The other day I was reading through some notes I made a few years ago, a synthesis of some stuff I’d learnt during my psychotherapy training that I wrote down to encourage myself to look at life differently, and I was stunned to realise how far I’ve come in approximately 35 months. Although I wasn’t able to articulate it clearly at the time, I see now I was suffering from a form of martyr syndrome. The WikiHow I’ve just linked to there goes into some detail about what this is and offers advice about how to overcome it and, if you have any sense of being a martyr or a victim, I recommend you read the article. But I hope I also have something useful to add.
The points in the WikiHow that most resonated with me are identify the ‘payoff’ and stop waiting for the mindreader. This was the major stumbling block for me. I felt it necessary to make it clear to anyone who would listen that I was utterly miserable. Looking back, I can see why my friends and relations found it difficult to be around me sometimes but I felt strongly that if I could just get them to engage with my suffering, to understand how bleak things were for me and to offer some sympathy, it would help me a great deal.
There is an element of truth in that. It was frightening to have no-one solid I could turn to in the dark days of my depression, and not being able to get anyone to understand even roughly what I was going through, since they all saw me as a strong, capable, robust character who couldn’t really be struggling that much, was intensely frustrating.
After many years, I finally realised I was on a hiding to nothing and gave up trying to explain. But it was hard for me to let go of my suffering, which had almost come to define me. I felt that if I recovered without anyone’s help, it would be tantamount to accepting it doesn’t matter if nobody cares about me. I felt everyone who had let me down would be getting away with it.
Well, be that as it may, if other people weren’t going to change, I had to. Gradually, gradually, it dawned on me that there was another way to look at this: nobody being all that interested in my life gave me tremendous freedom. If people aren’t going to notice either way, I might as well do what I want to do. As a strategy for getting my needs met, suffering was a dismal failure. Living the way I want to is a far better one.
Eleanor Roosevelt put it nicely when she said, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do”. To me, the subtext of this is not ‘you’re not important’ but ‘be free‘.