When a person’s history is full of decisions and actions that are harmful to them, it can be difficult to understand. Freud saw self-destructive behavior as the most difficult problem to solve with his theory because it goes against the idea that organisms try to minimize pain and maximize pleasure.
Masochism is a term used to describe self-destructive behavior, which may or may not be pathological. Children often learn that one way to get attention is to get themselves in trouble, and this masochistic behavior can become part of their character. When diagnosing a personality disorder, the presence of masochism suggests that the person’s core ways of thinking, feeling, and coping are repeatedly harmful to them. A masochistic personality disorder is different from a depressive personality disorder and requires a different approach to treatment.
The Emotions of a Masochist
The emotions of a person who suffers from chronic depressive feelings will often experience feelings of guilt, in addition to sadness and other emotions.
Although little is known about the constitutionally caused contributions to masochism, clinical experience suggests that the person who becomes characteristically masochistic might be more sociable or constitutionally outgoing than those who develop a schizoid personality.
The question of vulnerability to masochism is still poorly understood. Masochism may not always be from childhood trauma or maltreatment, but different effects may manifest in children of different genders: Girls who are abused tend to develop a masochistic pattern, whereas boys are more likely to identify with the aggressor and to develop a sadistic direction. However, this is not always the case.
Defense Mechanisms in Masochism
It is general for humans to try to cope with inner experiences by using sadistic behavior. This kind of behavior is a self-deflating way of trying to master a painful situation.
Sometimes, this defense mechanism is used by people who have suffered abuse or trauma. Freud was astonished by what he called the “repetition compulsion,” which is the tendency of people to repeat painful situations from their past.
Relational masochism is an anxiety disorder. A specific piece of the mechanism here seems to be a special way of treating the introjective depressive conviction that one is bad. An urge to introject the suffering, indeed surrendering to it, can become so important that it overwhelms other more significant objectives.
Another general defense is denial. Masochistically organized people have the tendency to portray themselves as pitiful beings, seeking suggestions and recommendations from others, demonstrating they are genuinely in need of help. Yet, they may not openly acknowledge why they seek help, and the intentions of their helpers may be well appreciated but are often not followed earnestly.
The Origins of Masochism
Some theorists have suggested that masochistic individuals are actually hopeful depressives. They argue that, unlike in depressive conditions, the deprivation or loss that leads to a masochistic reaction is not so devastating that the individual has given up on the idea of being loved. Many masochistic individuals have experienced abuse or neglect, but also some form of responsive caregiving that has led them to believe that if they suffer enough, they will eventually receive the love and attention they crave. This creates a problematic cycle in which the individual continues to seek out relationships in which they are mistreated in the hopes of finally being seen and cared for.
Some researchers find evidence to suggest that some people become masochistic due to being rewarded for enduring tribulation in the past. For example, a person who took care of a dying parent may have been praised for their self-sacrifice, leading them to repeat this behavior in future relationships.
It is also possible that somebody may be masochistically attached to a partner who is likely to abuse them. Masochistic and paranoid people have a common orientation to threat, as they are both living in a world where they perceive themselves to be constantly in danger.
People with a tendency to feel guilt or self-blame often seem to take pleasure in their own suffering, but this is not actually the case. They may have a self-image similar to that of a depressive, feeling unworthy and deserving of punishment. They also may derive some benefit from their suffering, such as a boost to their self-esteem or a sense of connection with others. When speaking about instances of mistreatment, they may also be secretly enjoying the opportunity to defame their abuser.
Masochistic Patients in Therapy
Some people’s behaviors are similar to a child who needs care but can only get it by suffering. Some clients can be seen as very protective parents because of their emotional involvement with their children, who may need to be convinced to comfort them. If the patient is involved in dangerous or disturbing situations, the therapist may feel that the patient’s safety must be secured before treatment can begin.
In less extreme cases, the patient may communicate a sense of helplessness in the face of life’s difficulties and can only cope by trying to be tolerant or cheerful in the face of misfortune. Masochistic patients often try to persuade the therapist that they need to be rescued but also fear that the therapist is an uncaring or abusive authority who will expose their worthlessness or abandon them. Self-defeating patients often live in a state of dread that others will discern their shortcomings and reject them. To combat these fears, they try to make themselves appear helpless and good.
We separate our feelings about a client into two different categories when we experience masochistic dynamics: Countermasochism and sadism. And usually, we have both of these feelings present. The most common response from the therapist is to be too generous at first, trying to convince the patient that we understand their suffering and that they can trust us not to attack them. But then, when this just seems to make the patient more helpless, we start to feel irritable and have fantasies of hurting the client in retaliation for their resistance to help.
There have been many studies on masochistic dynamics, including their origins and functions, their unconscious objectives, and their hidden meanings.
Many aspects of classical treatment can be experienced by clients as redundant to humiliating interactions of dominance or submission. To escape from this, some changes in the treatment have been proposed, such as face-to-face treatment, concentration on real relationships in addition to transference, and avoiding all traces of omnipotence in the analyst’s tone. These changes help to eliminate all potentially masochistic features of the therapy situation and allow patients to feel autonomy and closeness.
It is important to remember that feeling angry when something doesn’t go your way is normal. There’s no need for it to be shown with the justification of self-righteousness or the experience of suffering.
Psychologists should refrain from expressing pity for clients who are prone to masochism as it can reinforce the client’s belief that they are helpless. Instead, the therapist should emphasize the client’s ability to improve the situation. It is also important not to rescue the client or believe wholeheartedly in their guilt and self-doubt, lest one reinforces it.
Many times, it is helpful for the therapist to take care of themselves without feeling guilty about the reactions of the masochistic patient. This may help to inspire the masochistic patient to do the same. It is often helpful to resist the anxiety one feels about a patient who has difficulty communicating their feelings in a dangerous situation and to address the distressing material in the desired way and not with an alternative to address the problem. However, it is important to time these interventions correctly. The therapist who is trained to handle the patient must also be careful when handling them since the patient will feel criticized and blamed if the therapist comes on too strong or too fast before a reliable relationship is in place. In addition to doing things and behaving in ways that go against the disorderly, abnormal, and disordered expectations of masochistic patients, the therapist should also actively interpret evidence for unreasonable and valued unconscious beliefs.
The therapist should not give in to the anxiety of the client but should instead provide reality-based guidance. This can be difficult, as timing is critical, and the client may feel criticized and blamed if the therapist comes on too strong or too fast. It is important to show the client that their suffering is beyond the therapist’s control while still respecting their ability to change their circumstances. The therapist also has to detect the existence of irrational and highly welcome unconscious convictions, like the belief that suffering will lead to love.
Differentiating between Diagnoses
We often use the term masochism to describe a personality trait or characteristic that someone has. This is different from “characterological masochism,” which refers to a more formal mental disorder. People who suffer from characterological masochism tend to have a preoccupation with depression and dissociation.
When working with clients, it is important to be able to differentiate between depressive and masochistic tendencies. Both types of people need to feel accepted, but those with primarily depressive tendencies need reassurance that the therapist will not judge or abandon them. Those who are more masochistic need to learn that self-assertion can elicit warmth and acceptance. The wrong approach can reinforce self-destructive behavior.
Dissociation is a state in which a person is not fully aware of their surroundings or what they are doing. Masochism is a psychological condition in which a person derives pleasure from pain or humiliation. Many people who engage in self-destructive behaviors do so in a dissociative state, meaning they are not fully aware of their actions. Therefore, it is important for therapists to ask patients about their level of dissociation when exploring self-destructive behaviors.