A “martyr complex” is a term to describe a trait where a person persistently carries out self-sacrificing behaviors.

A person with a martyr complex may sacrifice their own needs to serve others, even at the cost of their own well-being. They may also seek praise or reward for their self-sacrificing behavior.

This article looks at the characteristics of a martyr complex, how it may develop, its effects on mental health, and seeking help.

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There is no medical definition for martyr complex. The characteristics of a person with a martyr complex may include:

  • frequently sacrificing their own needs for the needs of others
  • difficulty saying no or setting boundaries
  • regularly working above and beyond work requirements or set working hours
  • facing burnout as a result of martyr behavior

Narcissist martyr

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) usually have a persistent need for admiration. In a narcissist martyr, that need for admiration and praise may play a key role in their self-sacrificing behaviors.

Some people with NPD may also use this behavior as a form of manipulation and control.

Martyr parent

A martyr parent or guardian may make sacrifices for their children at the cost of their own well-being.

According to a 2019 article, an example of this is if parents or guardians place the financial demands of their child’s education above their own basic needs.

A martyr complex may link to certain types of people, circumstances, or professions.

People in caring or healthcare professions may be at risk of behaviors that sacrifice their own well-being, which may lead to burnout.

According to a 2021 study including 1089 healthcare professionals, 52% experienced burnout symptoms, including exhaustion, anxiety, and depression.

Caring for a child with a significant health condition may lead parents or caregivers to develop martyr-like characteristics.

A 2016 article details how parents caring for a child with psychosis may alter the parent-child relationship and how parents may compensate for the emotions they experience with self-sacrificing behavior.

According to an older 2015 article, social justice movements may have a culture of martyrdom. Activists who develop a sense of martyrdom may be at risk of burnout, which may make it difficult for them to sustain their activism.

People may also develop a martyr complex at work. For example, working from home may make it easier for people to work longer hours and have poorer boundaries between work and home.

Additionally, job insecurity or the desire for a pay rise, bonus, or promotion may lead to martyrdom at work.

A person with a martyr complex may continuously sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others. This can be unhealthy and lead to burnout.

“Burnout” is the term people may use to describe a state of exhaustion, listlessness, or feeling unable to cope. Burnout can negatively affect mental health, leading to:

  • exhaustion
  • feelings of an inability to cope
  • feelings of stress and frustration
  • negative feelings about work-related tasks or caregiving
  • difficulty concentrating
  • cynicism or negativity
  • feelings of numbness
  • lack of creativity

Having a martyr complex can also affect people around the person. If an individual with a martyr complex develops burnout, their relationship with others may feel strained.

If people recognize signs of martyr complex in themselves or others, it’s helpful to know that there are ways to overcome martyr-like behaviors.

According to an older 2015 study, people who disregard self-care may be at risk of burnout. In activists who were experiencing burnout, mindfulness helped reduce their symptoms.

Mindfulness practices such as yoga, tai chi, or meditation may help people turn their focus back to self-care rather than self-sacrifice.

People with a martyr complex can focus on learning to set boundaries and taking time for themselves. Taking time off may be an important step in overcoming a martyr complex, especially for people who are dealing with work martyrdom.

People may also wish to speak with a mental health professional, such as a therapist. A therapist can help individuals recognize harmful behaviors and develop ways to overcome them.

For loved ones

People may want to talk with a person with a martyr complex about how their behavior is making them feel. It can also help to establish healthy boundaries with them.

If a person with a martyr complex does not respond to these efforts, seeking help from a mental health professional to support and communicate effectively with the person may help.

Learn more about setting boundaries.

People may want to seek help if they:

  • find it challenging to put their needs before the needs of others
  • find it challenging to say no
  • always look for praise and recognition as a result of helping others
  • feel resentful for serving others
  • are experiencing signs of burnout, such as fatigue, anxiety, or depression

People may want to reach out to a support group, organization, or healthcare professional if they recognize that they or a loved one has a martyr complex.

A mental health professional may be able to help people recognize and alter their behaviors, as well as develop positive tools for self-care.

The following are FAQs about a martyr complex.

Is it a sign of narcissism?

People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) display a pattern of needing admiration. A martyr complex may be narcissistic if the need for admiration drives their self-sacrificing behavior.

How does martyr complex differ from people-pleasing behavior?

People with a martyr complex and people-pleasing behaviors may share similar traits.

Signs of people-pleasing behavior may include putting others’ needs before their own, and they may end up feeling resentful due to their own unmet needs.

A person with a martyr complex may feel as though they have no choice but to serve others, even at their own expense.

How does martyr complex differ from victim complex?

People with a victim complex, or victim mentality, may believe that they have no control over the things that happen to them and may blame anything negative that occurs to them on other people.

People may believe that bad things are always happening to them or that other people are out to get them.

According to the nonprofit Abuse Refuge, people who have been through trauma or abuse may see themselves as a victim and experience feelings of guilt or shame.

A survivor mentality may focus instead on overcoming trauma, knowing that the experiences were not their fault and that they are resilient enough to adapt.

People with a martyr complex, on the other hand, are self-sacrificing and focus on serving others even to their own detriment.

How does martyr complex differ from savior complex?

A savior, or Messiah, complex is the belief that a person needs to save others and that they are a savior or will be in the future.

People with a savior complex or a martyr complex may both sacrifice their own needs for the needs of others.

People with a savior complex may do it because they believe it is noble, whereas people with a martyr complex may look for praise through serving others.

People with a martyr complex have a pattern of self-sacrificing behavior and consistently put the needs of others before their own.

If people have a martyr complex, setting clear boundaries and practicing self-care may help. People can also speak with a mental health professional for support.