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Carolyn Hax: His girlfriend helps everyone. She just can’t help herself.

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Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: I'm worried my girlfriend is developing a martyr complex. For the past couple of years, she has been increasingly overextending herself, and it's making her miserable. She goes above and beyond at work, then volunteers for extra duties, and she routinely gives up whole evenings and entire weekends to help relatives and friends with their own problems.

All of this would be fine, except it's stressing her out. Most of our conversations lately are her complaining about things/people in her life, how tired she is and how there isn't enough time. Often, she breaks down crying. I've suggested she slow down and take care of herself first, but she never does.

She's extremely vulnerable to guilt-tripping from friends/family. She worries they'll get mad if she doesn't do enough for them. I put on a brave face to support her, but I worry all the time, to the point where I can't focus at work. I don't want to break up with her, but now I'm becoming miserable, feeling conscripted as her pseudo-therapist. I've run out of things to say and do to comfort her. It's exhausting and not how I want to live.

Is there any way I can explain this without making her feel worse or think I'm mad at her?

— Brave Face

Brave Face: I’m sorry. You are in over your head.

As is she, of course.

Her low self-esteem jumps out of your question. She is frenzied with efforts to compensate for what she sees as her shortcomings, as if she can only justify taking up the earth-space she occupies by generating good works. Or what she thinks others would see as good works. Or what garners praise from others.

It’s just layers and layers of doubts and coverups of doubts and coverups of the coverups.

She does crave and also deserve some comfort, and I’m glad you have tried to give her that, but comfort is not a solution to the problem — especially since her “yes” mechanism is frantically working to avoid the discomfort of others’ pressure and guilt. The problem is her thinking so little of herself. She needs to see her own worth, beauty, gifts.

Therapy is the only option that makes sense to me here. Suggested by you, as an expression of concern for her health given how exhausted and sad she is, and how little you’ve been able to help her.

Say explicitly that you care about her and want to help her but are not equipped to.

Show her this Q&A if you think it would help her see that you’re not mad at her, you’re worried and, again, in over your head.

You, meanwhile, are so sucked into her pain that you can’t concentrate? That’s your cue to get to work on your own emotional independence and boundaries.

Re: Martyr Complex: She might consider Al-Anon, even if there is no active addict in her life. I went to both therapy and Al-Anon (at my therapist's suggestion), and they helped me with taking on other people's problems.

— Anonymous

Anonymous: Thanks. I agree it has a lot to offer on boundaries — which might be helpful to Brave Face, too.

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