The martyr persona is a well-known and reviled archetype in our modern collective consciousness. Because we live within oppressive structures that are heavily influenced by objectified, commodified, monotheistic, and male-centered religious overtones, it’s not surprising that the commonly-depicted martyr is a female-bodied person; specifically, a mother. Perpetually over burdened, constantly exhausted, demand-sensitive, short-tempered, narcissistic, and dramatic to the extreme—she can shame you into feeling bad about anything you try to do.
I was raised as and have mostly identified as a female, even as I struggled with what that meant for the more “masculine” and blended parts of me. I currently identify as androgynous; however, both main branches of my martyr persona feel “female” to me.
One of them arose in response to physical incest with my father and the societal training that followed to manifest as a sex object for male-bodied persons to project their desires upon.
The other arose in response to emotional incest with my intermittently-single mother, her leaning heavily on my executive function to support her, and the training that followed to manifest as a productive member of the capitalist machine.
Since both of these branches were oriented toward and bent in service to male-dominated structures and desires, what follows is presented in a gender binary where the martyr’s gender is female and the other’s gender is male. I *have* met male-identified martyrs, though in my experience they tend to be less common.
My mother and the women of my family all had deeply-entrenched martyr personas. I definitely have one, and I’ve spent a lot of my time in holistic peer counseling learning as much as I can about her facets. There are many, some of which I’ll discuss here.
My martyr persona manifested as a reaction to sacrifice extracted through oppression made possible by the skewed power dynamic present in my traditional, nuclear, patriarchal family.
She is my most durable and deeply-seated control pattern. She is my psyche’s attempt to claim some measure of control in situations where her No is not heard. Situations where she isn’t seen as fully human, but as an object; a means to an end. That end is the primacy of someone else’s desire or unacknowledged need for attention.
Wounded families, ravaged lives
In my case, that someone was my parents, neither one of whose wounds got the attention they needed to heal before conceiving me. At 21 and 22 years of age, they were still struggling through the morass of having been dis-empowered and unseen by their own parents. And so once they had me, they unconsciously sought ways to feel powerful: by subjugating and extracting attention from someone more vulnerable. Someone dependent on them for survival.
When children are born under duress—either as a result of rape, a sense of familial obligation, or a desire to fit in with societal norms—they cannot be seen in their complete complexity. Their needs cannot be wholly considered as valid, their pain cannot be felt as fully real, and their resistance to arbitrary demands is coded as defiance that warrants punishment.
These are the historically invisible and unacknowledged wounds of the nuclear, patriarchal family. They destroy families, and ruin opportunities for true, embodied relatedness and inter-personal intimacy.
They also need tending, as all wounds do; they are seeping pus, open and viscous. Someone is needed to tend the wounds of our entrenched familial structures. Someone needs to take responsibility for the heavy sins of rape, violence, and displaced shame. That someone is the martyr.
The martyr is slowly ground down while bearing and being blamed for the sins of man. Adding insult to injury, she becomes complicit in the act of her personal annihilation by learning to hide her mirror. Because she does not believe in and cannot claim her power, she is forced to make the impact of men’s actions invisible. She cannot confront him because he wields more power than she does, and all the structures are on his side. The brothers have stacked their deck well.
I say No, but no one listens.
My boundaries are not worth respecting. They are “preferences,” not needs.
I am an accessory, a support system, a vessel to be filled with someone else.
I don’t have needs or desires, don’t feel pain.
Tell me what you need.
The martyr and the scapegoat
A martyr is defined as someone who is killed for their religious beliefs.
A scapegoat also has religious roots; according to Leviticus 16 of the biblical old testament, it was “a goat sent into the wilderness after the chief Jewish priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it.”
It’s interesting to me how these two concepts have seemingly become enmeshed over the centuries; how the lines between their meanings are blurred. Because the flavor of my martyr persona’s pain aligns with being scapegoated. And to my seeing, this resonates with what Jesus the Christ was, in parallel to being martyred for his rejection of the existing Jewish faith.
According to the biblical new testament teachings of my childhood, Jesus “died for our sins.” The scapegoat was driven away to the desert (killed) while carrying sins. It’s a new versus old testament battle of symbols.
Now, anyone raised in a monotheistic western church knows that women are more sinful than men. They are, in fact, defiled from the moment of their birth because (1) they bleed (and have the audacity to create life) and (2) they allied with the serpent (kundalini) aka Satan in the garden of Eden.
My body internalized the church’s teachings as “because they are wicked, filthy, and innately more sinful, women are forced to carry the burden of sin while men get to be free.” And since they’re free, they also get to dispense salvation while hoarding the weapons and holding the purse-strings.
The privilege of the male-bodied is in getting to blame the female-bodied while wearing the guise of magnanimous generosity.
So, here’s something that rubs me raw. To my read, Jesus the Christ was totally genderqueer. They embodied most of the traits that the patriarchs disdained and judged to be “weak.” They lived with and loved whores and savages, stood up for the poor and children, rejected the trappings of power and influence.
For me, Jesus’ queerness manifested in how they represented the most powerful and feared parts of humanity: the traditionally “feminine” parts. They loved unconditionally. They accepted people for who they were right now in the moment while holding the view of their perfection. They literally put their body on the front line against entrenched power.
And they became a legend. So powerful a legend, in fact, that churchmen had to write whole books full of lies to cover up and explain away what they could never understand because they disavowed living bodies and chose to eroticize a dead one.
From the perspective of my martyr persona, she was created to be a scapegoat, but claiming the title of martyr gives her power.
Scapegoat me long enough and I will not only identify with the role, I will claim the title with pride, step into its power, turn it around, and make you pay every day for the rest of your miserable goddamn life.
The pain of resentment
The martyr is obligated to prioritize the other’s desires to the exclusion of her lived, embodied reality. In the face of other’s needs she can have no wants. She learns to pretend that her needs don’t matter. She learns to eroticize the experience of disembodiment. She swallows her disappointment, attempts to smile, and grimaces inside as she pretends the acid doesn’t burn her gut.
But there’s a price. Every facet of her psyche that gets splintered, every disowned need, every swallowed gob of bile comes back as resentment. She is fucking angry and resentful and wants SOMEONE to pay for how much she hurts.
Her pain is the most important thing in the world; its embedded in her skin, has become enmeshed with her organs and bones. As a result, she needs a high degree of control around how people interact with her pain body. Her pain must always be the most important thing in the room. Her suffering trumps everyone else’s.
I’ve learned that when I’m in my martyr persona, I don’t believe other people are real. Not real like my pain is real. And because they aren’t real, their pain isn’t real either. They’re making it up in a pathetic attempt to grab my attention, which I am so fucking loathe to give. No one else’s pain should get any attention, EVER.
And when my martyr sees a chance to get attention, she grabs it. She is a viciously desperate opportunist who can turn almost any situation around to focus on her suffering and/or what a despicable creature she is.
You want to talk about the hard day you had? (EYEROLL) Hers was worse.
You got a really bad headache? (GIVE ME A FUCKING BREAK) Child’s play compared to hers.
You want some intimate sexy times? (I HATE YOUR UGLY BODY) She will break down in a deflective orgy of self loathing, sobbing, and shame.
YOU WILL NEVER WIN
Are you my mommy?
To my current understanding, my martyr persona is a byproduct of enmeshment, primarily with my mother. She represents the apex of my mother wound. I’ve felt her formative tendrils stretching back to infancy: when I was a colicky baby born to a young, anxious, lonely, first-time mother living far away from her family of origin with an abusive sociopath.
My mother had desperate, palpable needs she couldn’t claim or speak, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be felt. That their desire for ultimate fulfillment couldn’t be inferred, alluded to, and passively-aggressively pushed into the room for someone else to pick up on.
Baby Chrissy learned that she could ease mommy’s anxiety by doing certain things, like crying less. While it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision, as I grew older I learned to ensure my mother felt cared for and loved so that I could feel safe. I prioritized her needs over mine because she had more power than me; because my survival depended on her.
She had the power to feed, clothe, shame, and nurture me (or not). I did not have equal power to her, but because she and I were enmeshed—both believing at some level we were the other—she transferred her power to me. She gave me the power to make her feel better.
But I couldn’t always, nor did I always want, to make her feel better. And over time I resented her for needing me to. I didn’t want to be her mother, I wanted HER to be the mother! So, I acted out from a place of hurt, resentment, and anger. Of course, because she’d given me the power to make her feel better, as my outbursts intensified and I got physically stronger, she ultimately became afraid of me.
Afraid of the power I had over her, which she had unconsciously given to me from the place of her own dis-empowerment. I felt obligated to take care of and “mommy” her, as the one “in power.” But she was still the adult, which meant she had the actual structural power.
This also meant the other adults in our world would side with her to oppress and take advantage of their children to get their needs met, men and women alike. Because they couldn’t see themselves as separate from their own parents; hadn’t yet done the work of individuation, and so couldn’t acknowledge how much power they forced us to bear in service to their wounds.
The power to discipline with love
Enmeshment will cause us to confuse judgment for discipline. —Nekole Malia Shapiro
When my mother didn’t do the work to individuate from her parents and claim her own power, she ended up giving it away to those around her. Some of it went to her abusive partners, and some of it went to my sister and I. I watched her model this and learned to do it, too. In my own life, whether I give someone my power or it’s forcibly taken, my survival then becomes dependent on that person and we reach a state of enmeshment.
At which point I am able to claim victim status. If you have all the power, I am a victim and without power. My martyr knows that if I’m a victim then you are the aggressor, and you’re responsible for causing my wounds, which means I can blame you.
When a parent projects their power onto their child and claims victim status, they can then justify judging and punishing that child.
A person in their embodied power (like I suspect Jesus was) knows how to discipline—how to disciple— people; how to flow in and with power. How to lead and model loving behavior by living it. A person without power is perpetually wounded and can claim power only through judgment. But judgment isn’t loving; it’s retributive and born of displaced pain.
Judgment kills. Discipline is born of love.
Through eight years of parenting, I’ve learned that I have to love myself and claim my power before I can discipline my child. If I hate myself and give my power to my son for him to manage, I’ll punish him when he fails to take care of my feelings with his actions. The martyr would have me believe he takes my power by force, that he’s willfully trying to fuck with me, and that I should punish him for being so selfish.
When I sit in a place of disowned self and power, every time I encounter my son being his whole, authentic, embodied, willful, loud-ass self, the martyr wants to lash out at and blame him for her pain.
How dare he be whole when I am so broken! How dare he scream and yell and dance and rage when I can’t feel anything!
Why does he get to have feelings?! I WANT TO HAVE FEELINGS TOO
On performing intimacy
Because I was incestuous with my father and because I was raised in a world focused on rape and conquest coupled with the wholesale denial of feminine erotic power, my martyr is also completely enmeshed with and in control of my intimate erotic body.
Intimacy is pain. Eroticism is pain. Sex is pain.
If it’s painful then there’s also an obligatory performance of enjoyment to cover up the pain and ensure the whole sorry act is over as soon as possible. A performance of appeasement tinged with exhaustion and resentment. A performance where the martyr tries to convince you she’s actually really into what’s going on. Whether it’s sucking your cock or allowing you access to her body, the martyr is performing.
In reality, she gives less than two fucks about you. But it’s important to keep up her end of the fantasy where she’s keenly interested in *LOOKING LIKE* she cares. She needs to make sure you don’t get ragey and blame her because she doesn’t seem to be enjoying your tongue acrobatics.
Keeping up the appearance of perfection is of critical importance to my martyr. So, she has scripted movements and phrases and sounds that she has learned are desirable during sex. She’s watched a lot of cishet male porn over the years, so she knows what a hot sexy woman is supposed to look and sound like. She desperately wants to appear “fuckable.”
These scripts help me cover up the fact that in human years my actual erotic body is four. Unfortunately, they also leave me feeling like a dirty liar and I’ve deeply judged anyone who couldn’t tell I was pretending to enjoy their amazing hot thrusting action oh yeah please please.
Because my martyr wasn’t allowed to nurture her own desires or passions, because she didn’t have an enlightened mentor who loved their body to show her how to honor and love her own body, she’s had to pick up (really shitty) coping mechanisms in her attempt to appear human. She’s incredibly lonely. She’s also ashamed by her lack of developed interests or hobbies, so she surfs off your interests and feigns fascination in then so you can’t see how empty she is.
Empty and alone. And crushingly sad. But she won’t tell you she’s sad. Nope. She doesn’t have feelings. Instead, she will inwardly seethe and try to get you to “figure out” what’s wrong by reading her mind because then she will know you really care.
YOU DO CARE DON’T YOU
WON’T SOMEONE CARE ABOUT ME