Self - Sacrifice: From the Ultimate Virtue to the Martyr Complex


From the Ultimate Virtue to the Martyr Complex


Self -Sacrifice as a physical act

Self-sacrifice has always been highly appreciated and valued as a phenomenon across many cultures, in the human history. It is considered to be an act of complete selflessness and altruism, especially in Christianity. The acts and narratives of self-sacrifice define to a point the morals and ethics of a society. The ones who sacrifice themselves for someone they love, or someone they do not even know or for a higher goal, are considered to have obtained the ultimate virtue. The examples are numerous, from Jesus Christ who gave his life to save the world to more “everyday” self-sacrifices like mothers who give their lives to save their children, people who get into the flames to save others and people who die in order to protect their faith or their ideals. All of them are examples of people who literally give their lives away in order to save someone else or fight for their ideals.

Acts of actual physical self-sacrifice are many times disputable nowadays, especially when it comes to ideals or religion but when it comes to saving someone else’s life by giving yours, you almost indisputably, become a hero. It is not my current goal to expand on the issue of whether physical self-sacrifice is actually an act of an ultimate virtue or a morally disputable act. I, personally, find it a highly sensitive and complex issue that raises lots of ethical and philosophical questions. What concerns me is self-sacrifice at a symbolic level, as a daily way of living. What does this self-sacrificing way of life mean for someone’s well-being? How does it influence the way that someone is making contact with his or her environment?


Symbolic Self-Sacrifice

As, I just mentioned, my goal, in this text, would be, to take a better look into the daily self-sacrifice. But first of all, how is self-sacrifice defined? According to multiple British dictionaries, self-sacrifice is defined as the giving up of one's own interests or wishes in order to help others or to advance a cause (Merriam-Webster; Oxford Dictionaries; Cambridge Dictionaries). But what does it happen when we sacrifice our interests and our wishes, our dreams and our desires on our daily life? Is it then an act of virtue? And if yes, is that applicable for all the cases of self-sacrifice?

My opinion is that the answer cannot be that simple. Personally, I find that acts of self-sacrifice can vary from being indeed virtuous acts of selflessness to being an indication of a personality disorder. My concerns regarding self-sacrifice are related to the cases where “self-sacrifice” can be used as an alibi to avoid personal responsibility for your life, or means of emotional manipulation of your environment, or in most cases both at the same time. In popular psychology, someone can find the aforementioned behaviour as part of someone’s “Martyr Complex”. A person who has a martyr complex desires the feeling of being a martyr for his/her own sake, seeking out suffering or persecution because it feeds a psychological need [Martyr Complex. (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2014 from Wikipedia:]. But who is more prone to choose for a self-sacrificing martyr-like life?  


Self-Sacrifice as a way of being in women

The practise of self-sacrifice on a daily-life basis is a more intense phenomenon in women than men. Women many times have been and are viewed by society as more passive and self-sacrificing rather than aggressive and assertive, in contrast to men (Baefsky& Berger, 1974). Many generations of women took and still take in lots of introjects, regarding their role in society, which involve embracing self-sacrifice as a lifestyle. Women “must” many times sacrifice their needs and desires if that is required for the sake of their husbands and their families and especially for the sake of their children. In many societies this is considered to be the right thing to do, what is expected from women. In these contexts, taking care of yourself as a woman, can be viewed as egocentric and selfish. If these actions of self-sacrifice were genuine, I guess there wouldn’t be a problem, but when it is a kind of a forced value, it stops being a virtue and starts being a neurosis. Self-sacrifice then becomes an unhealthy forced introject, that doesn’t allow the organism to fulfil its needs. The person instead of being aware of his or her needs is stuck in this unhealthy pattern of contact with the others. As a result, healthy growth is inhibited and the organism starts filling up with lots of unfinished business, which can consequently lead to many problems. 


Self-Sacrifice as an Alibi

What I find highly problematic is that, in many cases, the person performing the self-sacrificing actions can use the self-sacrifice as a way to avoid taking personal responsibility for her or his own life. In reality the person denies the true self, she/he ignores their true needs and chooses to put others first. That can be many times a lot easier, than finding the strength to discover what you really want and go after it. The person also gets some sense of value by serving others. He or she can feel moral and helpful maybe even irreplaceable, but is that enough? Especially, when the environment does not seem to recognise or appreciate the sacrifice, the person loses possibly the only meaning attached to his/her life. The people, who live their life in that way, are highly likely to develop feelings of bitterness and is often headed to depressive symptomatology or disorders.


Self-Sacrifice as means of manipulation

A constant living of self-sacrifice can also become a way to “buy” an eternal right to claim that you always are the virtuous one, the right one. This is usually accompanied by a mentality of self-victimization. People trapped in that mentality believe that their suffering will be rewarded, so in reality they do the “sacrifice” waiting for something in return from the others and when that does not happened they feel used, which gives them an even further sense of being the virtuous one, of being a martyr. In that way, self-sacrifice can be a way to emotionally manipulate or control your environment. But then the true meaning of self-sacrifice is lost, as in reality it is not such a selflessness act.

Self-sacrifice is a virtue when it is not accompanied by hard feelings or expectations. Choosing is loosing and in that case you choose somebody else’s interest or a higher goal and loose something “yours” because that is more meaningful and more self-fulfilling for yourself. 

Electra MatsangouComment