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Why Being a Martyr is Selfish

Image of Saint Sebastian being shot with arrows

I get it. I totally do. And as a reformed martyr I will be preaching the loudest.

Playing the martyr is the ultimate selfishness, and it is exhausting for those who love you. Your inability to create and maintain your own boundaries leaves everyone around you feeling drained.

Your refusal to prioritise your own wellness drains the vitality of others.
I was sitting for a meal the other day and was surprised when I noticed suddenly everyone brandishing knives. We were lynching one particular person and everyone had a stab at her. Some of the knives were subtle and clever and slipped between her ribs. Some people got out pitch forks and just went for it.

I have reflected a lot on that conversation in the last few days, and it wasn’t until yesterday when I was listening to my favourite audio* for the tenth time that I twigged:

  • She was being lynched for doing the very thing they all resent the most.
  • She was seen as being brazen and rude for asking for what she wants.
  • She was seen as being selfish for saying no to requests that were not convenient for her.

I don’t see the problem here!

See, those of us who take responsibility for asking for what we want, and declining what we don’t, have a lot of respect for others with their own boundaries. It is only someone who has poor boundary control that resents the boundaries of others.

It is actually very simple. Take responsibility for your own needs being fulfilled. If you want a particular gift – ask for it. If you need help, let someone know. When someone offers help, say a clean yes “yes please, I would appreciate that”. If you don’t want to do a particular chore every week, speak up.
DO NOT be the person who offers to take care of everyone else then slowly builds resentment.

I used to be a martyr, I would put the needs of others before my own. I remember in particular at one point my ex and I were going through a really rough patch. We were on the rocks and had just discovered a dear friend of mine had terminal cancer. That same week his brother had a fight with his partner and moved in with us. He didn’t contribute in any way. In the middle of the night another friend showed up who was speaking of leaving her partner because he had thrown her into the fence. She stayed too. We were completely maxed out, and not coping well.

He and I would often discuss the poor behaviour of the people in our lives, how they used us, how it always seemed to be us that rescued people, and then we wouldn’t hear from them until the next crisis.

It seems like a distant world to me now. I am so clear in what I can and can’t do for others. I know that my love for people can lead to me emptying my own cup, and so I have rules.

  1. I don’t say “yes” to anything on the spot (at least not often, and).
  2. Sometimes I have to call people and let them down. “I am so sorry. I said I would do this for you, and I really didn’t give it the consideration it deserved. Please ask me again at another time, but this time I simply can’t manage it with my other commitments”.
  3. I presume that the offers made by others are genuine, and do not second guess their capacity to deliver.
  4. I call bullshit when I smell it. “Yes I suppose I can” or “It will be fine” won’t fly with me. Don’t do me any fucking favours if it means I have to put up with your pissy attitude!
  5. I am clear with my language. I don’t hint at needing help, I am specific about the help I need.

Guilt and resentment are two sides of a very ugly coin that only has currency in the world of the martyr. When you take responsibility for your own boundaries, and demand that from others too, we can all take our relationship to a new level. Who are you to presume that someone has no other options? Who are you to take away their opportunity to explore those?

In the wise words of Brene Brown “Choose discomfort over resentment”.