Martyr Behavior

Some employees will react to abuse in a passive, self-sacrificing way. They will serve their boss diligently despite their mistreatment and the degrading circumstances it entails. This is like the pleasing behavior discussed earlier but it has a further implication. Their selflessness is more than a wish to be helpful; it involves a complete suspension of their own needs and desires, in an effort to assert their “goodness”.

The martyr will often think themselves on a higher moral plane. They are usually intent on changing the boss's behavior by setting an example with their own. They want to show the boss what a good person really behaves like. They believe that their selflessness will eventually rub off on their employer, or that they will shame the latter into improving their actions. Of course, the abusive boss rarely has a developed conscience to begin with, so such fantasies are usually doomed from the start.

Martyrs often have a nurturing style. They will behave in a maternal way towards their boss, by looking after the latter’s needs in a doting fashion. This behavior provides them with reassurance that they are wanted and competent in certain ways. The problem is that such nurturing behavior is a powerful reinforcement. Some bosses like to be pampered. They like the feeling of having people serve them.

Unfortunately, they will also lose respect for their employee, feeling contempt for their slavishness. Often, such bosses are reacting to models of behavior they witnessed in their childhood. Their father lacked respect for his spouse. She was brutalized by her husband, but managed to shield her children and keep the household from falling apart. In short, she was a long-suffering martyr. The father set the example for abuse, and the expectation that the powerful figure should be pampered and looked-after.

A martyr will often resort to nagging behavior, which gives them a semblance of power and control of their situation. The worker will sometimes pick on the boss's personal qualities (straighten your tie), or other issues that have nothing to do with the job (call your wife), but which they make a point of using as a weapon. Nagging is often a reflection of hidden hostility, and is actually intended to be annoying and frustrating for the employer. The problem is that it can also provoke abuse. The boss may think: Its not my fault, she asked for it with her constant nagging and whining.

Another style of the martyr is to behave like a victim. They see life as a struggle, and suffering as an integral part of existence. Their suffering is like a badge of honor for them. They actually draw strength from it. It proves to them that they are survivors. They are undoubtedly resilient and tenacious, but since the abuse is so senseless and pointless, their tolerance is obviously misdirected. All that effort is wasted in a dead-end situation. They never will change their boss; and they never will be happy playing the victim.

All victims are terribly angry people. They are angry with life for dealing them such a bum card. Some have a secret hope that they will be rescued, even as they take no steps to rescue themselves. They feel comfortable playing their role because it does not demand that they take responsibility for their life. They are content to blame others. In fact, complaining is a further sign of a martyr complex. Complaining convinces them that others are responsible for their misery.

By behaving like a victim the worker reinforces the victimizer. We all have come across people who almost demand that we abuse them. They will set themselves up for abuse by making it a self-fulfilling prophecy. They feel people are inherently hurtful, and they will put themselves in a vulnerable position to confirm this expectation.

A Victim-Martyr Index

Complete the following questionnaire if you are interested to see how you score along this personality dimension. Indicate whether you strongly agree, somewhat agree or disagree with each of the following statements. It is important that you try to answer each question as honestly as possible.

1. I can't accept it when someone doesn't like me.
2. I usually back down from an argument.
3. I have a hard time accepting compliments from people.
4. In the workplace, I often feel that things would fall apart if I wasn't there.
5. I seem to meet a lot of selfish people.
6. I think one should help people even if they don't want it.
7. I have a hard time saying no to people.
8. I try to set a good example for humanity.
9. People tend to take advantage of my generosity.
10. People say I am a real survivor.
11. No matter how much I do, for some people it isn't enough.
12. People don't treat me as well as I treat them.
13. God placed us on this earth to serve others.
14. I sometimes feel guilty even when I know I haven’t done anything bad.
15. I am convinced that when I die, people will finally recognize what I did for them.

Give yourself 2 points if you strongly agree, 1 point if you somewhat agree, and no points if you disagree. A maximum of 30 points is possible.

If you scored less than 10 points, you do not have a Martyr Complex. Between 10-19 points, you have a tendency toward victim-martyr behavior. A score of 20 or more suggests that martyr-like behavior is a strong feature of your personality.

A high score on this scale implies that you tend to blame others for your misfortunes; that you set yourself up to be a victim; that you have issues regarding self-esteem; and that you are probably not assertive or inclined to stand up for yourself. This makes you a more likely target of abuse. In the section of this site regarding what to do about abuse, we shall explore ways the reader can empower themselves, and change their locus of control, to a more inner standard of behavior.

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