Thinking back at your childhood, you may realize that a lot of time was spent instructing you how to get along with the others. And yet, surprisingly little attention was paid to how you get along with yourself. It is not so strange: in order to be a member of any community or society you need to learn how to submit your personal will to the communal one. Otherwise you become “asocial” and unwelcome. But if you torture yourself , no matter how harshly, you can still be a highly functioning member of any society. Frankly, no one truly cares if you criticize yourself. Especially if like most of us you do it in the isolation of your inner world.
I called the following TIIPS “Making peace with yourself”. Indeed, in my decades of psychiatric practice befriending oneself is probably the most universal goal of any human intervention. It is possible, and easier to achieve than is commonly believed. You do not need to spend 10 years untangling 10 years of self-hostility. The ratio is in your favor and the progress is exponential once you get ”the hang of it”!
The “Martyr” Syndrome: Sacrificing your needs for the Communal ones. The case of “Marcia”
Marcia is a 46 year old, mother of three. When we first met, Marcia described herself as being selflessly dedicated to her family. She said it gives her great joy to cater to her family’s needs and she feels no need to make demands on her husband and children. She said she does not need any reward; her sole gratification is to see her family happy. However, as is often revealed in therapy, beneath her seemingly cheerful facade, Marcia is actually bitter and depressed: By convincing her family that sacrificing her needs makes her happy, she conditioned them to accept her “services” as a matter of fact. For years, she partook in these family dynamics without any reservations. But recently, she finds herself getting upset with her family members for the most trivial reasons. She told me they constantly “get on her nerves”. Many evening and weekends, once a bastion of family bliss, she is sulking, feeling disappointed and empty. She feels that nobody in her family respects her, that they do not care about her and that she is “merely a maid” in her own house. When I met with her husband, he was very aware of this situation. He had been telling her for quite some time to start taking care of herself. He tried to convince her that their children and him do not really need this selfless attention from her. Instead of appreciating his understanding, Marcia responds in angry outbursts and hurt feeling: She accuses him of being unappreciative of her efforts; she feels her family does not need her, and grows increasingly morose at feeling disposable and useless. She often feels angry with herself for being such a “patsy”.
In midlife, Marcia finds herself trapped in her own lie. We are not meant to be selfless: Quite the contrary, our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves. When you think about it, the opposite of selfless is not selfish; it is self-fulfilled. Those who make selflessness a central virtue in their lives are locked in a paradox: they ostensibly fulfill their needs by denying them to themselves. Noble as selflessness may seem, it carries with it a concealed need: the need to be recognized as a “martyr” by the beneficiaries. However, the mere requirement for recognition spoils the mantle of selflessness which creates a “Catch 22”. By presenting ourselves as giving and kind to the exclusion of our own needs, we trap ourselves into maintaining an impossible image. Over time, our need for recognition of our sacrifice by those around us exceeds the others’ ability to be grateful: They simply get used to our generosity! Fulfilling others’ needs at the exclusion of our own, while contending ourselves with this position is humanly impossible. Sooner or later we find ourselves bitter and angry and trapped.
we can learn how to break away from the “martyr syndrome” and do it in a way that would not destroy the carefully crafted selfless image we have unwittingly created. Once the boundary between generous and selfless is clarified, the positive trait (generosity) rather the unattainable (selflessness) will reveal itself and the road to recovery is short. In that context, my work with Marcia was very rewarding. She learned that she is a generous and loving person and that “going all the way” is a millstone she had tied around her neck, unnecessary and removable.
Are you a “Martyr”? Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I consider myself selfless?
2. Do I often volunteer to do something for others even before being asked?
3. Do I often feel resentment towards those whom I volunteer to help?
4. Do I often feel I am being taken advantage of or exploited?
5. Do I ask people whom I help not to thank me since being helpful is my reward?
6. Do I feel that my efforts on others’ behalf are not recognized accordingly?
7. Do I often feel that people are ungrateful?
8. Do I wish I could break away from my image as a “nice person”?
If you answered yes to 5 or more of the above, you may suffer from the “Martyr Syndrome”.
There are several steps you can take on your own to get off the “martyr” perch:
Altruism is universally respected but rarely practiced. Somewhere inside our own needs vie for attention and make the sacrifice unsustainable over time. Martyrdom works only for martyrs, i.e., those who die through acts of radical selflessness. For the rest of us generosity should be good enough. I like to use the airplane safety instructions as a metaphor: You have to put the oxygen mask on first in order to effectively help the others. Only those who take care of themselves are free to take care of the others.