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. 
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.
This 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:
- Early negative experiences
- Misconceptions about the nature of self, life or others
- A constant fear and sense of insecurity
- A maladaptive strategy to protect the self
- 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 worthlessness—being 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’.
For an excellent book abut the chief features and hw to handle them, see Transforming Your Dragons by José Stevens.