It's okay to want
Updated: Aug 3, 2018
Wanting positive things for yourself is a really good thing - and not just for you.
Turns out I wanted it all. Everything. Every.single.last.bit. My slice of the pie and yours and his and hers and hers... Veruca Salt-ing all over this mother. What’s crazier yet is it was breaking news to me. I was pushing 40 and just started to realize that I had been hiding behind a mask of selflessness, playing the part of the martyr to quell the unbearable discomfort of wanting.
Having wants isn't selfish.
(Hurting others to get what you want is, but that's a different post.)
Let’s take a step back. What is a martyr? Historically speaking, it’s someone who died for their beliefs. Think Joan of Arc. However, the “martyr complex” is much less valiant and is alive in those of us who overextend ourselves not for the shear pleasure of helping others, but in hopes of being rewarded with love or praise. It’s kindness fueled by low self-esteem, a slanted ploy for security. Thus, we continuously push our desires aside to make room for others’.
But wanting is normal (natural even!), as unbelievable as that may sound. If you’ve spent five minutes in the presence of a young child you know wanting is part of the human experience. We want love, nourishment, affection, attention, cookies, toys, TV, and on and on. If this is nothing to feel ashamed of then why are so many of us turning our lives into epic battles of will whereby we deny all our desires and do only what others want or expect of us so that we may continue to self-soothe through sacrifice?
I have a hunch that the clues each of us needs to unveil the mystery of our personal relationship to martyrdom can be found in childhood. No, I am not advocating parent-bashing or aimlessly wallowing in the past to avoid living in the present. Rather, by actively looking at some of the patterns present in our childhood, we may find important information that can shed light on and bring new understanding to our current behaviors. In doing so, we may actually be able to get ourselves out of this mess.
So, where does this whole martyr routine come from anyway? According to Sharon Martin, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, in her article, “The Martyr Complex: How to Stop Feeling Like a Victim and Create Healthy Relationships,” martyrdom is encouraged in many families and even entire cultures (I’m adding religions to that list). She gives the example of a little boy named Sam who, after his mother yells and then crumbles from mommy guilt, begins to comfort her instead of experiencing his own feelings. Through this ongoing crumbling mother-comforting son dance, Sam learns that he must push past his pain so he can relieve his mother’s. He does this in an effort to secure her love, something he cannot fathom living without. And so a martyr is born.
Admittedly, this scenario rings painfully true, both as the child and the mother. Recognizing my younger and adult self in such an unsavory scene is something I want to run from until I collapse. (Quick! Somebody distract me with a crisis!) In all seriousness though, damn. It sucks to think about my mother’s angry, twisted face when I wanted too much, too loudly, and seeing that same ugly face reflected in my daughter’s scared, tear-filled eyes when she was wanting and I felt distressed by her pining. It is a hard truth to stomach, almost indigestible, until I realize that, at one time, my mother was the child. A deep sense of compassion rolls over me and I can feel its healing magic seeping in.
For years I was an active member of the Reluctant Martyrs Club (as if martyrs aren’t always active members of every club they are in), always pushing, willing, grinding away at life in order to secure the love, appreciation, and affection of others I felt was necessary to feel whole, not realizing that by simply being born I, like all of us, deserve all of those things. I'll say it again so hopefully you hear me: You deserve love, appreciation, and affection.
As a way to help break the fear of wanting you may be struggling with, I encourage you to state a wish for yourself every morning for one week (longer if you'd like), doing your best to make each wish a reality. Example: "I would like to meditate for 10 minutes in the morning" or "I want to take myself to a movie." You won't be able to make each wish come true, and that's okay. Just by stating what you want for yourself, you will learn that it is safe to want, eventually leading to the deep understanding that you can handle other people’s wanting, even if you cannot or will not grant them what they desire.
In another article, “How to Conquer the Martyr Complex?” for Real Simple Martin gives some solid advice to help break out of the martyr complex. Before taking on another task, ask yourself the following: “Why am I doing this? If I take it on, what do I have to give up? Would I still want to do this even if no one ever knew about it?” It won’t be pretty and it won’t be perfect, because, well, nothing is, but it’s worth a shot. Godspeed.