The martyr is one who employs self-sacrifice and victimization as a way of avoiding to take responsibility for their life. They are prepared, however, to take responsibility for everyone else's life.
They are invariably unhappy and unfulfilled because they deny their own needs for the sake of others. They view life as a struggle, and themselves as a bastion of righteousness in an ungrateful world.
They consider themselves a light to the world, a shining example of how a good and selfless person should behave. They honestly believe they are a model of virtue. They also believe that their goodness will eventually "rub off" on others. If they are abused and mistreated, they will suffer such indignities, because eventually their tormenter will see the error of their ways, and recognize what a special human being they are hurting.
Martyrs are often attracted to difficult and abusive people. They have a compulsive need to change them, make these people good, and make them appreciate and respect them. They pick spouses who are brutal or intolerant, who lack a conscience, who deceive and manipulate them, and who resist the martyr’s efforts to reform them. It is interesting that they unconsciously choose to be around impossible people, and that their efforts to rehabilitate the latter are doomed to fail.
The victim role is an important component of a martyr complex. It justifies in their mind that others are responsible for their pain. They engage in compulsive blaming to reinforce this conviction. The blaming functions to deflect the basic neurotic tendency of their behavior: They set themselves up to be victims. They do this to avoid taking responsibility for their life, but also to show that their own behavior is beyond criticism.
Martyrs are caught in a neurotic struggle that began in childhood. Since such behavior is a complex phenomenon it is difficult to describe a particular parent-child interaction that may account for it. Martyrs often learn to be victims from a parent who assumed this role, usually the mother. She sacrificed herself for her family and reacted passively to a brutal and uncompromising husband. She kept her family intact, and often shielded the children from the more negative aspects of her husband's behavior, absorbing the blows herself.
Since their own life was pretty miserable, such a parent often lived for and through their children. That is, their quest for happiness and fulfillment revolved around the experiences of these children. To please the parent, the child assumed the latter's aspirations, and their own needs became secondary. They learned that they must make sacrifices, repress their own desires, and behave passively toward authority. Whenever the child tried to contradict the parent by asserting their personality, the latter saw it as a sign of betrayal, and made the child feel guilty: "Is this what I deserve after all I have done for you?"
The martyr personality was often burdened excessively with responsibilities in their younger years, perhaps looking after the household while the parent was absent. The father may have been absent for reasons other than work (drinking, idling with friends), and the mother may have worked full-time to support the family. The child was forced to sacrifice their fun and leisure by looking after siblings, and generally behaving like a responsible adult. This made them serious and resolute beyond their years. It also reinforced the conviction that they should live by serving and catering to the needs of others, while repressing their own.
The characteristics of neurotic martyrdom in adulthood can be summarized as follows: The person cares for and helps others while sacrificing their own needs. They find people who they feel require their help the most, usually those who are selfish and intolerant. They help by showing others how to be good. They submit to abuse as an appeal to the conscience of the abuser. When this doesn't work, they resort to guilt-trips, nagging and other types of passive-aggressive strategies.
On a deeper level, martyrs are very needy for love. Unfortunately, they unconsciously believe that the only way they can get love is through suffering. The suffering makes them feel special and wanted, and it brings meaning to their life. Their suffering is tied to their ego. They are actually proud of it. Take away their suffering and they seem lost.
To have a normal and mature adult relationship is difficult for them. They will want to help you by listening to your problems, by offering their time and possessions, and by trying to make you dependant on them. In fact, if you don't ask them for assistance, behave strongly and confidently, and treat them as mature and self-sufficient people as well, they will sabotage such a situation and become like little children themselves.
And therein lies the great "martyr paradox". All their suffering is actually an attempt to get people to look after them! This is the secret code of the martyr. They are looking for support themselves. If you behave maturely with them, they will become like little children wanting help from you. It is the martyr who requires love and nurturing, not the other way around.