Managing the Martyr Complex
Keeping patient care from becoming self-sacrifice
Lori has worked in the ICU longer than anyone in the department, including the manager. She is an excellent clinical nurse who is well respected. However, she has a reputation for being a martyr. She often complains that she’s tired because she’s “always” sacrificing her time, energy, or lunch break to do everyone else’s job. After a crisis, she’ll say, “It’s a good thing I was here today. I don’t know what you all would have done if I weren’t.” But, while she brags about how great she is, she also complains the entire time.
The Martyr Complex is a recognized psychological disturbance that afflicts many caregivers. These sufferers have good intentions, but they insist on sacrificing their own needs to meet the needs of others. They are driven by conflicting feelings of victimhood and powerlessness.
Martyrs are often motivated by the attention they garner from their suffering and may go so far as to create opportunities to martyr themselves.
Granted, there are those in our culture whose extraordinary sacrifices in caregiving are honorable. Examples might be a man who has devoted his life to caring for a wife who suffers from a degenerative disease, or a daughter who leaves college to return home to care for a mother undergoing chemotherapy. These are special cases of people doing tremendous things for those they love; our hearts thank these noble caregivers.
However, extraordinary self-sacrifice is not appropriate for professional nurses.
While it’s true that caregiving and empathy are everyday tasks for nurses, these aspects of the job need to come from a place of balance. No one benefits when nurses exhaust themselves to the point of breakdown. Boundaries are an important part of the job.
Signs of Martyr Complex
In my workshops with healthcare leaders, a common complaint I hear is that some employees are fixated on who does the most work. This preoccupation is one of the signs of a nurse with a martyr complex. They are constantly saying things like, “That’s okay. I’ll do it. I’m the only one around here who seems to care about these patients.”