Eating Disorder Recovery Emotions Exercise / Compulsive Movement Other ED Behaviours

‘Martyr Complex’ In Eating Disorders

Within an eating disorder, the ‘martyr complex’, in which people will act like a martyr to the point of self destruction is a feature seen more often than not.

‘Martyr complex’ is a recognised term to describe people who seek out the feeling of being a martyr, putting others needs above their own suffering as a consequence, in order to give their life meaning.  Someone who has a martyr complex will frequently be identified by those around them as the person who is helpful, agreeable and who will sacrifice anything to help others (including their health).

In this post, I address why I believe that the martyr complex needs to be better recognised and challenged in people with eating disorders as it is all too frequently present and always damaging.

First though, let us put this ‘martyr complex’ in terms of eating disorders into a bit more context.

The ‘Starving Saints’ or ‘Holy Anorexia’

Many of you might already be aware of the ‘starving saints’ who were documented back in the Middle Ages in Europe.   These were women, often catholic nuns, who were seen to be starving themselves in extreme ways and claimed to be doing so as a means to communicate with Christ by imitating the suffering Jesus experienced.

The term used to describe the phenomena of self starvation in these women was, ‘anorexia mirabilis’.   It is often argued now that these women were some of the earliest documented cases of eating disorders as we know them today.

These women starved themselves and claimed it was for the greater good, to be closer to God and they felt their suffering was of little consequence to the bigger picture.  

Back to Today…

Today, we rarely hear of people with eating disorders to be suppressing their body weight in extreme ways for reasons of religion but martyr syndrome is still a strong feature of an eating disorder for many and it is all too often overlooked.

The ‘martyr syndrome’ phenomena in people with eating disorders can be a driving factor in maintaining the illness and making recovery more difficult.

Many of us with eating disorders become experts at using our ‘martyr’ behaviours to manipulate ourselves and others around us into believing the actions that we are taking (which are in fact entirely driven by the eating disorder) are for a greater good, are healthy or are praiseworthy.

All too frequently, people with dangerous eating disorders are also inadvertently being praised for staying sick.

A dangerous side effect of starvation is a false ‘energy high’ and a sense of feeling superhuman, which only adds to a self belief that develops in anorexia of being more capable…

Alongside this, today being thin and slim is seen as highly esteemed in our society, no matter that the cause is a dangerous eating disorder. This means that people with the illness will all too often receive positive reinforcement for effectively starving themselves.

Examples today of how martyr syndrome can perpetuate eating disorders include the following:

  • Receiving praise for ‘being good’ when they say no to the slice of cake or turn down the side of fries.
  • The exercise most people with eating disorders do compulsively is not recognised as a dangerous symptom of the illness and is celebrated by those around them.
  • Compliments for being thin, slim or for losing weight.
  • Loved by colleagues and employers because they are always the one to take on more work and work to a high level, putting work above their own needs.
  • Taking on charity work and volunteering for other good causes…
  • Always being the one to do the housework, the washing up, to cook, to walk the dog and praised (or taken advantage of!) by family for doing so.

Ultimately, with an eating disorder today, people are praised for being ill and as a result, as a person with the illness, there can be an internal sense of reward, even gloating or smugness when such praise is received.

Praised For Staying Sick

The danger of being praised for staying sick with an eating disorder is that people are left feeling virtuous for taking what is in fact, in the present moment, the easy path and it can act as a get out clause from facing the pain and distress of contemplating or moving towards recovery.

The other effect this praise has is to only perpetuate the ‘I am not really ill’ belief that too many with dangerous eating disorders can so easily convince themselves is true.

The ‘Martyr Syndrome’ people with eating disorders experience is real and dangerous and needs recognition to be addressed.

Nothing about an eating disorder is virtuous or deserving of praise.

Face Reality

If you are reading this and have an eating disorder then it is time to face reality.

Your workouts are not praiseworthy.

Your weight is not a good thing and is certainly not worthy of anyone’s envy if it is below the weight your body should naturally be.

When you turn down food, that is not ‘being good’ – it is letting the eating disorder have another victory and will keep you hungry, cold and miserable for longer than it already has.

Your continuing to work, attempts to be superhuman, volunteer and save the world that merely distract you from dealing with the illness and actually getting better are unhealthy and dangerous.  Nobody should encourage or respect that.

The sense of being superhuman you experience when starving yourself is a lie.. It is your body desperately trying to keep you alive and it is a dangerous sign of how sick you are.

If your family, friends or colleagues really knew how driven by illness your helpfulness around the house or at work was and how detrimental it was to your health, they would be shocked and disappointed that you are not addressing it and they would not keep encouraging it.

We need to all recognise the dangers of martyr syndrome in an eating disorder and address it head on.

Carrying out acts to help others, to be a good employee or to ensure a clean and happy home are all great and this post is not to say that these things will not form part of the future for anyone in recovery from an eating disorder.

But when these things are perpetuating the illness and the need to be identified as ‘good, helpful, agreeable’ is keeping a person locked in behaviours that are disordered and therefore dangerous then it needs to be addressed.

Continuing to live in a way that is damaging our health for the sake of being a martyr has to stop while recovery happens.. and recovery does not happen overnight!

Any acts that are carried out which are ultimately driven by an eating disorder are not virtuous.

The only thing that is virtuous and praiseworthy is to recover.

So if being a martyr is on the agenda, then recovering is the way to achieve that!

The only selfless act is recovery.  Stop the Bull Shit in the illness.

Stop, sit, rest, eat, let the body do its thing, deal with how hard it is and stop risking the only life you have for the sake of an illness that nobody should value.


I now work as a coach and mentor with people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence. If you are interested in knowing more about my coaching work, then please take a look at my coaching website:

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