This past week I realized there’s a difference between playing the victim and playing the martyr, which is a rather important distinction to know. Both behaviors are unhealthy, but one is sinister while the other is more self-deprecating.
Playing the victim is when you spin things to be all about you; you use something “bad” as a way to gain a sense of power or acceptance through sympathy. Some people might tell themselves they just want to feel like others love them when they play the victim, but it’s very mind game oriented and therefore unhealthy. It’s not even that hard to do. When I was a little kid I did it. For instance, when I had a stomach ache I would limp… because that’s what you do when you want attention. I wanted to know that my mom cared about me, but instead of saying to her that I was hurt, I acted hurt to test whether she loved me enough to notice. Not only did it make me look dumb – if your stomach hurts then why are you limping? – it was foolish because of course my mom loved me and wanted to care for me. I needed to stop with the mind game and be straightforward. Other people might act hurt so they won’t get in as much trouble: “You won’t yell at me for what I did if you think I’m in pain.”
Playing the victim is very passive aggressive and potentially very damaging. In one movie I watched, Goat, with David Duchovny (a movie I’d never recommend) there was a scene where a boy was crying because he failed a test and when his mom found out she fell on the bed with tears flowing and exclaiming how hard it was for her that he failed. She made it all about her when it wasn’t about her at all, and instead of showing her son love, she threw guilt at him like a child throws spaghetti. People who play the victim ultimately just want to wallow in their misery and feeling sorry for themselves. It can easily lead to depression and feeling helpless when there actually isn’t a need to because they’re just making life harder than it needs to be. I remember in 2008 I was volunteering in a grade seven class when I saw a student crying. I asked her what was wrong and she said her parents wouldn’t buy her a new iPhone; she was stuck with the smart phone she currently had that was still really good and way more advanced than mine. Oh, the trauma she had to endure. When I heard this, I had so much sympathy… for society that this was the future. She was playing the victim because she felt sorry for herself when there wasn’t a good reason to; she twisted things to seem terrible when they were fine. It’s like she just wanted something to complain about.
Playing the martyr is very different. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself, trying to gain power over others, or acceptance through sympathy; it’s more about just suffering. Playing the martyr means you don’t want attention for how you suffer, you’re just suffering in some way so others don’t have to, and it’s very passive. This is what really nice people do. Unfortunately, this can lead to unnecessary hurt and will likely add to anxiety, especially social anxiety as you soon become afraid to be around others because being around others means you’re going to have to suffer in some way. People who play the victim can also become socially anxious, but their suffering is more strategic in some way and about feeling like they deserve something: “Look what I did for you; you owe me,” versus playing the martyr: “Look what I did for you… or not; I don’t want anything in return.” Like playing the victim, playing the martyr can also lead to depression, but following my blog last week, 2 Types of Depression & 2 Ways to Handle It, this person is more likely to suffer from being too nice to others and too hard on themselves. Playing the victim is the other type of mindset that can lead to depression (the not so nice one). An example of playing the martyr would be like how whenever my mom barbeques for the family she has to take the worst looking piece of meat. Even though she’s cooking and serving us, she ends up suffering for it. At the same time, when I barbeque, she still has to take the worst piece and won’t let me take it, which means it’s not an expectation where the worst piece goes to the cook; it just goes to her. Fortunately, this doesn’t make my mom want to avoid seeing us as she’s happy to suffer for her kids, but playing the martyr indirectly hurts everyone else who cares about you because they don’t want you to suffer. My mom is bad at this, but my wife used to take this to a whole new level (she’s gotten better). For example, years ago we were at a barbeque restaurant in Buffalo with her grandparents, uncle, and mom (Oh the days when we could cross the border). We ordered two large family meals to share as a way to get a little of all their delicious food like pulled pork, brisket, ribs, and chicken. While the food was on the table, my wife and her mom apparently weren’t taking much for fear that everyone wouldn’t get enough even though there was plenty to go around. Even when there was only a little left and it was offered “Do you want it?… Do you want it?…” and no one was taking it, they still didn’t take it. I figured they were full like I was, so as the waitress was coming to take what was left away, I split the last bit with someone else because why throw it out? (Said like a man/glutton). On the way home I found out my wife was hungry. Why? There was no reason. During this conversation my wife ended up moving into the playing the victim mode, however, as she then just wanted to feel sorry for herself. I told her she should’ve just taken food like we were supposed to or, if she was hungry at the end, order something else before we left. There was no reason for her to suffer. I also said that if her mom wasn’t eating, that was her choice and my wife shouldn’t have joined her. Instead, she should’ve told her mom to eat and not play the martyr. We’re grownups who care about each other; we’re more than capable of sharing (even me), and we want to share so everyone enjoys themselves, which was the point of sharing the family meals.
Playing the martyr can even be insulting to others because it says, “I’m nice and you’re selfish, so I’m going to suffer while you won’t care and that’s fine.” The problem in this case was my wife chose to suffer unnecessarily and now I felt bad. Her playing the martyr (turned victim) ruined the night for her and now for me as well as I felt guilt for her suffering as unnecessary as it was. Before that, I thought things were great. Guess who had no desire to go out with her family after that? This guy. Of course, I made sure I did because I didn’t want to play a victim and feel sorry for myself. Unfortunately, my wife, while trying to be helpful, was very foolish and hurtful. Choosing to hurt when you don’t need to isn’t being kind or loving; it’s foolish and selfish.
I will point out that sometimes it can look like someone is playing the martyr when they’re not. For instance, my wife loves food from different ethnicities while I love being boring and sticking to what’s familiar; I really don’t enjoy trying new things (yes, I’m boring). I’ve encouraged my wife to go to places she wants and I’ll sit with her and get something later, but she won’t (a potential martyr thing). A few times her family has gone to a Vietnamese restaurant for a big family meal and I happily go and not order anything. In this case, I’m not playing the martyr. I’m happy being there with people, but because I don’t enjoy the food (and accept I’m a selective eater) , I’d rather save my money and buy something else later. My wife used to accuse me of playing the martyr in this situation, but I wasn’t. I was completely content. I wasn’t suffering and I was looking forward to getting pizza later. When she double checked to see if I was just saying I was fine, I’d remind her that I strive to be a good communicator and not have hidden messages (I hate hidden messages, which is another passive aggressive tool). I have to remind her that when I say I’m fine, I’m fine. She has a hard time believing this. Any guesses why? If you said because she’ll say she’s fine when she’s not, you nailed it. Does this make her a terrible person? No, but it does make her fit the stereotypical female with her husband category. I’m not sure why women commonly say they’re fine when they’re not like it’s a test to see if you can read between the lines because not only is unfair, it’s a huge waste of time. And to be clear, when I say this is a stereotypical wife problem, I’m not saying “all” women do it (playing the victim people would twist that to be upset). It’s just more common with them than men; men, on the other hand, tend to be more blunt and straight to the point without tact or concern for being politically correct. It’s not that either gender is better; we’re just different. While women typically need to be more straightforward, men typically need to be a little nicer.
This week may you consider the difference between playing the victim and playing the martyr and do your best to stop doing either one of these if you’re doing them because it only makes life worse.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)