How to Know if You're a "Work Martyr"

You land your first job post-grad and you can’t wait to prove yourself. You volunteer for every special project you can, join the social committee, and slowly become “the dependable one”.  Your manager comes to you for every project she needs an extra hand on, and why wouldn’t she? You always deliver.


The scenario above sounds great, but it’s a slippery slope...and one all too common to those starting out in their careers. While it’s great to prove your value to the team, there’s a fine line between being a high-performer and being a martyr.

What exactly is a martyr in the work world? It’s someone who’d rather prioritize the larger team than prioritize themselves. You’ll typically be able to spot the martyr as the person who stays late but grows resentful, saying that they’re burned out. There’s nothing wrong with taking on a lot of work, necessarily, but when you start doing it to prove yourself as an employee, that’s when we see martyrdom show through.  


What’s so bad about being a martyr? It often ends in people burning out and shutting down, either becoming apathetic or leaving their jobs all together.  Martyrs think that it is the only way to work, and they go along repeating this cycle again and again. This behavior often comes as the curse of the high-achieving perfectionist.

How do I know so much about this?  I get it because I’ve lived it too.  This used to be me on a good day...

I’m a recovering perfectionist.  I struggled to say no because I felt that I couldn’t, and I owed it to the larger team to get it all done.  Then I learned that it’s part of your job to do it in a way that’s sustainable. Being the person who always takes on the heavy load doesn’t make you a savior, it makes you so exhausted that you’ll burn out and leave.  It’s a losing scenario for everyone involved.


I’ve seen this habit with employees at all stages of their careers. If you don’t work through this and start saying no when you’re young, the hurdle will only feel more insurmountable as your career skyrockets.  

So here’s my advice to you: it’s like pulling a bandaid. Begin thinking about the kind of work life you want to live, and create it accordingly.  You’re not doing anyone favors by constantly taking one for the team. Personally, I have used tools such as the urgent versus important matrix to prioritize, as well as a program I’ve developed around mindfulness, the growth mindset, and communication to detox from perfectionism.  Find what works for you, and start there.

I’ve had to put in a great deal of work to get to the place I am today.  Now I am able to step out of the cycle and create the balance to live the life I love. There are still times when my inner monologue tells me that I need to take on things for the greater good, but I remind myself of one guiding question: “who will I really be able to help serve if I can’t even take care of myself?”