Saturday, April 3, 2010


I was talking with a friend the other day about heroes. People like Mahatmas Ghandi and Martin Luther King who stood up against oppression, put others before themselves, and who ultimately died for their beliefs. Steeped, as per usual, in the hows and whys of codependence, my radar went up. Putting others before one self? Sacrificial behaviour ? Martyrdom? Aren’t these symptoms of codpendence? Were King and Ghandi codependent?

The answer, of course, is yes, or rather, because they were human, they had codependent parts. But was their martyrdom codependent?

One of my favorite examples of codependent martyrdom is that of the (Stephen B.) Karpman Drama Triangle. It’s a graphic example of how someone can be a rescuer, victim and abuser— sometimes all at the same time— martyring themselves in the process.

Let’s say I am the protagonist of this story. I work in an office with my colleague, Sally. I notice that Sally is not fulfilling all her responsibilities. I worry that the boss will notice and Sally will get in trouble. So, without first checking in with Sally, I start doing some of her work. I rescue Sally.

There are plenty of reasons why I might do this and most of them tend to be unconscious. On the surface I might say: “I’m just trying to help” but underneath I might hope that Sally will like me better; or that my heroic work ethic gets noticed and others will value me more; or that I will become indispensible to Sally and/or the boss thereby fulfilling my “need” to be needed. Any of those reasons underline the belief that I am “lesser than”, that I have to earn my value in what I do and not in who I am.

Sally has her own reasons for not doing her work. Perhaps she is not feeling well or is bored, or maybe she just doesn’t care. The point is, I don’t know because I haven’t asked. I don’t know if Sally needs help or if she even wants my help.
Sally may or may not notice I am doing her work. She may or may not thank me but regardless, she does not change her habits. I start getting resentful. I am not quite sure what I want from my rescuing behaviour—my real needs are unconscious—all I know is that I am bending over backwards to help Sally and there isn’t enough reward. So, instead of backing off, I begin feeling resentful. I become a victim. I start berating Sally with such infamous martyr-like lines such as: “After all I do for you.” I may start spreading rumours about her or telling her to her face that she is good-for-nothing. Hence, I become the abuser. But the abuse is unconscious because it all seems justified: Sally owes me something. In fact, it feels like a lot of people owe me something.

These three roles of rescuer, victim and abuser, can be played out instantaneously or take years to manifest. I could, for example, be doing Sally’s job while feeling like an exploited hero and, at the same time, telling Sally how lazy she is. Or, I could play the rescuer for years before the resentment kicks in and then start acting passive-aggressive towards Sally. This is codependent martyrdom. We’ve all seen it or experienced it – not a pretty sight.

Codependent martyrdom is then sacrificing your self for some inner need or want that is not, for the most part, aligned with the stated goal. For example, I say I am doing Sally’s work because I want to help but the truth is I just want Sally to like me. The problem, however, is that this true desire will never be fulfilled. Even if Sally starts liking me, the relationship will be based, at least in my mind, on my doing things for Sally so that she will continue liking me. It becomes an addiction: never ending; always hungry. I will always be in fear that I’m not doing enough in order for Sally to like me. Said another way, I may just not believe her due to low self-esteem— how could anyone like a “loser” like me? So I work harder, sacrificing myself in hopes that I will eventually do (and be) enough. It eventually leads to resentment and, for some, abusive behaviour.

Heroic martyrdom is different. A hero sees how they can make a difference in the world and strives to manifest that difference. They put their principals above themselves not because they do not place value on their own lives but because they do see their value. Their principals are a guiding light in showing the world that each and everyone of us has value and that we all deserve respect. Heroes don’t rescue others for some inner need but empower themselves and others out of love for all.

So, while Ghandi and King had, more likely than not, codependent parts, their actions were interdependent. They believed in mutuality, respect and community. Tragically, they were also martyred for their beliefs.

To close I give you a quote from Jane Goodall, another hero, although thankfully, not martyred. No longer living with and documenting the lives of chimpanzees in Tanzania, she “tours the globe preaching the need for sustainability, harmony and respect for the natural world.” She states: “You can kill yourself saving forests and chimps, but if new generations aren’t going to be better stewards there’s no point.” (The Guardian Weekly, Feb. 26.10, p.29)

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