Merry Martyrdom.. or is it?

The day my husband threw me a surprise graduation party, with food trucks and 50 of my friends and family, I wanted to feel gratitude and excitement. But all I could feel was anger, resentment, and bitterness as I juggled our two children (21 months and 5 months at the time) while watching him and all my guests socialize and have fun. Later that evening I recounted the day to my best friend of 30 years who was unable to attend. I was almost in tears explaining how I was unable to enjoy the day. Now, my friend is my friend for so many reasons but mainly because she knows me, loves me, and challenges me. So this evening she kindly said to me, “and I wonder Lindsay – with all those people around – could you have asked anyone for help?”  Her question, remaining rhetorical for reasons we both knew, stung me. I immediately knew that the sting wasn’t just because it was true – something else was there – an edge. I used it as my self-enquiry over the next few days and weeks.

Only after some time did I come to a new discovery. I approached my husband and I revealed to him with as much humility as I could my revelation. I said “I want to let you know… I realized that the day of the party I didn’t ask anyone for help because if someone had helped me, then I couldn’t be a martyr later and complain and moan about how terrible things were for me.” My husband with love and kindness thanked me, and then swiftly asked with true curiosity “and do you think that’s also a way of punishing me?”  He gave me feedback that he may see this behavior in me – acting like a martyr in the moment, with displays of struggle, but then refusal of help in order to signal my anger. I was taken aback – just when you think your growth is over! I felt embarrassed because he was right and I didn’t want to live that way. I also felt appreciation and surprise. I told him I was pretty sure that this was true and I never realized it before. I thanked him for sharing and also told him I really wanted to work on this moving forward.

Fast forward a few months later. Our kiddos are now 26 months and 10 months old. I woke up early on a weekend with the realization my husband had forgotten to get the formula he had promised to get the night before. When he woke up he told me I could run out during the baby’s nap and grab it while he watched our toddler and held down the fort. I explained to him that while he may think this would serve as a break for me, I had planned on using that time to nap myself since I had been up with our other son who was sick the night before. (I have been working on being direct and taking breaks, as being OC myself!). He said he would just take our toddler to the store then and I could nap. I started to say to him why that may not work when all of a sudden…he interrupted me with a kind smile and a tilted head. “Do you think this is you not letting me help so you can be mad at me and martyr it up later?” I felt myself tense up then use my big three plus one to activate my social safety system and acknowledge his astute awareness. “Ughh… yessss “ I groaned. “I definitely think that’s what’s happening”. I thanked him as usual for helping me stay on top of my values and goals. And do you know what? The most amazing thing happened. I took that nap (a full hour! One of my longest ever!). And I woke up feeling appreciative and forgiving. I told him that I was so thankful that he called me out and helped me realize what I was doing. And I told him how it made my anger melt away. He said it was nice for him too because it let him make up for his mistake of forgetting to get the formula the night before. 

While I know I still have work to do, I’m glad that my brain and my marriage were able to experience how positive it can be to accept (or ask) for help rather than just be a martyr. For now, I’m truly recognizing that this acceptance of help in these moments facilitates the letting go of my anger, resentment, or bitterness and can foster forgiveness in myself and others.

Lindsay Johnson, LPC, ACS, MSEd

Lindsay is a therapist at Rowan University, NJ, who works with college students diagnosed with conditions of over-control. She is passionate about RO DBT, sports, yoga, and most things related to New Jersey.