martyrdom - st sebastian

MARTYRDOM is one of seven basic character flaws or “dark” personality traits. We all have the potential for feeling victimised, but in people with a strong fear of worthlessness, Martyrdom can become a dominant pattern.

What is Martyrdom?

Martyrdom is usually defined as:

the suffering of death on account of adherence to [a] faith, or to any cause;

affliction, torment, torture. [1]

The concept of martyrdom is well known in the history of religion and oppressed minorities. In the ancient world, for example, many Christians were cruelly tortured and killed by the Roman rulers just for being Christians. Those who maintained their faith despite the pain of death would then be designated martyrs (literally, witnesses) by fellow believers.

In this way, the appalling death of “one of ours” could be given meaning. Referring to an execution as martyrdom frames it as a moral injustice. It also serves as an inspiration, contrasting our righteousness with their evil.

And for individuals with no strong attachment to life, voluntary martyrdom is an extremely noble way to go. Not only does your willingness to die for your beliefs create “shock and awe” in the oppressors, but you also get to become a “star” in your own community (albeit posthumously)—and your family will be well honoured—and you will get special treatment by the Almighty in the afterlife.

It is easy to see how, for some, dying a horrible death in public can seem like a worthwhile ambition.

matrydom video 100This is why the term “martyrdom” has been adopted by suicide bombers and others who deliberately take their own lives (as well as the lives of innocent bystanders) as a form of protest or resistance. A suicide bomber calling himself a “martyr” wants to imply that he is an innocent hero-victim, forced to die for his religion by the infidel oppressors.

The Koran prohibits suicide, religious scholars say. But some Muslim groups insist that by classifying the bombers as martyrs, their self-destruction becomes permissible because it is a form of self-sacrifice, and because it is honorable to die in battle against infidels.

- The Terrorist Mind: An Update (New York Times)

This martyr complex is a far cry from the idea of keeping the faith despite torture and execution, of course. But acting out the role of innocent victim as a form of attack is the very essence of martyrdom as a character flaw.

The martyr emphasises, exaggerates and even creates his own suffering and oppression on a grand scale in an attempt to make someone else feel guilty and take the blame.

Martyrdom is the complementary opposite of impatience. Both syndromes are fundamentally about the use of will, but in opposite ways. In the case of impatience, the individual wants to exercise her will faster than life allows. The world seems full of annoying obstacles and impediments whch she has to push her way through. In the case of martyrdom, the world is supposedly imposing its will on the individual. An all-powerful presence is constantly oppressing him, denying him his freedom. His problems in life are always the result of this evil mistreatment, and never his own fault at all.

So martyrdom is a negative personality trait which causes people to unconsciously attract and exaggerate situations in which they are apparently victimised, mistreated and persecuted.

Like all patterns of false personality, martyrdom involves the following components:

  1. Early negative experiences
  2. Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
  3. A constant fear and sense of insecurity
  4. A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
  5. A persona to hide all of the above in adulthood

Early Negative Experiences

In the case of martyrdom, the key negative experiences in childhood revolve around blame, victimisation, and being unable to do anything right in the eyes of the parents. Typically, the child is constantly punished for getting it wrong, and constantly blamed for whatever goes wrong. He might even be portrayed, unfairly, as the source of all of the parents’ problems.

For example, the child’s parents might blame the child for getting sick when times are already hard enough. Or the parents might be intolerant of displays of anger, and regularly punish the child for showing the slightest hint of it—all of which merely breeds more outrage and resentment.

This constant blaming and unreasonably punitive treatment might also contrast sharply with, say, how an older sibling is treated, or how other kids at school are treated by their own parents. For example, the child might have an older brother who can get away with anything, while she gets blamed even for the brother’s bad behaviour.


Getting the love, care and attention which all children naturally crave seems to be an impossible task in this kind of setup.

If I just do as I please, I get punished.

If anything goes wrong, anywhere, I get blamed for it.

Whenever I express myself or assert myself I am rejected.

Whatever is going wrong, it is all supposedly the child’s fault. It is as if the child has no place in the family—in fact, no place in the world.

Over time, if such experiences of unfair disapproval and oppression are faily constant, the child comes to perceive life as fundamentally cruel and unfair.


Based on these misconceptions and bad experiences, the child becomes gripped by a specific kind of fear. In this case, the fear is of worthlessnessbeing of no value to anyone, being  nothing but trouble, being a terrible mistake.

The child experiences a tension between believing that he is fundamentally worthless and feeling that he is always being unfairly blamed and punished. His worst fear is that all the blame he receives is valid—he really is to blame for everything (after all, like all normal kids, he know he is to blame for some things).

What if it’s true—that it is all my fault? That everything I do is bad, know matter how hard I try to be good? Then my life serves no purpose. I am worse than useless. 


The basic strategy for coping with this constant fear of unbearable worthlessness is to twofold:

1. Seek justice and vengeance against wrong-doers.

2. Seek reassuring confirmations of one’s innocence and worth once and for all.

To do this, the martyr subconsciously attracts and sets up nasty problems for himself for which others can take the blame. He lurches from one horrible situation to the next. Within these situations, not only can he attract sympathy as an innocent victim, but also he can finally, indirectly, express the anger for his original mistreatment.


The outer mask of martyrdom is all about being the innocent victim. Typically this involves:

  • constantly moaning, griping, complaining, talking about one’s problems;
  • exaggerating one’s level of suffering, hardship, etc.;
  • avoiding any form of relief, including therapy, lest it end the all-important suffering.

A person with a chief feature of martyrdom has a habit of complaining about endless problems and blaming those problems on anyone or anything but himself. It’s all the fault of his mother, his boss, his so-called friends, this society, the government, people in general, life itself.

Blaming others or the world at large is a way of soliciting sympathy and avoiding the dreadful inner feeling of worthlessness. It is as if the martyr is saying to the world, “Look how much I am suffering, and through no fault of my own! Please sympathise with me and tell me it’s not my fault!”

For martyrs, the idea of taking responsibility for improving or correcting their own lives is anathema. All negative personality patterns are like stuck records, and this one is stuck in a perpetual state of vicitmisation. To end the suffering would scupper any chance of having the mistreatment acknowledged and all wrong-doers finally exposed.

It is important, though, that the suffering be seen as anything but self-inflicted or exaggerated. Hence, the martyr will outwardly deny any responsibility for his own suffering, and always exaggerate the role played by others. The martyr will also over-stress that his own motives are entirely pure—”I was only trying to help when suddenly he had a go at me for no reason!”

Like all negative traits, martyrdom is a vicious circle. It simply creates the very experiences which the individual wants to avoid.

Those with martyrdom will find myriad ways to “tempt fate” in order to do something that will establish their worth once and for all. Martyrdom can attract thankless families, wasting diseases, sabotaged careers, destructive personal relationships, in an almost constant search for the elusive “grail” of worthiness.


All people are capable of this kind of behaviour. It is when it subconsciously dominates someone’s personality, however, that they are said to have a chief feature of martyrdom.

Positive and Negative Poles

In the case of martyrdom, the positive pole is termed SELFLESSNESS and the negative pole is termed MORTIFICATION.

+ selflessness +




– mortification –

Selflessness refers to a conscious willingness to put others’ needs and wants first. Ideally, this is an act of compassion out of choice rather than just a performance, which is more often the case with martyrdom.

Mortification refers to self-inflicted acts of punishment or torment. In this case, there is a distorted (subconscious) belief that tremendous suffering is necessary, both privately to atone for one’s sins and publicly to attact sympathy and pin the blame on others. Mortification literally means “putting to death”. In the negative pole of matrydom, the individual will willingly go so far as dying as the ultimate gesture to “prove” his innocence and point the finger at others.

The solution to martyrdom lies in:

  • being honest with oneself about using martyrdom
  • giving up complaining, blaming and the attachment to being right
  • giving up the attachment to victimisation and suffering
  • allowing more pleasure, and being willing to be seen enjoying life
  • taking responsibility for one’s choices
  • learning to say ‘no’ to others

In short, it means swinging to the positive pole of impatience, which is ‘audacity’.


    Further Reading

    TYDFor an excellent book abut the chief features and hw to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.

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    23 Responses to “Martyrdom”

    1. 1 Steven 17 Jan 2013 at 7:45 pm

      The article states that “martyrdom is a negative personality trait, which causes people to unconsciously attract and exaggerate situations in which they are apparently victimized, mistreated and persecuted.”

      The Catholic Church is responsible for teaching me to live this way. Self-sacrifice is harm against me. I was giving to find a sense of worth. I am 57 and often put others needs before my own. I have to change my view of my true self. This article hit my heart. Every person involved with an alcoholic or addict needs to read, specifically, those who attend Al-Anon.

      To my girlfriends, I gave and gave and gave. To a group, I gave and gave and gave. The truth is I have worth without needing to sacrifice myself including my money, time or knowledge. I wanted to help, but few reciprocated. I believe, with the help of God, I could rid myself of this unhealthy attitude and turn my life around. This understanding may also be an answer to useless guilt.

      I grew to hate the nonsense the Catholic Church taught that suffering is the way to heaven, that self-sacrifice is a way of life. What bunk.

      I think if we dropped pamphlet to those in Iraq, Iran and other home of terrorists, these people might wake up to the fact that they have worth and purpose in a different light than self-sacrifice.

      • 2 barry 17 Jan 2013 at 7:48 pm

        Thanks, Steven.

      • 3 Steven 12 Feb 2013 at 6:29 am

        Your welcome….The article answered so many questions…A whole book could be written on this topic. Some one could actually earn a Ph.D. on Martyrdom…..Last week, my mom told me my catholic grammar school is closing…thank goodness….young people don’t need to get brainwashed….

      • 4 riya 05 Feb 2014 at 2:00 pm

        Hi steven,

        Could relate to your situation much,especially catholic background.
        Life changes started happening to me when I started telling to myself-“I am responsible for the way I think,feel and act”.
        May god bless you to find this inner truth.

      • 5 responsiblecitizen 26 May 2014 at 1:10 pm

        Someone should do a case study on my sister in law who is an extreme martyr her whole life. Having a controlling and angry father, this woman at an early age 20’s) had back surgery that didn’t work out. She had emitionsl issues before but her martyrdom started when the surgery her father paid for failed. She blamed him, he felt helpless (wasn’t his fault her was trying to help her) and her life became a desperate car of being a victim and she blamed her father horribly and he fell into the trap and it escalated to where everything she tries fails and her physical problems are constant and its the medical world’s fault, she is a constant victim and constantly complains. Everyone around her is out to get her. This article should state my sister in laws name.

    2. 6 Ernie Padilla 07 Feb 2013 at 5:15 pm

      Really well thought out and universally applicable. Thanks for your time.

      • 7 barry 11 Feb 2013 at 11:06 pm

        Cheers Ernie

    3. 8 zapalaspeaks 03 Apr 2013 at 1:45 pm

      hi thanks for your words and interesting thoughts about this topic. You might be interested in what my teacher has to say about this:—the-chapters.html

      Hope you’re well, thanks.

      • 9 barry 03 Apr 2013 at 3:27 pm

        Your teacher being Marc Bregman?

        • 10 zapalaspeaks 09 Apr 2013 at 4:03 pm

          Yes! Do you know him?

          • 11 barry 09 Apr 2013 at 4:13 pm

            No, I just wanted to be clear after following your link. Thx

    4. 12 betty 24 Apr 2013 at 10:23 pm

      I just learned something about myself! I blamed my boyfriend for thinking he was in martyrdom when it was me.

      • 13 barry 13 Sep 2014 at 4:54 pm

        classic :)

    5. 14 Cat Taylor 16 Jun 2013 at 2:00 am

      Agreed Steven I have given up alot due to Catholic brainwashing not only of me but those in my life. The idea of worhipping someone being nailed to a cross and murdered for all the sins of everyone who hadn’t even been born yet is very messed up.

    6. 15 Barb 17 Jun 2013 at 2:50 am

      Thank you, Steven for your post.
      I am a 60 year old woman still trying to gain freedom from years of suffering and martyrdom that was taught as “virtue” as taught by the Catholic Church.
      Self deprecation and martyrdom have been twisted into “good things”

      Thank you for this website as a road map to psychological health!

    7. 16 EMILY 17 Dec 2013 at 8:17 am

      dont throw the baby out with the dirty bath water, worship jesus, receive his love and gift of eternal life then the key is to love your neighbor AS yOU LOVE YOURSELF YOU CANT LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR IF YOU CANT FIRST LOVE YOURSELF FOLKS

    8. 17 GayleG 01 Jan 2014 at 4:55 am

      I hope someone is still monitoring these messages. The description of being a martyr fits my husband EXACTLY!!! OMG – to a “T”. And it is perfectly accurate that he refuses help because then he won’t be able to feel sorry for himself. He posts all his woes on FB and relishes the sympathy from others. Nothing is ever his fault (in his case, it’s because “God hates me,” “my life sucks,” “more bad things happen to me than to anyone else,” etc.) If he’s feeling down or upset about something at work or something one of his few remaining friends has done, you can be sure the spotlight will come around to be on me. He’s gotten himself into horrible financial debt – his desperate attempt at avoiding responsibility was to say it was the bank’s fault for allowing him to take money out of the ATM when he didn’t have it, and then finally, somehow, it was my fault for marrying him (even though I had absolutely nothing to do with his account). Okay, so, as his wife, how do I handle this? He clearly wants to pull me into an argument when he’s feeling bad and will criticize any small thing to try to drag me in. I just keep smiling and change the subject and refuse to be baited, but just by carrying on a normal life and a loving relationship with our children, I’m somehow offending him. We’ve been through counseling several times. The last time, because the counselor dared suggest he should try changing some behaviors and attitudes, he accused me of “turning the counselor against me!” He has an addictive personality and I think he might be slipping back into drug use here and there; he’s been on antidepressants but has gotten off them and doesn’t want to get back on. He has anxiety too. I’d just like to know how to get him to get help, and how to deal with this on a daily basis — without losing my own mind.

      • 18 barry 23 Jan 2014 at 9:10 pm

        Hi and yes, still monitoring, just way behind in my responses.

        Whew. Well, I’ve known a couple of addicts whose line of defence goes, “Being an addict means I have no choice, so don’t expect me to take any responsibility for my actions.” It’s a typically tortured-logic excuse for carrying on as they are, which is doing something they enjoy whist pretending to have no option because they are so trapped in suffering from others’ faults. The drug taking is no doubt a pleasant relief, but a martyr doesn’t want to distract “the audience” (those around him) from his basic storyline that he is suffering through no fault of his own.

        The bottom line is he avoids taking responsibility and he justifies this by holding up the myth that others prevent him from doing so. He is waiting for the day when everyone finally stops ignoring his storyline, pays attention to his plight, and agrees that he has been – and always is being – victimised.

        What to do? Depends on the level of trust in your relationship.

        You could either confront him with this directly – show that you have more insight into his irresponsibility than he’d realised. Point out that he has choice and has always had choice. To put it another way: acting with free choice or acting as if he has no choice … That’s his choice.

        That could backfire, of course, with him taking offense big time at your heartless lack of sympathy for his powerlessness (and I’m sure he can easily find good examples to prove his case. After all, he will have unconsciously set them up..). You could try showing him this page, but I don’t get the feeling he’s ready for that.

        Alternatively, you could approach it sympathetically and compassionately. Something deep inside him is terrified. He might come from a childhood where he was made to feel wrong no matter what he did, and is terrified of going there again, so his avoidance of responsibility is a blanket solution – “no one can ever again blame me for being wrong or getting it wrong if they think I had no hand in it in the first place.”

        The ideal solution is that he comes to see the light and gets that it’s all about his fearful avoidance of grown-up responsibility. The underlying fear or panic, however, is a delicate area which he might be very unwilling to look at or acknowledge.


    9. 19 gayle63 23 Jan 2014 at 9:29 pm

      Thank you so much for answering! I think for now the only solution I’ve found is just not to feed into it. He has said he had a great childhood, so if there’s something there, he’s not willing to talk about it, or perhaps he’s blocked it, or perhaps there really isn’t anything. I just try to be upbeat and supportive without getting swallowed up in his “I need more!” mentality.You are completely right about him setting up circumstances to illustrate my or his coworkers’ or the world’s etc. heartlessness. The most harmless and normal situation can be turned into a dire insult; facts are twisted, timelines adjusted to provide maximum victimisation. It’s super frustrating. So we’re pretty much living separate lives under one roof. It’s good to know I’m not the only one living with someone like this, though. :)

      • 20 barry 23 Jan 2014 at 10:09 pm

        At least you’re not alone:

        Maybe someone should start a “living with a martyr” discussion group (if there isn’t one already).


        • 21 gayle63 23 Jan 2014 at 10:22 pm

          Wow, that MIL rings a lot of bells (with my husband, not my actual MIL, who passed away a few years ago and was a lovely person) — sometimes I wonder if the death of his mother was what triggered this landslide to martyrdom in my husband, even though they weren’t particularly close.

    10. 22 Christopher Manjoro 31 May 2014 at 7:44 pm

      Martyrdom is the chief act of virtue of fortitude as treated by theologians

      • 23 barry 01 Jun 2014 at 8:28 am

        I think in the context of this article, what you describe would be the positive pole of Martyrdom, i.e. selfless self-sacrifice for a greater cause.

        There is always a negative pole, however, which is far from virtuous. An example would be walking into a glass door and then blaming the door, the door’s designers, the door’s owners, the nearest bystander, etc etc.

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