebephrenic Schizophrenia due to the fact many of these individuals appear at times as almost emotionless. Their drive and determination are lost and goals abandoned, so that the patient’s behavior becomes characteristically aimless and empty of purpose. Many patients will often refer to even serious situations with, “Let’s just wait and see what happens”. There is also a superficial preoccupation with religion, philosophy, and other abstract themes which may add to the patient’s difficulty in keeping with an obvious train of thought.
Unfortunately, these individuals also self-label themselves with fad, neo-religious or pseudo-philosophical identities such as minimalist, naturalist, Universalist, poly-ist (contemporary term for non-religious modified polygamy) and even veganism (as opposed to vegetarianism). Most with Martyr Syndrome usually know very little about such lifestyles or philosophies but associate with them simply because (for the moment) “it sounds good”; some would even initially say, “It’s the right fit”. As a result, they will often force themselves and their families into an associated lifestyle which they then emphasize and project to those around them; whether intended or not.
The two current philosophies being mentioned by many Martyr Syndrome/Martyr Personality Disorder patients is minimalism and poly-ism; both are extremely dangerous philosophies and lifestyles because they’re pseudo-religious with roots in religion. There is also much about these philosophies on both cable television and the internet which simply adds fuel to a Martyr Syndrome fire.
As an example, some individuals who identify with “minimalism” will get rid of everything they own; just give it away and not even try to sell it. Their philosophy usually goes like this, “I don’t like things or I don’t need things I don’t use”. The problem is these “minimalist” (as they call themselves) are selective. They might give up chairs, beds, use only minimal clothing, no TVs, cars, have only one cup, bowl or plate for each house hold member to give an outward appearance of “being without or doing without”. But they also have high speed internet, thousand dollar phones, tablets and selective appliances of conveniences. In other words unconsciously they want to talk the talk but not walk the walk; a hypocrite by any other name. This usually ends badly.
Over the years as a counselor/psychologist, I have seen marriages end, children run away at an early age, unwanted pregnancies occur, the elderly, children and disabled abused or abandoned, criminal acts committed, deaths (that didn’t have to occur), suicide and homelessness result as a direct result of the minimalist lifestyle.
Still others will become fascinated with a different sexual lifestyle such as “poly-ism” which is a contemporary non-religious modified form of polygamy (this includes almost every sexually deviated relationship imaginable involving multiple partners); usually this lifestyle is chosen because of previous bad relationships and/or failed marriages. Like “minimalism”, this usually ends badly and often leads to another bad and ended relationship. Almost with certainty, someone usually ends up hurt and out on the street.
Martyr syndrome patients unconsciously want to be hurt and in pain. As such they recognize the potential for pain and suffering in both these lifestyles resulting in a desire to experience them both; it’s like another reference in their mental resume of pain and suffering.
What is important to remember here is the “martyr” aspect of the syndrome. The person uses their suffering, self-sacrifice, and role as a victim to manipulate others into psychologically rewarding them with outward expressions of appreciation or sympathy for their ongoing misery. It’s because of the martyr syndrome, that a person’s actual (unconscious) enjoyment of their misery; their pain and their suffering that they desire to experience more of the same in these unusual lifestyles.
It’s also important to point out that these individuals might seem normal in every aspect of the word. They might occasionally desire things of convenience or comfort, express a need to have physical pain stopped or even to emphasize their enjoyment of the lifestyle or relationship they have chosen. But as soon the opportunity arises and the unconscious desire kicks in to be the martyr, everything is given or thrown away, philosophical talk and reasoning begins about mentally removing pain, changing to a diet that can eliminate an illness and any positive relationship is suddenly considered wrong.
The result is the reversion to full blown “Martyr Syndrome or Martyr Personality Disorder”.
It should be noted that the reversion factor in most patients comes without warning like most syndromes and personality disorders. A person diagnosed with Martyr Personality Disorder can be undergoing therapy, be making significant progress and then suddenly and out of the blue revert back to their former condition.
The great irony of Martyr Syndrome and Martyr Personality Disorder is the patients don’t know they’re sick and when a person doesn’t realize they have an illness it is difficult to treat the illness. Part of the reason for this is that like most mental health problems, there are denial and avoidance issues.
When someone attempts to confront a person with Martyr Syndrome about their condition, they deny they have a problem. They subsequently avoid any further discussion about it or their related lifestyle.
Of special importance to those in the healthcare and home healthcare industry is the fact that many of them suffer from Martyr syndrome. Very often these individuals which give so much of themselves get so caught up in the daily process of giving and witnessing the pain of others that they develop a Martyr Personality Disorder.
Groups which teach Eastern mysticism, unified or universal philosophical thought (or truth), self-healing, miracles, minimalism and advanced or “super-spiritualism” usually attract those with Martyr Syndrome and Martyr Personality Disorder. Such teaching is almost like a magnet to these seriously troubled people. It is unfortunate that many of these groups attempt to “counsel” these people increasing their pain, hardship and the inability to face reality.
Sadly, many of these people search their entire lives trying to “find their way”, seeking approval and the proverbial truth while just trying to “fit in”. Because most never find the answers they want (or need) their unconscious mind takes over and many end up in cults or dictatorial communes just to survive; still others end up as part of the tens of thousands of homeless which walk America’s streets every day.
Again, it is important to realize that Martyr Syndrome is a very serious Mental Illness which requires real, genuine professional Psycho-therapy. All the Eastern mysticism and the like will not solve the problem.
If you know someone or personally identify with “Martyr Syndrome or Martyr Personality Disorder”, please seek out a professional mental healthcare counselor immediately. Remember, your pain and suffering is real but does not have to continue.
I will have more to say on this subject in future articles.
© 2016 Dr. Lee Outlaw