How are professional martyrs and professional victims different? Or, to put it another way, what’s the difference between bad shellfish and bad pork? Both are toxic and will likely make you sick, albeit in different ways. Professional martyrs and professional victims are like dysfunctional kissing cousins.
Ultimately, they’re more similar than dissimilar. Both professional victims and professional martyrs can be highly emotionally manipulative and passive-aggressive. Professional martyrs and professional victims share the same aims. Namely, they seek attention, admiration and dominance over others via their respective martyr or victim shticks.
The differences and similarities between professional martyrs and professional victims.
Over the years, the professional victim has been a frequent topic in my work. While I haven’t focused on professional martyrs as much, these individuals are similarly destructive in relationships. They’re also similarly annoying, similarly toxic and similarly pains in the butt.
Professional victims are wolves in sheep’s clothing. They play the victim when, in reality, they’re often the aggressor in most conflicts (i.e., DARVO). Typically, professional victims feel victimized by accountability, consequences and exposure for their manipulative, exploitative, aggressive and/or predatory behavior.
Facts are personal attacks to professional victims.
The tendency for interpersonal victimhood, which Gabay, Lifschitz, Hameiri and Nadler (2020) “define as an ongoing feeling that the self is a victim, which is generalized across many kinds of relationships. People who have a higher tendency for interpersonal victimhood feel victimized more often, more intensely, and for longer duration in interpersonal relations than do those who have a lower such tendency.”
Gabay et al (2020) reviewed literature on victimhood “in the clinical context as a personality disorder” and “the social context of intergroup conflicts.” Their findings show “that both individual-level victimhood and collective victimhood are composed of four related dimensions: need for recognition, moral elitism, lack of empathy, and rumination.” Most interestingly, Gabay et al’s findings show that “a victimhood mindset can develop without experiencing severe trauma or victimization” (Klar et al, 2013; Urlic et al, 2010).
The need for recognition.
In other words, they’re seeking attention and validation. Professional victims typically seek attention and validation from the person(s) they allege have harmed them, from their community and/or from litigation (e.g., family court).
Moral elitism is what I refer to as victimhood equals virtue. Except that it doesn’t. Presently, our culture sees victims as inherently virtuous. Haven’t we all seen women who claim to be victims use it as a cudgel to claim moral superiority and silence anyone with differing opinions and/or evidence that shows otherwise? Gabay et al (2020) refer to this as “the perception of immaculate morality of the self and the immorality of the other side.”
Lack of empathy.
This dimension is so important I’m quoting all of the Gabay et al literature review findings:
Lack of empathy refers to an oblivious reaction to others in general and to their suffering in particular. Clinical psychological thinking has argued that victimhood at the individual level is comprised of a preoccupation with one’s own suffering, and decreased attention and concern about others (Urlic et al, 2010). Empirically, victimhood was found to increase the sense of entitlement to behave aggressively and selfishly (Zitek, Jordan, Monin, & Leach, 2010).
Sound familiar? These findings support most of my clinical experiences with my clients who are targets of likely personality disordered professional victims. The findings also support the concept of DARVO (deny, attack and reverse victim and offender (Freyd, 1997). Freyd explains DARVO as:
DARVO refers to a reaction that perpetrators of wrong doing may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior. The perpetrator or offender may deny the behavior, attack the individual doing the confronting, and reverse the roles of victim and offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim into an alleged offender.
It’s quite a toxic brew.
Rumination is the painful continuous extreme repetition of a thought or behavior to one’s detriment. The Gabay et al literature review finds TIV rumination to include:
… a focus of attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and its possible causes and consequences rather than its possible solutions (Nolen-Hoeksema, Wisco, & Lyubomirsky, 2008). Victims tend to ruminate over interpersonal offenses (McCullough et al., 1998), which perpetuates psychological distress long after the experience of interpersonal stressors has ended (Greenberg, 1995) and promotes aggression (Collins & Bell, 1997)… Moreover, rumination over interpersonal offenses, which is associated with high-TIV, is likely to increase the desire for revenge against the offender (Collins & Bell, 1997).
Professional martyrs also see themselves as victims. However, they feel victimized when their seeming selflessness and all the things they do “for you” aren’t recognized, appreciated and revered to the lofty heights to which they feel they’re owed. Obligation and guilt, by the way, are the stock and trade of professional victims and professional martyrs.
Other characteristics of professional martyrs include:
Shameless self-promotion of their goodness, sacrifice and hardship.
If they’ve gone out of their way to help you or do a favor (whether you want them to or not), you will recognize it, (and so will every one else). Everyone will know how much they do for others. Ad nauseum, ad infinitum. This behavior is greatly amplified and self-reinforcing in the age of social media. For example, virtue signaling. And, this should come as no surprise, signaling virtuous victimhood is an indicator of narcissistic traits (Ok, Qian, Strejcek & Aquino, 2021).
Professional martyrs cultivate the persona of the big-hearted do-gooder or selfless self-sacrificer. An example of the former is the animal rescue nut. The one whose kids go without necessities, so mama angel horse rescuer can house and feed yet another animal the family can ill afford. An example of the latter can be seen in the social media posts of “warrior” moms of special needs kids who, in vampiric fashion, attention seek by using their kids’ issues.
If they can’t complain about how difficult and exhausting something is, it’s not worth doing.
Professional martyr moms can’t just throw a simple birthday party for their kids with pizza, cake and ice cream. There must be a theme. Gift bags for the attendees, games and costumes. Etsy-esque Instagrammable party favors. To achieve this, martyr mom guilt trips, whines, nags, shames and sulks until everyone falls in line. Her kids and husband will be grateful for everything she does even if it means everyone else is miserable.
Guests will marvel at the herculean effort that went into a party for a bunch of 3-year olds who’ll soon forget the event with the passage of time. That is, unless you’re the child of a professional martyr. In which case, you’ll be reminded of your mother’s efforts for the next 50 years or more until she draws her final breath. Along with how many hours she spent in labor, how many sleepless nights she spent sewing Halloween costumes and all the many things she suffered for your sake, you ungrateful child.
To clarify, this type of mother doesn’t do these things for her kids. She does them for her own ego aggrandizement and social image management.
You can never be appreciative enough.
The narcissism of professional martyrs requires regular recognition and appreciation. They’re ravenous for it. And, if they don’t get it as often as they think they should, there will be consequences. For example, whining, pouting and passive-aggressive or outright aggressive guilt trips and/or rages.
Furthermore, it isn’t enough to offer a single heartfelt thank you shortly after receiving their help or over the top displays of “selflessness.” You’re expected to offer gratitude for the rest of your life. This is regardless of whether or not you asked for their help.
In fact, professional martyrs become even whinier and more aggrieved when you’re not profusely grateful for gestures you a) didn’t ask for, b) didn’t want and c) impose upon you in some way.
You can never reciprocate enough.
Narcissists don’t give without expecting to get something in return. And neither do professional martyrs. Not only do they expect to be repaid, their “acts of kindness” come with loan shark level interest rates. Even then, your debt will likely never be expunged.
They keep a list of every “nice” thing they’ve ever done and then hold it over your head in perpetuity. Unlike professional victims, who excel at grievance gathering, professional martyrs obligation gather. They don’t selflessly do for others. They selfishly do for others because they want you to be indebted them. Obligation and guilt are how they manipulate, exploit and control others.
People who do for others out of a genuine joy of giving, don’t require recognition and admiration. In fact, people who are authentically generous and big-hearted tend to shy away from the spotlight. They don’t do it to feed their egos. They’re helpful to others because it feels good, instead of causing anger and resentment.
Being the hero or savior.
Wanting to be seen as the hero or savior of the relationship or the family is also about obligation as a means of control. Common refrains include:
- “If it weren’t for me, we wouldn’t . . . “
- “Because of my [sacrifice, hard work] you have/the family has . . . “
Professional martyrs want sole credit for anything good that happens to their partners and/or children. They single-handedly put a roof over their family’s heads (even when they don’t earn money). Your wife single-handedly saved the family from bankruptcy by working 10 hours a week to pay down the credit card debt she alone incurred.
If you or the kids criticize her controlling and self-absorbed behavior, then you’re ungrateful. What are you complaining about, adult kids?! You had food, clothes and beds to sleep in! Ungrateful bleepity bleeps!
Logic and accountability elicit martyr rage.
Should you try to set boundaries with a professional martyr, be prepared for the mother of all teary-eyed, sullen, pouty and/or rage-filled guilt trips. Perhaps you mistakenly believed telling the martyr that they don’t have to exhaust themselves by overdoing for others would make things better.
In other words, you encourage the martyr to stop taking on so much and overdoing. The rationale being they might feel less anger and resentment if they didn’t cause themselves so much unnecessary stress. Typically, doing so has the opposite effect. Not only will encouraging them to do less be unhelpful, they will guilt trip you and martyr harder.
You’ll be accused of being ungrateful, not caring, selfishness, blah, blah, blah. But who’s really being selfish? The professional martyr.
To clarify, not everyone who engages in these behaviors and mindsets has some kind of character disorder. It could be non-pathological immaturity. Or, an attempt to compensate for not having the “perfect” family as a child. It could also be a symptom of an unhealthy dependence on social media for validation and worth.
If it’s not a personality disorder, you should eventually be able to reason with and appeal to your spouse’s empathy and shared desire to improve the relationship. Non-disordered people actually care if their behavior is hurtful to their loved ones. Also, they’re more likely to agree to seek help to address their issues. If the professional martyr behavior stems from narcissistic or borderline psychopathology, the prognosis is probably poor.
To clarify, if this resembles your relationship with a partner or parent, it’s unhealthy. If the other party can’t or won’t recognize how destructive their behavior is, you have choices. You don’t owe it to them to continue to suffer their abuse. You make not like your choices, none of them are easy, but you do have choices.