I have a lot of experience dealing with martyrs because I am one. I am that mum who takes on too much and then self-flagellates by taking on even more. I am the mum who says, “oh, it’s no bother” when clearly it is very much a bother. I am a martyr mum.
Does this sound familiar: “OH, don’t worry, kids, MUM will pick up your shoes, seeing as it’s the maid’s day off and all.” Or how about this: “Yes, I sympathise with your lack of sleep, I haven’t slept since 2004 and even then I had to drug myself with five chardys, half a bottle of port and a Baileys.” Or even this: “Enjoy your night out with the boys, honey… you always do!”
The shrill “I’llllll do it”, the wounded, “Am I the only one around here who….”, the bitter, “I must be mad to have taken this on!” Martyrs are everywhere you look, flogging themselves tirelessly in the mines of self-sacrifice.
Historically, martyrs are amazing, but everyday martyrs are so annoying, right? They drip passive-aggressiveness and leave steaming blobs of self-pity wherever they go. Their mouths are fixed in a sadly-not-silent scream for help, but don’t be fooled: you can’t help them. They simply won’t be helped. They are too busy falling face-first into the giant hole they’ve been busy digging when nobody else will.
So, if we can’t help them, at least we can help ourselves. Here are my best tips for managing the martyr in your life (maybe it’s you?).
1. Take back your power
Martyrs do what they do because they believe that no one will like them if they are not willfully sacrificing themselves for the good of others. Once people cotton onto this fact, they stop letting the martyr in and this proves to the martyr that no one will like them if they aren’t doing things for others. It’s kinda sad, but that’s the pickle they are in. The key here is to take back your power right from the beginning. If I were my kids, I’d pick up my shoes so I’m not giving the martyr mum the fuel to flagellate. If I were the sleep-deprived mother of a newborn, I would begin every sentence with, “I know you’ll understand me when I say…” and if I were the husband heading out for a night out I’d say, “I’ll go this time, then you go next time.”
2. Rip off the band-aid
If you’ve got a friend you really like who just can’t stop doing the martyr thing, you need to rip off the band-aid. Tell her, “I really love you, Myrtle, but I don’t love the way you keep doing things you don’t really want to do.” Myrtle needs to get off the bus and let someone else do the driving. Challenge Myrtle to a week of no self-sacrifice. Instead of picking up the shoes, encourage her to say, “Please pick up your shoes, kids” and to her friend, she’ll say, “I know what it’s like to be sleep-deprived, how are you coping?” and to her husband she will say, “Have a great night out, honey.”
3. Praise them, but not their behaviour
The last thing you want to do is make a martyr think that being a martyr is rewarding. It’s not. It’s a toxic bomb of untold destruction. But here we are dealing with a person who wants to do well. No matter that they are going about it in a frustrating, manipulative way, unlike our terrifying bullies, rude bastards and newborns, martyrs really do mean well. So find good stuff about them to praise – stuff that has nothing to do with the thing they are martyring over at the time. So Myrtyle is bleating on about staying up until 3am to make cupcakes from scratch with flour she milled herself for the school morning tea again and rather than say, “Oh Myrtle, you do so much, you shouldn’t do so much, poor, selfless Myrtle!”, you say, “For a gal operating on 3 hours sleep, you look great, Myrt!”
4. Do not, under any circumstances, try to fix the problem
I mentioned this upfront, but I’ll say it again because it’s very, very important: the martyr does not want your help. They want your sympathy, they want your validation, they want your undying devotion, they do not want your help. Martyrs crave recognition, not solutions. Remember, they actually feel superior to you because they are doing life so much harder and better and more. They have researched every article, read every book, experienced every experience and tried every damn thing. Trust me, they don’t need your help.
5. Steer the conversation away
If Myrtle just won’t shut up about what a fool she is for taking on an extra project because she’s already doing too much on her current project that she took on because Bernard couldn’t handle it, shut that shit down immediately. “Project? I watched The Project last night and they had on this little lamb riding a bicycle. I loved that lamb. The bicycle was red. Oh look, there’s Bernard, gotta go.”
6. Better yet, steer them away
Really, the best way to help a martyr is to give them something worth martyring about. Something that benefits the greater good. Since the martyr truly believes that they can endure more hardship and effort than ordinary folk, gently suggest that that’s exactly what they should do. “I know who would be awesome hosting the annual fundraiser: MYRTLE! She’s so good, she can do it all by herself! No, REALLY, SHE CAN!” and “Only you can do the proper job here, Myrtle, we’re really relying on you to bring this aircraft home.”
Got a martyr in your life? Any other strategies for coping?Revoluzzza. Suse’s pics of her softies have been illustrating the Difficult People series since 2010. Thank you, Suse.]