Avoiding the Martyrdom Trap as a Psychotherapist

As a profession, we are caring, engaged, and interested in social change, and yet in the best of circumstances only have a modest amount of influence on our client’s lives, not to mention the world’s course.

In feeling the space between our desire for positive change and our ability to affect it, we might bridge the gap by blaming ourselves, and becoming identified with the “savior” role.

Yet, by ignoring our needs and limits, overworking, and emotionally over-investing in clients, we run the risk of burning out.

Given that most therapists are fairly rational creatures who are trying to train their own clients to be self-nurturing, why would we fall into this trap?  I think it boils down to two emotional vulnerabilities many of us share: shame and grief.

Shame is about identity and belonging, the internal signals that tells us what will be acceptable to our communities, and will keep us from getting kicked out.  

The therapist community is not, of course, monotonic in its values or expectations of its members.  However, it does share the value of care of others, and dedication to our suffering patients, and those can either demand of us (or be interpreted as demanding) a self-sacrificing stance in which the measure of our social worth is how much we give, regardless of the cost to us.

Martyrdom is also supported when we as therapists cannot tolerate the baked-in grief of being a therapist.  

This is the painful recognition that however much we may want to guard our clients from their pain, or take that pain away, it is an impossible task, and that our job is much more to be a companion in the pain than a fixer.  

Plus, no matter how much good work we do, any grandiose notions of fixing the world are going to come up against the reality of human suffering.  We become therapists hoping to resolve another’s existential suffering—or our own. Without grieving the futility of that hope, we bend toward martyrdom: try harder, do more, give more for the cause, don’t admit defeat.

For me, when I started out in my now 15-ish years of practicing therapy, I wouldn’t have copped a bent towards martyrdom.  I would have said that, of course, we only can do so much for our clients and society, that the limits are fine, and certainly we need to take care of ourselves.

But going forward in the work, I discovered (after many years) how, in my own particular way, I was engaging as a therapist to get the approval of various imagined onlookers (including Mom), and as a grand solution to suffering.  

My version of martyring myself was not so much logistic—time and energy—as it was emotional.  I found myself carrying my clients in mind as if letting them go was a shameful betrayal of my role, and a dangerous opening of the door to grief.  But ultimately it became clear that such an attitude actually did nothing positive for my clients, and drained me of motivation.

So, to do a kind of self-diagnostic, here are some questions for you to mull on, to see where you fall on the martyrdom scale.

  1. How much do you worry about how colleagues see you?
  2. When a client leaves therapy “prematurely,” how much guilt or fear do you feel?
  3. How much do you bend in your stated cancellation policies?
  4. How much do you want colleagues to know that you are bending over backwards for your clients?
  5. Are you comfortable talking with colleagues about misgivings with the work, or with the experience of burnout?
  6. Are you fine with having a comfortable income and lifestyle when most other humans on the planet are struggling with mere subsistence?
  7. How do you feel about only being able to help a few people at a time?
  8. How are you with relatively low social impact of doing individual psychotherapy work?
  9. How do you feel knowing that your impact over a client’s lifespan might be minimal, at best?
  10. How do you feel when a client comes to therapy whom you are not able to help very much at all?

If you find yourself high on this “martyrdom scale,” then to avoid the danger of burnout it’s important to investigate your relationship to shame and grief.  

What is it that stands in the way of your acceptance of your own limitations as a therapist? What is it that keeps you resisting the grief of the work?  

The downside of letting go of the martyr role is having to go deeper into these issues, and feeling whatever we’re trying not to feel.

The upside, as with all therapy, is finding a greater ease and surrender in life as it is, rather than constantly pushing for life as it should be.

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