Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D.
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 towards 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.