What Is a Martyr Complex?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 25, 2024
3 min read

A martyr complex is a recognized psychological pattern. It’s marked by self-sacrifice and service to others at your own expense. Identifying martyr traits and tendencies can prevent burnout and stress on your relationships.

Some aspects of martyrdom may seem desirable, but it’s important to understand the negative implications, too.

The martyr complex is closely related to another behavior pattern called the victim complex or victim mentality. They share similar motives, conditions, and behavior.

The victim complex. At its core, the victim complex involves someone viewing themselves as a victim of their life events. They often express that bad things always happen to them, claim that they have no control over their life, and don’t take responsibility for things they do. The motives for a victim mentality are often unconscious.

The victim mentality provides people with a sense of safety and validation. As the victim, they don’t have to take the blame for their actions, they get attention from the people around them, and they are validated by support from others. However, by putting the responsibility on others, they sacrifice their own control and ability to act. They rely on others for their self-worth.

With both martyr complex and victim complex, a person relies on others. Those who turn themselves into martyrs victimize themselves for the benefit of others. They constantly sacrifice resources against their own self-interest. A martyr takes on the role of the hero.

People who use martyr behavior tend to have good motives for doing so. Sometimes, they may be forced into the role of a martyr because of their environment. People in service-based professions may develop a martyr complex.

Martyr complex behavior differs depending on the cause.

Minimizing accomplishments. You may dismiss your actions, saying it’s not important when you make sacrifices. You do it for the good feeling of making the sacrifice and not for the praise of being recognized.

Being the hero. The idea of the “hero syndrome” can serve as a sign of the martyr complex. You may often play the hero and do everything yourself, solving everyone’s problems without complaint.

Lacking self-care. You can’t pour from an empty jug. If you‘re in a situation where you’re constantly giving and letting your personal health slip away, you’re likely exhibiting the patterns of a martyr complex.

Seeking chances to sacrifice. Similar to the victim complex, a martyr looks for opportunities to step into harm’s way. You may search for instances or create ways to make those sacrifices.

Having unrealistic values. A martyr may view their actions as an expression of how much they care. You may feel that if you’re not working hard for people every day, it means you don’t love them enough.

The martyr complex is often deeply embedded into your lifestyle. This makes it hard to address and care for. You can take steps to shift your thinking away from being a  martyr and toward taking care of yourself.

  • Find or start a support group.
  • Invest in yourself by setting aside time and resources for things you enjoy.
  • Devote time for your physical health.
  • Journal and express gratitude for yourself and others.
  • Spend time with friends and family in environments where you don’t need to help and can enjoy each other’s company.

Talk to your doctor for additional advice about how to put your health and well-being first.