What is a Martyr Complex? - Definition, Psychology & Treatment

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  • 0:02 Martyr Complex
  • 1:30 Psychology
  • 2:32 Treatment Options
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Quentin Shires

Quentin has taught psychology and other social science classes at the university level and is considered a doctoral colleague at Capella University.

In this lesson, you will learn what a martyr complex is, how it is defined in psychology and what treatments are available to help people overcome unhealthy behaviors.

Martyr Complex

Soren Kierkegaard, a famous Danish philosopher, once said that, 'the tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins'. This exactly defines the complex disorder of a martyr. A martyr complex is present when a person routinely emphasizes, exaggerates, and creates a negative experience in order to place blame, guilt, and sorrow on another person.

An individual might desire the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or prosecution because it either feeds a psychological need or a desire to avoid responsibility. Let's use the wife of an alcoholic husband as an example of martyrdom. In this sense, the wife will continue to blame her husband for the illness of alcoholism. However, she will continue to enable her husband's drinking and complain about it to friends and family, while not doing anything to change the situation.

Another psychological term that defines a martyr complex is codependency. Codependency occurs in relationships in exactly the same manner as martyrdom and is often found in relationships and families that suffer addiction from alcohol and drugs or mental health and chronic physical health issues. Like the martyr complex, codependent relationships are often one-sided, full of guilt and shame, and reliant upon an unhealthy behavior.

The Psychology of a Martyr Complex

Martyrdom was first recognized in Catholicism, where in the first and second centuries, Romans would put Catholics to death because of their faith. This led to the definition of a martyr as being someone who would die for their faith. Today, a martyr complex is still seen in some religious groups. However, it tends to be more extreme than usual. A good example of this is the militant Islamic State, where terrorists sacrifice themselves and other people for their religion.

A martyr complex can also be seen in families and relationships. Although this type of martyrdom is not extreme and people aren't necessarily murdered, it still can lead to the destruction or death of a relationship.

Certain characteristics can help identify someone who has a martyr complex. These people tend to exhibit different psychological traits that follow the pattern of the disorder: Low self-esteem, an exaggerated sense of responsibility to others, fear of being abandoned and difficulties adjusting to change.

Treatment Options

There are many treatment options for individuals who suffer from martyr complex. These include psychotherapy, self-help groups and psycho-education or group therapy.

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