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by David Truman

A sad woman tells her support group that she feels like a martyr. The standard diagnosis is made: she is insufficiently selfish. The usual advice is given: "Learn to act with your own self interests at heart." So she tries to take the advice, but as she succeeds in becoming more selfish, she hurts herself and her intimates. She damages her relationships, and eventually, her fitness for relationships declines.
Martyrdom is a common problem today, one that the growth movement tries hard to solve. The basic prescription is, "Pay more attention to number one." By saying that, well-meaning helpers are unwittingly making a hell of a mess. The prevalence of martyrdom, the growing number of those suffering from it, and the negative side effects of the "cure" all point to some basic misunderstandings. Let's try to clear this mess up.
Selfishness, the standard cure for martyrdom, does more harm than good.
First, becoming more selfish won't fix martyrdom. It WOULD if unselfishness were martyrdom's true cause, but it isn't. Usually, martyrdom results from too MUCH selfishness, not too LITTLE selfishness. For example, consider the "people pleasing" pattern.
Most self-confessed martyrs say they are trying to break the habit of people pleasing. It is well known that people pleasers go to great lengths to please in the hope of being rewarded for so doing -- being liked, being accepted, being loved. These are fine goals, but they are selfish goals. Similarly, the hope of reward motivates martyrs POWERFULLY; insufficient reward is the martyr's lament. Surely their bitterness over lack of rewards and appreciation is sufficient proof that martyrs are selfish. Now we can see why the standard cure for martyrdom -- increased selfishness -- does more harm than good.
The helpers just say, "Self-love makes love work. You can't possibly love someone else if you don't love yourself." Then, on the strength of that unassailable logic, they launch directly into an argument for a self-centered life. DON'T BUY IT! Evolution is not about becoming more and more selfish. We must maintain a clear distinction between the progress of ego and the progress of spirit. Under the (mis)guidance of therapists and support groups, millions of people have practically made a religion out of the pursuit of self and self-interest. Consequently, many have grown too selfish to be fit for real intimacy of any kind.
"Nobody can come into my life," the reformed martyr proudly declares, "unless they are prepared to let me do for me, and let me pursue my own interests almost all the time." Without a doubt, a person needs to have a personal life, a personal agenda, and personal goals -- and to be sanely committed to "number one." But as an obsessive life mission, the pursuit of self-interest degrades love, creates ethical problems in dealing with the needs and reality of other people, and leads to dysfunction in relationships. Nobody tells you that, but they should.
Going to extremes
Of course, to have a personal or selfish interest in something or someone is no great sin. In serving or pleasing others, it is only natural, human, and inevitable to expect some kind of reward, and to hope that the exchange will be reasonably mutual. It is only when selfish investment becomes too strong that we exhaust ourselves in the service of others, and exceed our real desire to care.
Selfishness creates extremes of giving AND extremes of insensitivity. It drives us to extremes to get what we want (or who we want). First, the greater the perceived potential for reward, the further we exceed our usual limits -- which is exactly what we later regret. Then, blinded by selfish desire, we overlook the will of others, thrusting our attentions upon people who do not appreciate them, or who can't adequately respond.
Now it is clear how REDUCING selfishness is the best cure for martyrdom. When our self-interest is less, our awareness of others is greater. Our respect for the will of others is greater as well. Consequently, we no longer force our attentions or "gifts" on individuals who are not prepared to reciprocate.
The quality of giving
Is the person who "gave too much" actually keeping score too much? Maybe THAT's why they're not appreciated enough!
Everyone loves, and loves deeply. Hence, people pleasing or martyr-like behavior is never entirely selfish, never completely devoid of love -- there is always a significant love component there. We are considering matters of DEGREE here. It is the DEGREE of self-interest behind the martyr's giving that reduces the perceived quality of the gifts, and so diminishes the appreciation they inspire. When a gift comes with strings attached, it feels more like a bargaining chip than a true gift. Although a martyr may correctly feel, "I gave so much, and no one appreciates it," perhaps he has been sabotaged by his own selfishness. "Giving so much" is a consideration of the QUANTITY of giving, not of its QUALITY. However, the response to gifts is inspired more by their quality than by their quantity; more by the motivation behind the giving than by the gift itself. The claim of giving too much implies heroism, which is good, but it also suggests score-keeping, which is something quite different. As you know.
The martyr may overestimate the selflessness of his actions, but people can sense his motivations anyway. If a person gives you a rose largely because he wants something from you, you will be less appreciative of the gift. And consequently, you may be less inclined to reciprocate for it. That is why selfish behavior -- no matter how abundant -- brings relatively little in the way of reward, and commands relatively little in the way of respect and appreciation. Unselfish behavior inspires a higher quality response.
If we feel lousy as a result of giving, then we didn't give in the right spirit.
If we feel lousy as a result of giving, then we didn't give in the right spirit. When we feel like martyrs, thinking that our loving and giving behaviors have gone sadly unappreciated, we ought to examine our motivations more deeply. Perhaps rather than saying, "I gave so much," we might more accurately admit, "I made a strong effort to get what I wanted, by doing what I thought I had to do to get it." It helps to realize that what a martyr describes as unrequited love may, in fact, be more like unrequited selfishness. (Maybe requited selfishness might be most accurate -- that is, we have been selfish, and our loved ones have been selfish in return.)
The reward of real giving
Contrary to popular thought, selfishness does not further anyone. The best that selfishness can achieve is RELATIVE relief. In turning to self-centered, solitary pursuits, a person may relax selfish demands and expectations upon others. That reduces anxiety and inner disappointment, but it doesn't create anything good. That's why the people who are supposedly blissful in steadfastly pursuing their own goals are almost invariably dry as crackers.
The motivation to serve selflessly comes as "standard equipment" with every human heart.
To find the loving rewards and appreciation you yearn for, first find your selfless motivation to serve. You'll have no trouble finding it, because the motivation to serve comes as "standard equipment" with every human heart. In happy service, you'll get rewards. The old saying is true: real giving is its own reward. When we give selflessly, we experience INNER gratification -- feelings of inner happiness and peace that we just don't get when we are hoping for outer rewards.
Appreciation, too, will come. A gift given in a true spirit of selflessness is likely to be appreciated. But again, when the spirit of selflessness is real, you will not be giving in order to be appreciated; your need and demand for appreciation will decrease. You will be fulfilled by the inner bliss and peace that results from loving truly (which is to say, unselfishly). Please tell a friend.


by David Truman

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