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Are You a Caregiving Martyr?

Deb Hipp
By Deb HippNovember 7, 2018
Are You a Caregiving Martyr?

Have you heard of “caregiving martyr syndrome?” What begins as a caregiving commitment to a parent, spouse or senior loved one can eventually become a sense of identity for the caregiver, who develops a martyr personality that takes strict ownership over caregiving responsibilities. These caregiving martyrs often pay a costly price for their new identity, experiencing depression and isolation among other symptoms.

Learn more about caregiving martyr syndrome and see what caregivers can do to break out of the martyrdom.

A Caregiving Martyr

In 2014, three years after Dr. Sarah Renee Langley’s mother moved in, Langley was at her lowest point. As a doctoral student with a therapy practice, Langley had sacrificed her own well-being while trying to balance her studies and work with full-time caregiving for her mom, Mary, who was in her 70s and declining with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Langley moved her mom into her home after shunning offers of help from her five brothers, who disagreed about their mother’s level of care. At one point, Langley brought in a hospice care team to her home to help. However, Langley clashed often with hospice staff, criticizing and controlling until the agency terminated the agreement after six months.

“They told me, ‘This is our profession. This is what we do.’ But I wanted them to do it the way I wanted. It became a battle,” says Langley.

Now, most mornings, Langley dreaded climbing out of bed. Depressed, she’d cut back on growing her business. Despite all she’d done for her mom, Langley felt like a failure.

“I felt I couldn’t handle taking care of my mother and myself,” says Langley. “I thought if I failed her, she would die. I felt like I was the one keeping her alive.”

“No One Could Take Care of Her Like Me”

Family caregivers report much higher levels of stress than non-caregivers, according to the Office on Women’s Health (OWH). The OWH recommends that family caregivers “accept and ask for help” to lessen caregiver stress. Yet many caregivers won’t even consider asking for help.

In her book “Cruising Through Caregiving: Reducing the Stress of Caring for Your Loved One,” healthcare and senior living educator Jennifer FitzPatrick devotes an entire chapter to what she calls “caregiver martyr syndrome.” Caregivers who aren’t martyrs are open to help, she says.

“They might take strict ownership of certain caregiving tasks, such as going to the doctor with their loved one, but they allow others to participate,” says FitzPatrick. “They’re much more open-minded.”

Generally, a martyr caregiver believes that he or she is the only person who knows best how to care for the loved one. That’s how Langley felt, she says.

“My relatives offered to visit, and my brothers, at times, offered to help, but Mom was my responsibility,” says Langley. “No one could care for her like me. Or so I thought.”

Ways to Break Out of Caregiving Martyr Syndrome

What begins as a commitment to a parent, spouse or senior loved one can eventually become a sense of identity for the martyr personality, says FitzPatrick.

The caregiver pays a costly price for that new identity, experiencing:

  • Emotional symptoms including anger, frustration, guilt, loneliness, resentment and sadness
  • Physical symptoms, such as excessive fatigue, headaches, muscle tension and stomach problems
  • Psychological symptoms including anxiety and depression

Isolation often accompanies martyr syndrome, causing relationships with family and friends to suffer, since martyrs have no time to invest in anyone but the person who needs care, says FitzPatrick. Meanwhile, the caregiver is at greater risk of dying from stress-related illnesses. Spousal caregivers over age 66 have a 63% higher mortality rate than non-caregivers, according to the Family Caregiver Alliance.

Whether you’re an adult child caregiver or a spouse, how can you know when you’ve gone overboard, controlling caregiving at the expense of your mental and physical health?

Start by listening to people who are concerned. “When someone who loves you says, ‘You look exhausted’ or ‘I’m worried about you,’ it’s time to approach caregiving differently,” says FitzPatrick. “If lots of people are commenting, then it’s probably time to course-correct completely.”

FitzPatrick suggests these steps:

  1. Ask a family member or friend to research available services such as assisted living, community resources or in-home care that might be helpful. Then begin using some of those resources.
  2. Commit to doing one thing right away to take better care of yourself. “Consider what small step you can take today to let go of control,” says FitzPatrick. Add another step each week until you’re starting to feel like yourself again.
  3. Give yourself permission to be an imperfect caregiver.
  4. Start building a caregiving crew and tell other family members that you need help. Consider apologizing if you have rebuffed their earlier offers of assistance.

“Devoted caregivers make caregiving a big part of their lives,” says FitzPatrick. “Martyrs make caregiving the only thing in their lives.”

After realizing she couldn’t do everything for her mother and remain healthy herself, Langley allowed a friend, Brendan, to assist with caregiving for her mom. She’s also used in-home care agencies.

Today, Langley, a leadership coach and motivational speaker, lives with Brendan and her parents in a home in Philadelphia where she, along with Brendan and her dad, take care of Mary as a team. A government program even pays Brendan for his caregiving duties.

“I hit rock bottom and had to recalibrate,” says Langley. “I couldn’t be the martyr anymore. That wasn’t benefiting my mom or myself.

Have you ever experienced caregiving martyr syndrome while caring for a parent, spouse or senior loved one? How did you get help? We’d like to hear your stories and tips in the comments below.

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Deb Hipp
Deb Hipp

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