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Overcoming the Role of Victim or Martyr

Chapter 7: Overcoming the Role of

Victim or Martyr

Tools for Relationships

By: James J. Messina, Ph.D.


What is the difference between being a martyr or a victim?


Martyrs are people who recognize they are being taken advantage of and choose to remain in the situation.

Victims are people who are taken advantage of but are unaware of being treated as such. Once victims recognize that they are being treated unfairly, they have the choice of remaining in the situation or not. If they stay, they risk becoming martyrs.


Martyrs are those who recognize that their rights are ignored and abused but choose to remain in the situation and continue to be treated this way.

Victims are individuals whose rights are ignored and abused but were unaware that they would be treated in this manner before they entered the situation.


Martyrs are people who let others know how unfairly they are being treated but choose to remain in this unfair position.

Victims are people who let others know they have been treated unfairly. They have the chance to leave or change the situation in which they have been victimized. Victims often suffer silently for long periods of time before they are able to verbalize the unfairness of their life situations.


Martyrs often knowingly continue to enable or set up situations in which their rights are violated or ignored. This setting up is like a prediction or prophecy of failure into which, consciously or unconsciously, the martyrs play, fulfilling the prophecy.

Victims often unknowingly set themselves up for continued abuse and violation of their rights. They are often confused and bewildered as to why this occurs. They lack insight into the actions that bring on this abuse.


Martyrs often seek sympathy for their plight. They seek support, advice, and help from others. Yet they seem stuck in their current course of action and seem to be unable to resolve it.

Victims frequently never seek help. They are often frustrated and lost as to what needs to be done to get them out of their current situation. Once victims have been offered help and make a conscious choice to remain stuck in their situation, they become martyrs.


Martyrs frequently let the people whom they feel are taking advantage of them know how badly they are being treated. Martyrs often resort to badgering, nagging, scolding, threatening, belittling, antagonizing, and verbally putting down those whom they perceive to be taking advantage of them.

Victims rarely let the people who are taking advantage of them know how they feel about this treatment.


Martyrs often believe it is their obligation to remain in their position in life. They would feel guilty if they let go of the current situation. They fear taking the risk to change the situation. They are apparently comfortable, habituated, or submissive to the situation and believe a change would be worse for them and for the others in their lives.

Victims often want a change and are desperate for a solution to their situation. As soon as a victim gives in to a situation, choosing not to resolve or correct it, they become martyrs. The saying, If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem, applies to the martyr's state in life.


Martyrs have a story line which is stereotypic and habitual. They rarely change their tales of woe. One can meet them several years later and find them still suffering from the fate they were experiencing when you last talked to them.

Victims experience their plight temporarily, get help, and are more apt to get out of the situation. If after getting help and changing, victims experience the same problems later, they could be martyrs at that time.


Martyrs often mask their behavior with an aura of willingness and desire for behavioral change in their lives. Usually they are only fooling themselves, since the others in their lives can see by their behavior and attitude that there is no possibility of change.

Victims usually are open and honest about their discomfort and willingly seek behavioral change. Their sincerity is easily perceived by others due to the actions and behavioral changes that take place.


Martyrs are professional help seekers. They make the rounds of paid and volunteer helpers, advice givers, counselors, consultants, anyone willing to listen to their tale of woe. Unfortunately, they usually ignore the assistance, advice, or direction they are given. This frequently results in their helpers giving up on them in frustration and discouragement.

Victims, on the other hand, seek help in a crisis only after the pressure of their problems becomes too great for them to bear. They are highly motivated for a change and are rewarding people to work with as they and their helpers witness the benefits of the help, advice, and direction given.

A comparison of victim and martyr characteristics
Victim: Usually has short-term problem
Martyr: Long-term problem

Victim: Motivated to change
Martyr: Stuck in their problem


Victim: Rights violated by others
Martyr: Rights violated by others


Victim: Did not choose the problem
Martyr: Chooses to remain in problem situation


Victim: Never complains
Martyr: Complains all the time


Victim: Lacks insight into problem
Martyr: Frequently has insight into the problem but does not act on it


Victim: Unknowingly plays an active part in the problem
Martyr: Frequently knowingly plays an active part in the problem


Victim: Doesn't often seek help
Martyr: Seeks help all the time


Victim: Wants to let go of problem
Martyr: Holds on to the problem


Victim: Guilt free
Martyr: Guilt driven


Victim: Solution oriented
Martyr: Problem oriented


Victim: Powerless due to lack of knowledge
Martyr: Powerless out of a free will choice to be so


Victim: Unique problem
Martyr: Stereotypic and habitual problems


Victim: Sincere desire to change
Martyr: Mask of sincerity


Victim: Honest to self and others about the problem
Martyr: Dishonest to self and others about the desire to change


Victim: Hesitant to get help
Martyr: Seeks out help habitually


Victim: Reticent to talk about problem
Martyr: Relishes the attention received in talking about the problem


Victim: Embarrassed about the problem
Martyr: Wears problem as a badge of courage (purple heart)


Victim: Wants a quick solution to their crisis
Martyr: Creates crises out of everything but blocks all solutions


Victim: Open to all new ideas

Martyr: Holds a yes…but attitude to all new ideas

What are obstacles face victims and martyrs?

Victims often:
  • Lack the knowledge that they are being taken advantage of by others.
  • Are so used to a certain way of being treated that they don't recognize it as unhealthy for them.
  • Lack healthy self-esteem or self-concept’s.
  • Have little belief in themselves.
  • Come from high stress families where their rights were never respected; therefore, they lack the competencies, skills, and abilities to stand up for their rights.
  • Lack information about assertive behavior and have no experience in using assertive behavior.
  • Lack others in their lives who can point out alternative healthy solutions to their problems.
  • Are timid, scared, and suspicious of help being offered to them.
  • Are skeptical about someone really wanting to help them.

Hold to some of the following irrational beliefs in their lives:
  • You must be nice to everyone, even if they are not nice to you.
  • Life is supposed to be filled with unhappiness and uncertainty.
  • The small guy never wins.
  • This is the way things are supposed to be.
  • There are winners and losers in all transactions between people.
  • My role in life is to be a loser.
  • Most people are basically selfish, mean, self-centered and disrespectful.
  • You should never complain.
  • Take it like a man (woman)!
  • Be silent with your feelings.

Do not stand up for their rights because they suffer from the irrational fear of:
  • disapproval
  • rejection
  • conflict
  • taking a risk
  • the unknown
  • change
  • confrontation
  • being overwhelmed emotionally and physically
  • loss of self-respect
  • making a mistake.


Martyrs often:

  • Are so caught up in their problems that they convince themselves no solution is possible.
  • Know they are being abused but are so used to it they can't visualize life any differently.
  • Lack healthy self-esteem and self-concept.
  • Lack belief in themselves or in others.
  • Had martyr role models in their families of origin and do not see their own behavior as maladaptive.
  • Lack knowledge of assertiveness and may be either extremely passive or overly aggressive with their antagonists.
  • Have exhausted all of their outlets of helpers
  • Find helpers hesitant offer assistance; the resistance and yes…but statements are too much.
  • Manipulate their helpers. At first they are cooperative, open, verbal, and apparently honest in their assessment of their problems. However, once an objective helper begins to point out the martyr's contribution to the problem, they feign newer, bigger, and more complex problems to keep the helper's focus off of them.

Hold to some of the following irrational beliefs in their lives:
  • You must be nice to people no matter how they treat you.
  • Everyone needs me and they would be lost without me.
  • I am depended upon.
  • It is my role to keep everything together, no matter what price I have to pay.
  • This is the way things are supposed to be.
  • I can never win in the situation I am in, but I can't leave it.
  • I must find a way to pay back those who hurt me.
  • I never get angry; I just get revenge.
  • My behavior is healthy, OK, but misunderstood by others.
  • The louder I complain, the greater the chances of being heard.

Do not take the action required to resolve their problems because they suffer from the irrational fear of:
  • letting go
  • taking a risk
  • feeling guilty
  • being blamed for the problem
  • being seen as the real problem
  • being ignored in the future
  • being happy, peaceful, or content
  • change
  • loss of approval
  • losing the person(s) who are taking advantage of or abusing them

Steps to help you decide if you are a victim or a martyr and how to change your behavior

Step 1: Make an honest assessment: Are you a martyr or a victim in the problems facing you? Study the comparisons and characteristics listed above to help you recognize your behavior. Complete the following statements in your journal:
  • I can honestly say that I am currently functioning as:
  • (1) a victim, (2) a martyr, (3) a little of each, (4) neither of the above, but as a  ____________(specify).
  • I know I function this way because:
  • My current problems include:


Step 2: Once you have identified the role you are playing in your current problem(s), identify (in your journal) the obstacles keeping you from moving forward:

  • As a (victim/martyr) I am faced with the following obstacles to correcting my current problem:
  • I have the following irrational beliefs:
  • I have the following irrational fears:
  • Obstacles include the following lack of knowledge, information, behavior, and attitudes:


Step 3: Once you have identified the obstacles, utilize the following skills and principles presented in the Tools For Coping Series:

  • Refuting Irrational Beliefs [Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 2]
  • Self Affirmation [Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 3]
  • Risk Taking [Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 8]
  • Guilt Reduction [Tools for Personal Growth, Chapter 4]
  • Letting Go [Tools for Handling Loss, Chapter 8]


Step 4: If completing Step 3 does not create a change in your behavior, try one of the following alternatives:
  • Ask the people in your life if they see you acting as a victim or martyr regarding your current problem. Share this material with them to help their response. Use their feedback to assist you in clarifying your reactions to your problem. Use their feedback to motivate a change in your behavior.
  • Take an informal poll of people as to which role they would prefer to play in life: victim or martyr. In your poll find out what their perceptions are of the two roles and the differences, if any. Ask them to clarify which role is more respected by others. Finally, have them give you examples from literature, history, TV, movies, or real life of classic victim and martyr role models. Once your poll is completed, review your data. Decide from your findings which role you currently are playing. Use the results of the survey to motivate a change in your behavior.
  • In your journal list the pros and cons of continuing your current course of behavior (be it victim or martyr). Use the list to assist you in deciding to change any unproductive pattern.
  • List those who will be affected if you cease being the victim/martyr. Next to each name, list the positive and negative consequences a change in your behavior will have on their lives. Use this listing to assist you in recognizing that those people will survive your change in behavior. This is designed to motivate you to pursue the necessary changes in your behavior
  • Make a personal inventory up to this very moment in your life as to the benefits and deficits of the pattern of behavior you live, be it victim or martyr. List what you gain from playing this role. Also, list what you lose as a result of playing this role. List what you will lose or gain in the future if you change this role. Use this inventory to stimulate change, since you will have begun to desensitize the fears that are obstacles to change.


Step 5: If Steps 1 through 4 are unsuccessful in motivating a change in your current behavior pattern, you may need to seek professional help. Review Steps 1 through 4 with such a helper.