Do You Have a Misery- or Martyr-Habit?

The fear of being exposed cultivates unhealthy habits.

Posted Mar 19, 2019

Imagine Mary, who always follows the rules in every aspect of her life. She is always first to work, never leaves early, finishes all projects early and immediately starts the next. She also provides ample growing opportunities for her children and is a dutiful daughter. If there is an i to dot and a t to cross in any area of her life, she’s all over them. Mary works so hard at everything she does; there are never any half measures on her part. She believes by the sheer force of her will and hard work, she can bend reality to get the results she wants. She doubles down on her effort when the finish line is in sight. Her identity hinges on others seeing her as someone who works harder and more successfully than others. She needs to see herself that way too.

What are the effects of living this sort of life? William James (1902) worries someone such as Mary becomes like a machine that “refuses to run at all when the bearings are so hot and the belts so tight.” While it might be tempting to label Mary’s condition burn out, there’s something greater at risk. The mind-cure movement of the late 19th century provides an interesting diagnosis and treatment that are relevant today. One prominent mind-cure proponent, Horace Fletcher, is particularly helpful here.

The problem, according to Fletcher, is fear. While fear serves important roles for each of us individually and for us as a species collectively, fear becomes a hindrance that seriously weakens a person. The line between legitimate and illegitimate fears becomes far too porous. While it is important to be good at planning and deliberate about warranted and justified fears, people start to suffer when they start anticipating and planning around fears that are remote, imaginary, or over-blown. Our forethought, Fletcher claims, becomes fear-thought. When fear-thought governs our lives, we are susceptible to high degrees of self-inflicted suffering.

What is the particular flavor of Mary’s fear-thought? She’s afraid of being found out by others that she isn’t what she appears to be. She’s perhaps equally or even more afraid of finding out her own self. These fears masquerade in two guises mentioned by William James: the misery-habit and the martyr-habit. These habits can blend into each other but for clarity, I’ll describe each individually. Mary with the misery-habit turns everything into a chore or obligation. She keeps churning away on all her tasks. Even things that others might regard as fun, she turns into work. Trying to be happy becomes one more task to be done. She fears that others may find out that she can’t have fun/is no fun. She can’t be happy even as she tries her best to make sure everyone else is happy. She fears discovering she doesn’t know what fun or happiness is to her. Even more worrisome, having fun or being happy is impossible for her. She fears discovering that she is A Miserable Person. She fears this conclusion, so she keeps doing more things because at least some of them should make her happy.

The martyr-habit is a trickier dynamic to identify since we in the US live in a culture that (over)values hard work to such a degree that there seems to be an on-going contest for who can work the longest, postpone vacations, and answer an email the quickest no matter the time. Mary with the martyr-habit thinks of herself as working harder than everyone else or having to do everything because she is the only one who knows how. A martyr tends to refuse any help for a variety of reasons: someone else will only get in the way, or do it incorrectly, or require her to do more work. To Mary’s way of thinking, her worth is in being better than everyone else. She’s terrified that if others discover that she isn’t perfect and can’t do it all, they’ll see she’s just like them. If Mary were to meet someone who could work harder/longer/more effectively than she, she would confront the fact that she is not the best. To her, anything less than the best is the worst. Mary recognizes that she better start working harder and doing better so that no one, including herself, could reach these conclusions.

Fletcher’s diagnosis about fear-thought comes with a recommendation common to many of those writing in the mind-cure movement. The recommendation would be horrifying to someone like Mary: relax, let go, stop assuming so much responsibility that isn’t properly yours, and finally, surrender. The term “surrender” is heavily freighted. Many people think it means to give up or quit. To surrender in this context is to loosen your grip. When you clutch something too tightly, your hands can cramp. When hands cramp, the pain of the cramp may pale next to the pain of trying to pry your fingers open.  If you can’t open your fingers, how can you grab hold of new possibilities and opportunities?

Mind-cure writers recommended people change their starting points in thinking. Instead of fearing something bad is going to happen or that you will be exposed or found out as a fraud or whatever, begin with a positive thought. Cultivate even a tiny bit of optimism. Fletcher believed that fear and optimism are opposing forces. Where fear reigns, optimism is nearly extinct. Where optimism reigns, fears are kept in appropriate check and fear-thought can’t take root. Overcoming fear-thought may be a gradual process or it may happen suddenly if one finds herself in a situation that forces her to take stock of her life. Whether gradual or sudden, the change from fear-thought to optimism is what William James describes as a conversion. If Mary were to experience a conversion, James might tell her, “you will find you not only gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you thought you were renouncing.” Mary may find great happiness, fun, and worth when she stops working so hard (and harder than everyone else) to achieve them.


Fletcher, Horace. (1897). Happiness as found in Forethought minus Fearthought. Menticulture series ii. Chicago and New York: Stone.

James, William. (1902 and 2012). The Varieties of Religious Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press.