A series, inspired by the CNN special, dedicated to race related identity issues concerning Black people in America.

The Martyr Complex

In Psychology there is a personality theory called the martyr complex or the victim complex. This complex is characterized by an individual who, seeking validation, acceptance, and love chooses to sacrifice themselves for another person’s happiness. They do this willingly but on an unconscious level so that if they succeed it was an act of generosity on their part but should they fail, they are able to escape criticism and responsibility for having chosen the endeavor.

People who suffer from a martyr complex choose intimate relationships with people who are abusive, manipulative, and difficult. They choose these people (unconsciously) because these relationships offer the greatest reward should they succeed in changing that person and making them good and having that person praise them for their efforts. The other side to the these choices in relationships is the fact that these individuals’ self esteem is based on what other people think of them. Therefore, they expect people to appreciate them for having chosen such difficult relationships and, at least, attempting to reform these bad people.

The Glory of Martyrdom

In the Black community it has become a badge of honor for one to give their lives for another. I think the development of this notion is multifaceted. I believe that it partly comes from the roots of African ideals, which holds family in high regard. 85964Another part comes from the effects of slavery and the loss of family ties, which also makes the connection to family important to Black people (the concept of family is subjective and often includes friends, community members, as well as blood relations). Add to that the Christian ideal that there is no greater love than to lie down one’s life for another, which due to slavery  is ingrained into the Black psyche.  Therefore, it is not surprising that family and the willingness to sacrifice, even unto the point of death, for ones loved ones is a strong concept for Black people.

Black people have (at some point) begun to correlate the martyring of ones self with the vindicating ones love for another. Often when we hear Black parents give evidence of their success as parents, we hear them give evidence of their love for their children by how much they are willing to give up for those children and how much they have sacrificed for the good of the children. For Black people martyrdom has become an act of love and, now, when Black people want to express or give evidence of how much they love someone, they reference all the things they have sacrificed in that person’s honor.

The Cost of Martyrdom

The most interesting ting about the martyr complex is that while, on a superficial level, it appears to be an altruistic sacrifice that an individual is making, it is actually a calculated move. The individual is seeking to manipulate or guilt the other individual into some act or behavior that indicates appreciation and gratitude (often unto the point of indebtedness or servitude) to the one who has made the sacrifice. For example, an individual may give a loved one their last dollar (despite the fact that this will mean that the individual may go without certain necessities to do so).


That is not so bad; however, the sacrificing individual usually has an unspoken expectation that this person will do the same for them one day or that the person will appreciate this act to such a degree that the person will pledge an undying loyalty to the individual. When this does not happen, the sacrificing individual feels slighted, taken advantage of, used, or betrayed. The person will, then, feel completely justified in proceeding with severe acts of cruelty or in completely dismissing the person from their intimate circle, because they believe this person has proven to be unworthy of their love.

If this was a true act of sacrifice, there would be no expectation. The act itself would be gratifying enough to justify having done it. The fact that these sacrifices come with silent expectations and costs are what make the acts inspired by the martyrdom complex self-gratifying more so than self-sacrificing.


The Price of Martyrdom

When one decides to lay their life down for another, they are willingly giving up something that is extremely valuable to them. The martyr complex twists this fact by placing an expectation on the person who is being sacrificed for. So inevitably the martyr ends up losing because the on thing that would have justified their sacrifice and made it worthwhile is not always attained.

Often these martyrs blame the other individual and begin to resent (if not hate) that individual. They often cannot see that the choice was always theirs to make and not a requirement. They believe so strongly that self-sacrifice is the only real evidence of true love that they cannot imagine how they might have truly loved this individual without having to sacrifice some part of themselves. This, ofcourse, is in complete contradiction to the way love works. This drives them further from the love, gratitude, and appreciation they seek because love is not beholden. Love seeks no other reward other than itself. Love does not make a condemned prisoner of a lover. in fact, it liberates the lover through the bond (not bondage) that is created.

That is why we see so many Black lovers who are jaded, bitter, wounded, suspicious, and loveless. They wander around leading with their wounded hearts (I would say pride) seeking someone to pity, appreciate, or lick their wounds and help them justify their sacrifices because the one for whom they made the sacrifice that did not pay the cost is a bad person. This cycle continues until the martyr has nothing left to give or decides that they are not willing to continue to sacrifice themselves for everyone they love. The problem is that this decision is often accompanied by a severe distrust of love and potential romantic partners and a cynicism that further alienates them from the love they seek.

The Point

We have to start building ideas about love and dedication that are not based on one’s ability to self-sacrifice. We have to create and generate ideas about love that are affirm life and creation. Love should not degrade, humiliate, exploit, torture, and murder. It should never be a requirement of love or a loved one that they should give all of themselves at any cost. Why would we ask that of anyone we truly love? That is like pushing a person into traffic because they said they loved us and wanted to see how much. It says more about the lack of understanding of love that the asker possesses than it ever will about how much that person loved the asker. No greater love have a person than to give life to the ones they love…and that does not always require the sacrifice of another life. To be sacrificed for is one thing. To demand a sacrifice is another thing entirely.

I’m not sayin; I’m just sayin,

An Angry Black Man

  1. Osage Dior says:

    I really enjoyed this essay…It is so true…self-sacrificing and love within the black community has gone too far…Love does not equate to pain, not to say that it’s going to be easy…but too many of us feel that if it doesn’t hurt or if we are not up crying at night, something is wrong…we have embraced the dysfunctional aspect in relationships…and now we need to go back to to what love is… “Love seeks no other reward other than itself…”…sacrifice does not automatically come with the deal…unless you are doing it from a place of integrity…not manipulation…

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