Recently, I picked up a book called 'The Anger Diet' from my local second-hand book shop. (I know, I start a lot of my articles that way - ask my husband what a fortune I'm costing him with my obsessive reading habits. But I digress.)
Anyway, this book had a few interesting things in it, but the main 'Eureka!' moment showed up in the section on guilt, where I read the following:
"One of the main consequences of being in a relationship with a martyr is feeling guilt. Martyrs thrive on creating guilt in others, and love making others feel both guilty and inadequate. Implicitly they are saying, "Look how wonderful I am, and how poorly you're treating me."
I've been thinking about, and writing about, and talking about, guilt for years' already, but this was the first time that the penny actually dropped about what's really causing the guilt in the first place.
Once God very kindly made that connection for me, I started to see the scourge of 'suffering martrys' much more clearly, and I started to appreciate the tremendous damage they do to the people around them.
You see, nothing is ever enough to assuage the obvious pain of the suffering martyr. They sacrifice SO MUCH for you, at such high personal cost, and then you let them down by not being perfect; or not always doing what they want; or not always giving them what they expect.
So you walk around feeling permanently flawed, 'not good enough' and a burden to these people who obviously care for you SO much, and who you are always letting down and disappointing (normally, just by breathing).
To make things worse, you can never discuss the dynamics of your relationship with the suffering martyr, usually for two key reasons:
1) You bought into their 'perfect' pity party a long time ago, and it's unthinkable that the suffering martyr's own behaviour or attitudes should be somehow causing you problems; and
2) If you dare to mention that hanging out with them is not making you feel so good about yourself, you'll get another huge, heaping dose of toxic guilt aimed at you (implicitly), for being so ungrateful and complain-y.
You can hear it now, can't you?
"After everything I've done for you…"
"I have SUFFERED so much…"
"I can't believe MY OWN CHILD (spouse / friend / sibling / whatever) could say such cruel things to me…"
Or, there'll be the big, mournful, suffering look they'll shoot at you across the coffee cups.
But who's really suffering, here? You are. Who comes away from every encounter eaten up with guilt and self-loathing? You do. Who starts beating themselves up, and feeling like they never do anything right, and they'll never be able to give the suffering martyr in their life what they really deserve? You do.
And that's where some huge emotional problems can begin.
Here's the good news: you can fix the problem, and it doesn't need to take a long time, or be a long, drawn out process, once you manage to accept that you're actually not causing it. 'Talk to God and Fix Your Health' can guide you through most of the process of eradicating unhealthy guilt, and I highly recommend doing the course.
But in the meantime, let's try to sum up the problem and solution as follows:
That's it! And if someone starts making you feel bad about yourself again, you have my permission to make a guilt-free dash for the exit, as fast as you can.