Most of my recent essays have been triggered by magazine articles—the paper kind no less. The March 2017 edition of Real Simple, had an article entitled, How to Conquer the Martyr Complex. The author Ingela Ratledge begins her essay with the following statement: Some highlighted quotations follow, but I recommend reading the entire article for the parallels between D/s and martyrdom.
Overdo. Complain. Repeat. Sounds like the worst motivational slogan ever, right? Welcome to how I roll. Biting off more than I can chew is standard procedure for me. (“Sure, I can volunteer for the spring carnival and make a résumé for my niece and cook multiple options for dinner!”) And so is feeling fried and resentful later on. I’ll corner my husband for a thorough debriefing on my saintliness, hoping he’ll be overcome by a powerful mix of gratitude and admiration (gradmiration, anyone?). Instead, he typically says, “Oh, you didn’t have to do all that.”
Of course, he’s right. In addition to juggling life’s many nonnegotiables, I’m taking on tons of extra-credit assignments—and accomplishing them through gritted teeth. I’m being…the M-word.
I have plenty of company. We’re surrounded by folks who perpetually sacrifice themselves and then kvetch about their lot. The question is, to what end? I get zero thrills from playing this unwinnable game of whack-a-mole. I’m weary of holding a grudge against those who swan around unburdened by phantom obligations.
“The concept of self-sacrifice can be found across all religions and cultures,” says Candida Moss, PhD, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Myth of Persecution. “If you live in the Western world, you are still influenced by the social values that mattered thousands of years ago.” Yep, she adds, even if you’re an atheist: “Dating back to ancient times, martyrs were regarded as brave, virtuous, and strong.” The critical difference is that historical martyrs, like Joan of Arc—as well as more modern martyrs, like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela—had higher goals. “Real martyrs stood for something,” says behavioral science expert David Emerald, cofounder of the Bainbridge Leadership Center. “For them, the suffering was not the point—it was secondary to their fight, and that’s been misplaced in current culture.”
But why are some of us more susceptible to this messaging than others? Much of it boils down to basic issues of self-worth. “Typically, martyrs don’t know how to validate and love themselves very well,” says Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist in San Jose, California. “They feel that their value is in serving others—so if they stop doing that, they will have no value.” Alas, altruism and ulterior motives make strange bedfellows, which is why bending over backward doesn’t offer a golden ticket to the promised land. Says Martin, “Martyrs don’t get a lot of warm feelings from doing good deeds.” So what’s keeping us in this racket? Partly it’s a matter of control. “Martyrs think that if they don’t do something, it won’t get done,” says Mazer. Or at least not properly. “The martyr operates on the assumption that he or she knows best and has the answer rather than an answer,” says Emerald, because the alternative—that our contributions aren’t actually essential—is downright destabilizing. “It’s a stab to the ego to admit that the world does not depend on you,” explains Emerald. Also, funneling the bulk of your energy into external situations provides a handy distraction: It gives you a pass on addressing your own vulnerabilities, goals, and shortcomings. How could you possibly be expected to finish that master’s, quit a job you despise, or make it to the gym when you’re so busy taking care of everything else?” “As a martyr, you don’t have to take personal responsibility,” says Mazer. “You can project your unhappiness and blame outward.” You may be trying to cover up the fact, says Garcy, “that you have no clue how to get from where you are to where you want to be.”
I will raise my hand and admit freely that I am a martyr of long-standing suffering both in my personal and professional life. I have always thought of myself as worthless, and have never been able to love who am I. I’m the worker bee/drone who does everything without asking, follows the rules, and then stews volcanic-like inside when nobody else gives a shit and I wind up mopping the floor of someone else’s mess. It has taken being out of work for the past 19 months to realize that I’m only responsible for my own actions and ethics.
Tomorrow is our 30th wedding anniversary, and for the entire time—plus the nearly two years we were dating—my wife has been ill, sometimes critically. For the past 19 months, I have been her 24/7 caretaker at home. The specific reasons and medical issues are not important, but she has been near death at least a dozen times since we’ve been together. In fact, when she was seven-years old, her parents and she were told she wouldn’t survive to adulthood. She’s now 53. Ironically, having been nursed by me, she’s in better health now, than at any time in the past. Going to the hospital only makes her sicker. The next hurdle is the possible amputation of her left leg below the knee: She goes back and forth on her decision; but it is her decision, not mine and not her doctors’. I fully support her no matter what happens.
What I took from the article in terms of similarities to D/s, is the way both Doms and subs struggle with doing it ‘right’ even more so than perfectly. Self-worth, and the lack thereof through depression, plays an outsize role in submission. The opposite, arrogance, leads many Doms down blind alleys where they abandon their subs for not being good enough for them. Whether you’re a Top or bottom, if you don’t realize that the world not only isn’t going to stop for you, but could care less about your accomplishments, then you’ll continue to be disappointed and upset when the people in your life don’t constantly pat you on the back. A simple thank you should suffice… or a good spanking.
Probably the most positive aspect of D/s though, is when both partners drop the resentment of martyrdom and make the effort to do things not for praise, but because caring for the other is the right thing to do. If both the Dom and sub take responsibility for themselves, instead of waiting to be rescued, and from a position of personal strength, use that self-confident energy to prioritize their partner’s needs, then both will want to keep caring instead of keeping score and holding grudges. Didn’t get spanked last night? It’s not a crisis. Forgot to take the trash out? The next pickup is fine. Didn’t notice the kitchen floor was waxed? Likely a rough day at the office.
Partners doesn’t mean clones. Men and women are different. Doms and subs are different. We all have different parents, different upbringings, different beliefs, different desires: We are each of us unique. The weaknesses and strengths are different as well. Have you ever given a gift without expecting something in return? Remember how good that felt? Maybe you paid for someones meal, or helped someone to cross the street. I know I’ve given directions hundreds of times before for the sheer pleasure of getting a smile of relief in return. I have to keep reminding myself that I don’t need to jump up and down waving ‘look at me, look at me’ every time I do something good.
Being a martyr leads to bad choices. Life is crappy for most people most of the time. We martyrs ruin the few happy moments by obsessing over what we should have done differently, said more eloquently, reacted more politely; instead of moving on, we squirrel away the slights—both real and imaginary—until our blood pressure nearly bursts our poor hearts. In a D/s situation, this doesn’t happen [shouldn’t happen] because there are protocols in place to prevent an escalation of emotions. Many times, an instant swat on the backside will serve as a placeholder until time is available for a real spanking. To be submissive means that martyrdom is no longer allowed and ranks right up there with back-talking, sulking and other forms of verbal and non-verbal communications that disrespect the D/s compact.
Note: I did not say disrespect the Dom. Being a martyr is not directed at others, it is aimed solely at self. The self that believes they will never be good enough, and are constantly letting others down by not working harder and better. When a submissive says to their Dom; ‘I’m a burden’, ‘I’ll never be what you want’, ‘I don’t know why you stay with me’, ‘I hate myself for feeling this way’. Those are all spanking violations. Write ’em a ticket, flip up the skirt, yank down the knickers, and give your sub a nice, long spanking for disrespect. How hard is up to you, but in this case, actions speak louder than words, although re-enforcing the discipline with loving praise will help to overcome the desire for self-harm.
Hi, my name is Lurv Spanking. I’m a recovering martyr. It’s been one year since I last hated myself.