Guest Post: The Mormon Martyr Complex and Neglect of Self-Care
by Kari Ferguson
So often in life and religion, we latch on to one idea and hold on to it like a dog to his favorite bone. We incorporate it into our lives, model ourselves after it, and wholeheartedly ignore any injunctions or viewpoints that contradict our accepted mantra and consequent worldview.
Sometimes the ideas we choose are noble and good. Sometimes they encourage us to do what is right and help other people. But sometimes they are not so beneficial. Sometimes we find our very selves being sacrificed on the altar of selflessness or in pursuit of some higher goal. Often in these cases, we congratulate ourselves, imagining that this is what it means to be truly Christ-like.
But Christ didn’t say that we need to become martyrs and destroy ourselves. He said, “for whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 16:25).
To me, this means that Christ wants us to have an identity. He wants us to be whole. He wants us to be who we are, not to sacrifice everything that makes us who we are until we are too exhausted and downtrodden to care about anything. What good are we to anyone without self-care?
With this in mind, why do we as Mormons hold on so dearly to what I’ll call our “martyr complex”? Why do we so often feel that unless we are suffering—but pretending to be happy—we aren’t doing the whole “living the gospel” thing correctly?
Maybe it comes from our love of calling ourselves a “peculiar people.” Or maybe it comes from our selective readings of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:10-12).
If that’s the case, maybe we came to the somewhat troubling conclusion that it’s okay if we revile and persecute ourselves. Maybe we decided that neglecting ourselves and our own physical and mental health was somehow earning us spiritual brownie points. So often, we scramble to hold ourselves together, thinking that we are gracefully enduring to the end. But are we really finding ourselves in that kind of “service”? Or are we racing after what we think will bring us eternal rewards while remaining miserable in the meantime?
So many of us struggle with mental health problems. These problems might be temporary, induced by stress or current life situations, but nonetheless causing real emotional trauma, anxiety, or depression. Other times, we find ourselves dealing with mental illness that may be triggered by an event but then remains with us indefinitely, making us feel as if something else has suddenly and violently taken over our minds.
Too often, we recognize that something has shifted in our minds but jump to the conclusion that it is our spiritual worthiness that brought on this new circumstance. We confuse our spiritual wellness with our mental wellness, thinking that we are spiritually at fault if we have mental health struggles. Either that, or we go into “martyr mode,” thinking that this is our trial—our chance to prove to God that we are strong enough and good enough. We will keep going! We will repent and be better! We will be happy and show God that we love Him and will endure to the end!
But I don’t think that God wants us to be miserably pretending to be happy. I think He wants us to be real. I think He wants us to get help when we are feeling downtrodden. Even when it is our own sin that causes feelings of guilt, He doesn’t want us to wallow around forever feeling badly about what we’ve done. He wants us to repent and move on with our lives. I would say He feels that way even more so when we are dealing with mental illness or mental health struggles.
“Get help!” I bet He would say to us if He could. There have been advances in medical care and therapy for a reason. As I wrote about in my book, The OCD Mormon, when my obsessive-compulsive disorder took a sharp turn into contamination fears and I found myself unable to take care of my family as I once had, my husband encouraged me to get professional help. I was hesitant. I felt doing so would signal a failure to take care of myself. But the fact was, I couldn’t properly take care of myself or anyone else. I needed that professional help, and I eventually took the very difficult steps I needed to get my life back.
If we refuse to use the advances and professional care that have been provided in our day and age, thinking that suffering it out is somehow molding us into better people, are we really being “persecuted” for Christ’s sake or are we just being stubborn? Christ healed people readily. He didn’t tell them to suffer more so that they could become more righteous. He instructed His Twelve Apostles likewise: “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
Christ Himself practiced self-care. Remember that before He calmed the sea and saved His friends and the boat they were on, He was spending the first part of the storm “in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow” (Mark 4:38). They had to wake up Christ, pleading with Him to save them. Sometimes we are like that, terrified by the storm when maybe we should be exercising self-care, mentally and physically preparing ourselves and then actively taking appropriate action to improve and change our situation.
Christ also took care of Himself after mental and physical exertion. Following the feeding of the five thousand, “straightway Jesus constrained his disciples to get into a ship, and to go before him unto the other side, while he sent the multitudes away. And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone” (Matthew 14:22-23).
We should be comforted and encouraged by this. He needed to be alone. He literally sent everyone away, finding a quiet spot for Himself to rest and commune with Heavenly Father. We should follow Christ’s example and take care of ourselves mentally and physically, especially when we are exhausted.
We don’t have to be martyrs to the point that we hate our lives and find ourselves trapped in a constrictive web of mental health problems because we gave until we no longer had anything left for ourselves. We shouldn’t be ashamed of mental illnesses, thinking that God gave them to us to test our willpower and stamina. Mental illness is not a sin. It is not a divine punishment or test from God. It is simply something that happens to some of us. Mental illness is something for which we can seek and receive help and care.
We shouldn’t be ashamed of having mortal problems. Christ, while being the Son of God, was also the Son of Mary, a mortal woman. He needed mental and physical recharge, and we should not be ashamed to need the same things. Don’t allow a dogged attachment to the martyr complex or a misguided belief that enduring to the end means “suffering to the end” deny you of the care and love that you, yourself, need.
Kari Ferguson is the author of The OCD Mormon: Finding Healing and Hope in the Midst of Anxiety and theocdmormon.com.