Savior, Martyr, Enabler: The Good of the Many vs The Good of the Few…or The One

The Kirk/Spock Conundrum in Relationships, Families, and Life

“Don’t be a martyr,” I was recently told during an uncomfortable discussion about time and priorities. I choked back a quick denial. Was I being a martyr? I was trying to do what was best for everyone involved, but I knew it was not what I wanted. But being a martyr — no, that was not me. Of course not.

After years of uncomfortable self-examination, I understand that the “be a good helper” and “do unto others” training of my childhood contributed to my morphing into an enabler, at least for some people in some situations. My mother, a loving, giving woman, developed a tinge of bitterness in her old age about situations where she made unappreciated sacrifices. I had seen first-hand that enabling can grow into bitter martyrdom, and I did not want that to happen to me. I (try to) articulate my needs and make sure I have as much self-indulgence as I do sacrifice, which my mother still cannot do. Not being bitter about my choices has been a priority.

I was adamant. I was not a martyr. In my experience, garden variety martyrs hold their sacrifice over other people’s heads, expecting acknowledgement that they suffer, or at least take back seat, for the greater good. I did not have that attitude. If I was making a decision for the greater good — the good of the many — I was accepting it is logical and fair to do what benefits the most people. If it was a decision that I owned and choose, there was nothing to hold over anyone else. Or so I told myself.

Like many well-trained enablers, saviors, and martyrs, I knew the literature: my Sunday school teachers and grandmother often reminded me that the last would be first in Heaven (Matthew 19:30, Mark 10:31, and Luke 13:30 — when three of the Gospels say the same thing, it’s a home run homily). 1 Corinthians 13 taught that love does not keep score, that it goes to any length to serve the Beloved. Despite no longer being Christian, the early training remains.

In my mind, I was Spock choosing to die in The Wrath of Khan, confident that his choice would ensure a better life for many people. Without intending to be melodramatic, my working to accept boundaries and time limits that did not fulfill my needs would make schedules and emotions run more smoothly for other people — and since I do not like drama and I avoid conflict, I do get some pay off for that choice. Ensuring that my desires do not complicate anyone else’s lives or possibly even make anyone else aware that I might have needs that were not being acknowledged was an acceptable choice. Instead, focusing on being grateful for the time I have with my partner and considering the importance of our relationship instead of jockeying for more time and attention would be better for everyone. That’s logical.

That is, in fact, the Spock model of martyrdom. I just did not want to accept that label.

When I consider the conversation and the context, that was probably not how I sounded. As I rewatched The Wrath of Khan, I had a eureka moment: Spock does not experience human emotions. Being a truly selfless martyr is only possible in two situations: first, when you believe that you will be rewarded in the next life (like religious martyrs) or when you are completely emotionally detached from the situation, personalities and consequences of the situation. Because I was setting up a situation where I did not expect eventual rewards, and I am emotionally invested in this relationship and our discussion of time, priorities, and attention, I was on the edge of martyrdom when I offered to accept terms that do not meet my needs. Since I still did not want to accept that label, I looked for other options.

I started scouring journals, books, and websites. I learned about the Karpman triangle, victim, persecutor, and rescuer, and after playing through a variety of conversations and situations, I decided that I sometimes play rescuer — or savior — for some situations and people, but not to a dysfunctional level. I have victim moments, and the occasional time as a persecutor, but the Karpman triangle was not the paradigm I needed to consider how to stall any martyr impulses I feel. David Emerald’s Empowerment Triangle (creator instead of victim, challenger instead of persecutor, and coach instead of rescuer) offered possibly useful ideas about how to treat the Karpman triangle and other times I tend towards saving or enabling, but again, not quite what I needed in this situation where I was bordering on being a martyr. My communication within my relationship was not toxic. I was just having trouble trusting that meeting my needs was important enough to potentially disrupt other people’s lives.

For a bit, I considered whether I might be a savior. I tried on the idea that I was saving the peace and making my partner happy by finding solo, non-intrusive ways to deal with my needs. That sounded superior to being a martyr. Being a savior would have downsides, of course, but going above and beyond to help — that is like Jimmy Carter, building houses for poor people. Rosa Parks, taking a stand for civil rights. Maybe my willingness to put my personal needs aside was the act of a savior. Eduard Ezeanu’s piece on The Savior Complex assured me that no, I was not usually a savior. I do not feel that I am better than other people because I do unappreciated things for people, and I am quite good at making sure at letting people know when I have done something that I think is noteworthy. There are not many ways I hide my light under a basket. Like any recovering enabler, I have moments when I have to consciously remember “You are never responsible for the actions of others; you are only responsible for you.” But that is where enabler and savior intersect. Being a savior is not my home base even though there are times I choose to be helpful.

Here is the script from my childhood that still sometimes drives me: I should not cause problems by articulating needs and wishes; if I am possibly the source of an issue, I must immediately solve the problem (which includes my discounting my needs, wants, and emotions) or risk having the other person decide our relationship is not worth the hassle. For years, I saw myself as the cause of problems, in the way, and something of an afterthought or inconvenience. Being helpful was the way I tried to counteract those feelings. I sometimes assume blame that is not mine to shoulder, and work to solve problems that are not mine to solve. While in my professional life I am good at teamwork and I know my value in the workplace, in my personal life, negotiating and compromising sometimes confound me.

Thanks to years of hard work and patient people, as well as the influence of a couple important books (including Brene Brown’s and Harriet Lerner’s books), these childhood beliefs have lessened their impact greatly. My partner understands that old belief patterns surface sometimes and has been a vital part of my re-learning. However, new situations and insights mean sometimes revisiting previous emotional ground, and the suggestion that I was going Joan of Arc definitely called for some thought. Hearing the word “martyr” used in connection to what I thought was a good faith solution to an ongoing issue was one of those triggers for revisiting previous ground.

In the process of thinking all this through, I admitted to myself that sometimes I guilt people, which intersects with being a martyr. I want to claim that I never intentionally do it, and I try to be sensitive to times that I may be doing it, but I was raised by an award-winning, unabashed travel agent for guilt trips, and my ex-husband used guilt like a scalpel. It is a pattern I can fall into, so vigilant awareness is important.

Other times, a private pity party may seep out as martyrdom. Social media, email, or texting (sometimes when I’ve been under emotional or physical stress or had one too many shots of whiskey) turn what should have been a quiet dark night of the soul into a more public discussion. In those cases, I stand by saying I was not being a martyr; I was having what should have been an emo evening, which would have disappeared when the sun rose, but instead, I invited others to my pity party. That shows poor judgement — but there are times it has lead to discussions and healing that I had not realized I needed. As long as that is a once in a while rarity, I can live with it.

Then I found Oprah.com. In an article called “How To Stop Being a Martyr”(by Martha Beck, not Oprah), I found some ideas that hit hard. I tried to argue with the subtitle: If you’re chronically overextended, underappreciated, and very, very angry, there’s a simple solution: Stop playing the martyr. I was not chronically overextended (well, not since my kids grew up), I knew I am usually appreciated, and I did not feel angry at all. Anger is an incredibly rare way for me to feel. However, as I was arguing with the article, one example stopped me cold: “Over time, Sandy learns that it’s not safe to express her feelings, and that people value her only when she does things for them.” Bingo. Much of the other discussion in the article did not quite fit, but that one line echoed. It was uncomfortably close to the “Spock logic” that surfaces under duress.

The article offered a way to filter through martry-like reactions: “When you finally find someone who doesn’t say “What about me?” but “Tell me more,” you may flounder in the unfamiliar space of truth. You’ll be tempted to filter the other person’s response through your dysfunctional lens. She doesn’t mean that. I’m a disappointment. At this point — get ready, martyrs — you can cut right through this misery by saying exactly what you’re thinking. As in, “I’m afraid you don’t mean that, and that I’m a disappointment.” Then, really listen to the answer. If it seems kind and honest, with no hidden agenda, you may feel disoriented. That’s because you’re finally stepping offstage. Keep going. Keep speaking up. What are you feeling? What do you want?” To me, admitting that I feared I was a disappointment, feared that I was too much of an inconvenience, sounded as scary as anything Stephen King has ever written.

The conversation that started this introspection was weeks ago. The other person probably does not remember the brief comment that started my thinking and researching. Because of the nature of our relationship, I do not fear the hard conversations. Choosing a polyamorous lifestyle ensures that conversations about time, attention, and priorities will be a common topic, and sometimes that is a more emotionally fraught issue than is comfortable.

Now, though, I understand that unlike Spock, I am emotionally invested in the outcome of our conversations, so if I am not aware, I could perch on the ledge of martyrdom. What I intend as accommodating, supportive, and giving sometimes comes at an emotional cost. I can choose the emotional cost by ensuring that my needs are met in some way instead of discounting them. I can own my feelings and trust that I can have healthy, helpful conversations about them. Being grateful for the relationship or situation and all the people involved, focusing on the big picture instead of the specific issue helps too. I am emotionally invested in my family, my relationships, and my life. That means I cannot become Spock, doing what is good for the many or the one while dismissing its impact on me.

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