Understanding the Martyr Archetype

Written by on June 28, 2012 in On Archetypes

The Martyr Archetype

It is important to remember that all archetypes are neutral. They are not good or bad. They are patterns of behavior and when we are unaware of them, they fall into shadow. The shadow is not bad,  it simply hides the behavior from our awareness. When it is hidden in the shadow behaviors run amok. Archetypes are a means to understanding motives. When you understand your motives you are in a position to make choices.  When you are unaware of your behavior you don’t have any choice but to keep behaving in the way you have been behaving. Becoming conscious is recognizing your power to choose.

Shadow Martyr

Manipulation and Control

The Shadow Martyr uses sacrifices as a way to control and manipulate others. They use it to induce guilt, (children are especially vulnerable to this) to dominate others, such as making the sacrifice the focus of everyone’s lives whether they agree or not and to position themselves as superior. Much of their suffering is self-induced. For example, a Martyr will give up their dreams, i.e. getting a degree, having children, owning a business, etc. for the other person or people for which the sacrifice is being made. But giving up their dreams causes bitterness, resentment and anger that other people are forced to deal with. It is a form of self betrayal that punishes everyone. 

Getting Stuck

The Martyr is easily stuck in a negative pattern because the Martyr really believes they are doing the right thing even at the expense of their own creativity, health and well being. The Martyr uses sacrifice and suffering for others to hide their unwillingness to develop their own lives and cultivate their own creativity. Martyrs spend their lives rescuing, fixing, supporting and giving up what they want for others all the while expecting others to do the same for them. Martyrs will sometimes allow themselves to be the scapegoat for situations-taking the blame for others, feeling responsible for others’ actions, and allowing the finger to be pointed at them, never defending themselves. Martyrs seem unusually eager to be at fault, requiring them to even greater degrees of self sacrifice and suffering entrenching the Martyr in the shadow.

Feeling Unappreciated

Martyrs have a crippling need for validation, appreciation, sometimes sympathy, acknowledgement, reciprocation and support. There is a strong belief that if you give enough, sacrifice your desires in a big enough way, if you suffer only for the good of others, then you will be appreciated and given the recognition you crave. The irony is that the Martyr has difficulty receiving even the praise and appreciation they long for. The Martyr feels they must take care of everything and everyone, yet they refuse to receive in return. Their constant sacrifice and giving permits them to manipulate and feel superior to those they are helping, even as they complain about how deprived they are. They are impossible to satisfy. If the Shadow Martyr feels that you are unappreciative of them, (and they always will) they can become distant, cold and resentful.

Sacrifice =Worth

Far beneath the surface of the long-suffering Martyr is a deeply dysfunctional relationship with the Self. They often feel unworthy of happiness, joy and opportunities and will routinely sabotage. They give and give and find it very difficult to receive and sometimes they believe that receiving is of no value. The desire to sacrifice usually stems from a poor self image and lack of control. While they are quick to take responsibility for this they simultaneously feel powerless to change it. Only suffering and sacrifice make them worthy of anything although it is never quite enough. Suffering can be a way for the Martyr to feel special. Because of this Martyrs often find themselves in co-dependent relationships where the other partner may use flattery and guilt to keep the martyr giving. If you find yourself in this kind of a relationship transforming the Martyr will be particularly difficult. At its worst, the Martyr is fanatical, self-righteous, self-centered and controlling.

The Enlightened Martyr

Doing What’s Right

The core of the Martyr archetype is about doing the right thing. Sometimes that means doing the right thing when the whole world is against it. The enlightened Martyr asks the question: What is right for me? What is right for me to do for others? What would be of benefit for everyone? The enlightened Martyr can see what needs to be done to benefit the whole and is excellent at recognizing the opportunity to give. The Martyr is also aware that receiving graciously allows them to continue to serve and sacrifice. They know that giving and receiving go hand in hand. When the Martyr sees what needs to happen they can make the CHOICE to sacrifice without expectation of others or feeling obligated themselves. Sacrifice by choice is the mantra of the enlightened Martyr.

Strength to Sacrifice

The Martyr knows they have the strength to endure, where others may not. They willingly step into that role with humility and integrity. They realize that part of their life’s journey involves sacrificing for others and doing so brings them a sense of purpose and joy. The Martyr does not, however, sacrifice their own values, their personal dreams and aspirations, their creativity or self care. They have healthy boundaries and they know that they can only truly serve and sacrifice for others when they have their individuality and sense of Self intact.

Self Acknowledgement

The enlightened Martyr knows how or has learned to validate themselves. They do not seek it from others and are not needy of praise and approval. The Martyr recognizes the value they bring to their families, businesses and those people for whom the sacrifice is being made.  They are often the rock upon whom so many others rely. The Martyr knows that their sacrifice matters and that they can be a source of redemption for others as well as for themselves. They know instinctively that they are a source of strength for others and they see their ability to stand at the center, even to be invisible at times, while supporting others. That is not to say that they don’t enjoy being acknowledged and appreciated by others, (no one will enjoy it more) they just don’t NEED it.

Personal Empowerment

The Martyr can use their great strengths for personal empowerment. One example would be to sacrifice the ego and to resurrect the true Self. Another would be to sacrifice approval and acknowledgement to do what they believe is best for their own self- respect. The Martyr at its very best is noble, selfless, reliable and strong, able to endure great suffering without becoming embittered by it.

Examples of Martyrs

Nelson Mandela and Apartheid

History is full of examples of individuals or groups of individuals who made great sacrifices for the good of the whole. Nelson Mandela is one example. He stood out publicly against apartheid in South Africa between the 1940’s and the 1960’s and was sentenced to life in prison. He was imprisoned for twenty seven years before his release during which time his reputation grew. He consistently refused to compromise himself and his political position to obtain his freedom. After his release he was elected President of South Africa and he helped bring freedom and democracy to the country.

Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul Women’s Suffrage Movement

Another example is the women of the suffrage movement. There are dozens of examples of Martyrs in the movement. Women like Susan B. Anthony. She gave up everything traditional for a woman of her day, including children, in her quest to bring rights and freedom to women. She died shortly before seeing her lifelong efforts rewarded.

Alice Paul was another leader of the women’s movement for equality. She spent time in prison on a hunger strike and was force-fed through a tube. She was an  incredibly strong woman and held the movement together when it threatened to fall apart. Both women represent the enlightened Martyr archetype. They were self realized, uncompromising individuals that changed the world for women everywhere.

Ghandi, Joan of Arc, and many others sacrificed and suffered for the good of others and for the good of humanity.

Questions for understanding the Martyr Archetype

  • Do you think that is it better to give than to receive?
  • Are others more worthy to receive good things than you?
  • Do you feel that you don’t deserve happiness unless it is earned?
  • Is it necessary to sacrifice in order to have the good things in life?
  • Do you find yourself feeling resentful about a sacrifice you have made?
  • Have you willingly sacrificed in an attempt to win love or approval?
  • Do have many unfulfilled expectations of others?

If you answered yes to most or all of these question it is highly likely that you have a Martyr archetype.

You may not have the Martyr if you:

  • Just like sympathy or pity or need lots of attention from others. (Child)
  • If doing more makes you feel more valuable and doing less makes you feel less valuable. (Prostitute)
  • You give and sacrifice in order to avoid trouble and/or criticism. (Victim)
  • Willingly to do anything for acceptance, even if it means compromising yourself. (Prostitute)
  • Suffering or sacrifice as penance or punishment. (Victim)

Resources and further reading:

Carolyn Myss– CMED Institute and Sacred Contracts

Carl Jung-Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

Ambika Wauters- Chakras and their Archetypes

Carol Pearson

Julienne Givot’s Website


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  1. Debbie says:

    If you recognize the shadow side of this archetype in yourself, what could you do to neutralize it and allow yourself to receive instead of always taking on the sacrifice? I can find information about it, but not much practical advice in how to deal with it?

  2. Susanna says:

    Thanks for the questions Debbie. To answer your question in a word-awareness. Neutralizing an archetype allows you to no longer be controlled by it. Then you can choose how you would like to respond. Awareness is everything. Noticing what you are doing and examining the motives for it is the first step. At first you will only notice what you have done after you do it. After a bit of practice you will begin to recognize the behavior while doing it. Finally, with a bit more noticing you will have a brief window right before you act when you become aware of your power to choose. It is in this moment that you will be able to choose a different way. Awareness is the beginning point for any meaningful change in one’s life. The inclination to use the archetype in the positive is as much a part of oneself as the inclination to use it in the negative. Once you have the power to choose, your choice will be quite natural.

  3. Debbie says:

    Thank you very much. I do notice this type of situation when I am trying to make changes-the point where you stop and think, although it is very brief, immediately before you act. So, if it is a matter of recognizing the pattern and then eventually being able to make changes based on a new choice, then you should really be conscious of your behaviors and actions. That would be the strategy, right?

  4. Susanna says:

    That is it exactly. It isn’t hard at all but it does take time and being vigilant. The change will happen on its own. Thanks again Debbie for your interest. If there are other archetypes you are interested in exploring just let me know and I will write an article about it.

  5. Debbie says:

    Wonderful! Thank you so much again for your help. I will let you know!

  6. Aimee says:

    This describes my mother, perfectly. I appreciate the new awareness of what drives my mom.

  7. Susanna says:

    That is so awesome! Using archetypes to understand and love others more fully has been a great motivator for learning about them. Thanks for reading Aimee!

  8. Sally Chalmers says:

    I was fascinated by your write up on Martyr Archetypes – specifically the ‘shadow’ Martyr. I’m having a very tortuous time in my marriage of 24 years and – although I’m by no means perfect – my husband ticks off all the boxes for this type of archetype and what my question is is ‘how does one deal with these types?’ We have 3 beautiful daughters and many blessings bestowed upon us and therefore there’s so much at stake here to lose but I have found it quite impossible to deal with him and my reserves are being depleted on a daily basis. I’m quite desperate for some advice here. Please help if you’re able. Kind regards, Sally

  9. Susanna says:

    Dear Sally, being married to someone who has this archetype in the shadow can be a real challenge. But the shadow martyr needs an audience so that their sacrifice doesn’t go unnoticed. Are you his audience? In my experience, trying to appease them only fuels the fire; taking on the shame that underlies their comments only reinforces their rightness or trying to match their suffering only creates more suffering for all. When you can see their behavior as an archetypal pattern it is easier to see the human being beneath the behavior. This can open up a space of compassion that will allow you to let go of his demands/self pity. There is a phrase that is credited to the Buddha that I have always found helpful in dealing with difficult relationships. “If you give someone a gift and they do not accept the gift, who does the gift belong to?” Although the term “gift” implies something positive the message is clear. Culturally we have a belief that we should accept the “gifts” we are given no matter what they are, we even unconsciously accept insults by engaging in argument! I have found that when I do not accept the role I am expected to play, when I do not buy into the storyline of the sufferer, then all of the drama and frustration is not mine, but theirs. They are left holding the offering because I have refused to accept it. We take on our partners expectations out of the belief that we are being good companions but I don’t think we can truly love someone unconditionally when we are fulfilling an obligation or an expectation. You can change no one but yourself, this I have learned painfully but truly. Focus on you. Let go of needing him to be different by letting go of the expectations he places on you and the ones you place on yourself. Let him learn his life lessons, they are his after all. What archetype is driving you? What archetype cannot deal with his Martyr? This can be truly liberating to discover because it places the power back with you. Out of great struggle comes great strength, so my blessing to you in your efforts. If there is anything I can do for you, please let me know.

  10. Beth says:

    I have been married 36 years and have just started exploring different syndromes to explain my husbands behavior. When I started feeling like a “victim” I became angry with myself and started to recognize that I was beginning to sound like a martyr. So I started paying attention, being self aware. I had just started accepting that there was a martyr syndrome when I stumbled on your article. It explains my husband to a tee. I have started reading a book on self empowerment and am in therapy but this has helped even more. Thank you.

  11. Susanna says:

    Thanks Beth, your comments are very much appreciated.

  12. kathie says:

    Your article on the martyr filled in some gaps for me. I look forward to reading more of your work. Thank you.

  13. Susanna says:

    Thank you Kathie!

  14. mega mills says:

    I have been the Martyr my whole life.
    I was the first child of a narcissist and a dysfunctional family. Childhood was sacrificed ..and I vacilate between this and a healer. As I am maturing I realizing I am no longer interested in being the martyr. It is thankless and it doesn’t end well. Thanks for ur post.

  15. Claudia A. says:

    Susanna, Thank you for your thorough description of the martyr archetype. I have been reading other authors but yours was very helpful. I have been an excellent martyr/victim in my friendships with women, needing their validation and recongition as I am hungry for that. In 2017 I intend to start looking at my distorted relationship to self that underlies this need. It helped me to read the qualities of the “enlightened martyr” because in that, I actually found an “out” with regards to my shadow side. I have a girlfriend whom I let use me, at beck and call for anything she needed (schoolwork, writing letters, helping her here or there, cooking for her). She calls, I come running. It never felt right. I am changing that now, but will do so slowly, to free myself of the need for her recognition. Thank you for putting your clear thoughts on paper. Claudia

  16. Susanna says:

    Thank you Claudia for your comments. I really appreciate that you took the time to share your story and your willingness to change.