Masochistic personality is the possession of traits that seek suffering, pain, or humiliation in order to obtain love and respect. The habitual suffering is often accompanied by habitual sabotaging one’s opportunities for success. Perhaps, an unseen psychological force motivates behaviors that keep the masochist in circumstances that conveniently produce suffering for the masochist to lavishly complain and ruminate over, serving as evidence for their perception of the remarkable unfairness of their lives.
Unfortunately for the masochist their painful defensive reactions, sacrificing self in order to gain acceptance from others, often backfires, creating interpersonal exchanges that fail, driving others further from their lives. Perhaps, the groupings of masochistic traits and personalities infects and destroys rather than protect.
Steven K. Huprich Ph.D. contends that masochism is a component in many personality disorders. He states that “inherent in theories of depressive and narcissistic personalities is the idea that they are fundamentally masochistic” (2014).
Masochistic Personality Disorder
Self-defeating personality disorder (also known as masochistic personality disorder) was a proposed personality disorder. A common grouping of traits centered around perpetual failures and disappointment has been recognized by psychoanalyst and researchers for over a century. Masochistic personality disorder, however, was never formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, and subsequently never identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
During the mid-80’s, leading up to the release of the third edition of the DSM, significant debates were conducted over the possible inclusion of masochistic personality disorder in DSM-III-R. The decision eventually was to allow other personality disorders to absorb the masochistic personality criteria for purposes of diagnosis and treatment.
Masochistic personality disorder was never formally admitted into the manual. However, after the debates and discussions about the peculiarities of traits commonly associated with masochistic personalities, a proposed criteria for the disorder was included in the appendix of DSM-III-R.
Many researchers and theorists continue to use the DSM-III-R criteria for diagnosing, treating, and studying masochism.
While masochistic personality disorder isn’t included in recent publications of the DSM, the lack of official recognition by the APA does not mean that the masochistic grouping of personality traits does not existent. Many psychoanalyst and clinicians continue to diagnose patients with masochistic personality disorder. Such diagnosis allows for referring to the substantial research on masochism.
History of Masochistic Personality
The term “masochism” has appeared regularly in psychiatric literature since 1900. Sigmund Freud included references to masochism in some of his early research and writing (Pestrak, 2004). The masochistic personality criteria presented above from the DSM-III-R appendix is the end product of this transformation.
Listed criteria, such as that for masochistic personality disorder, creates structure for research. However, the clarity also includes some confusion and uncertainty. No classification of character trait groupings can adequately describe the human condition. The structure provides guidelines for research that adds to the richness of data and understanding. However, forcing labels and diagnoses onto individuals can be limiting and fragmenting.
“The psychological masochist is someone who looks for ways to torment themselves in their day-to-day.” ~Lisa Rankin | MindBodyGreen
Sigmund Freud and Masochism
Until Freud, most of the research and classifications of masochism focused on sexual perversion—the practice of gaining erotic pleasure from passive or actively seeking out humiliating and/or cruel behaviors bestowed by a loved one (2004).
Freud’s writing separated sexual masochism from moral masochism.
Freud’s moral masochism could include sexual suffering but widened its definition to include other self invited suffering. According to Freud, it was the suffering that mattered. The masochist continually invited and accepted painful physical and emotional blows. “Freud interpreted the masochistic process as the individual’s own sadism toward a loved and hated object turned inward and directed at the self” (2004).
Masochistic Traits and Tendencies
We can organize masochistic traits into a few common themes:
Masochism and Self Criticism
The masochist constantly engages in harsh self criticism. They pelt any deviation from perfection with harsh judgement. The masochist constantly suffers from a magnified, critical, and mean spirited superego.
The masochist appears to be in a losing game of trying to prove their worth. However, successes fail to achieve this means. Their self criticism belittles each success, stripping it of value. Shame and guilt always prevail.
The opposite of self critical judgements is self kindness. T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “self-kindness is responding to personal failures, injuries, and imperfection with warm understanding of our imperfect humanness” (2018).
The masochist is not kind to themselves, offering no empathy for their own humanity. Normal and natural reactions, even emotions, becomes points of insufficiency.
- “I shouldn’t have done that.”
- “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
Masochism and the Victim Mentality
A person with high levels of masochism often adopt a victim mentality. They perceive themselves as a target of a cruel game. The masochist constantly complains about treatment from to others, focusing on the unfairness.
Each challenge, struggle, or unplanned occurrence is interpreted as a cataclysmic conspiracy to ruin their life. An unwelcomed intruder that is a companion with the victim mentality is avoiding personal responsibility for improving one’s own life.
Murphy explains, “a victim orientation to the world is when life happens to you rather than being an active participant in making it happen” (2019).
The perpetual victim is trapped in helplessness, powerlessness and hopelessness (Weinhold and Weinhold, 2014; Location 41). The victim mentality is a self-perpetuating cycle, creating the failures that is cited as evidence of unfairness.
- “Good people always finish last.”
- “They make it impossible to succeed.”
- ”I was only trying to help.”
“The self-defeating behaviours that a masochist endures are often done by the self to the self. In other words, masochists inflict pain and humiliation on themselves.”Karen Dempsey | The Awareness Centre
Masochism and the Denial of Self
An inherent challenge of our existence is balancing conflicting needs and demands. Flourishing requires a constant balancing of the opposing demands. A primary conflict, constantly invading space, and creating untold illnesses, is the opposing demands between appeasing the self and compassionately caring for others.
This conflict between self and others is woefully out of balance for the masochist, sacrificing the self while serving the other.
These sacrifices are not done with a joyful, giving heart; but a forced sacrifice for acceptance. The giving leaves a residue of resentment. The masochist unconsciously believes that for acceptance they must deny the existence of their self.
They feel unloved in the world, always working to be accepted but never achieving the desired security. Accordingly, the masochist screams “torture me; but please, please don’t leave me.” George E. Valliant referred to this as a “cowardly purchase of intimacy with masochistic sacrifice” (1998).
The murder of the self in search for acceptance has many sad consequences. The driving force often culminates in abusive relationships, notably with narcissists that are threatened by the autonomous needs of others. The suffering seeking masochist makes a perfect match for the pain serving narcissist.
An Abusive Relationship With the Self
The abusive relationship provides plenty of suffering for the masochist while providing endless fodder to feed the victim mentality. Often, life without the drama of a victimizing relationship is feared more than the abusive relationships
Roy F. Baumeister wrote that, “masochism is an all out attack on the self, an attempt to remove the main features of the self. Masochism represents an unusually powerful and probably effective means of escape from self” (Baumeister, 2014).
The denial of self, murdering our human right to autonomously exist, is not final. The conflict lives on. The abandoning of self creates new conflicts, stirs new emotions. One man explained his turmoil as having “shame about not having a self—guilt about wanting to assert myself, about saying no, resisting, because it is murderous,” he says. “Being myself, standing up for myself, is murderous and brings the severest retaliation” (Wurmser, 1997, Kindle location 6,991).
Masochism and Destructive Behaviors
In the extreme, masochistic personalities are self destructive. They are drawn to pain, so they create it. Victor Pestrak explains, “the masochistic client cannot cope with a warm and non-threatening environment.” He continues, “when in a truly benign environment once can observe masochists react as if this were beyond their comprehension; and they panic” (2004).
Murphy expounds on self harming behaviors. He wrote, “we sabotage healing, pulverizing futures for scanty rewards of immediate gratification. Lurking beneath conscious experience is a self-punishing intruder, flogging our souls and ripping our psychic flesh. Since these monsters live in the unconscious, we are powerless, confined to their self-punishing chambers. We serve these self-denigrating masters, convinced that we don’t deserve better” (2019).
Masochistic Behaviors are Automatic
Mostly, we can assume that masochist don’t make conscious decisions that destroy their lives. Self destructive behaviors become habitual escapes from discomfort.
Susan David Ph.D., a leading authority on how our thoughts, emotions and motives, explains, “these self-sabotaging responses are not what we choose to do; they’re what we’ve been conditioned to do, and will continue to do until we unhook from the flight to the familiar and find the agility to shut down the autopilot, show up, step out, and take agency of our own lives” (2016, location 2196).
Our conditioned responses, escapes the discomfort and we repeatedly fail. We choose relationships that hurt, drink all night before the big test, sleep in and show up tardy for the interview. We do it over and over again. Slipping into routine behaviors that self sabotage success. And then play the victim.
Erich Fromm suggests that masochists need the excitement. They struggle to arouse their senses in normal environments. He wrote, “masochistic behavior, the pleasure in suffering or submitting, has one of its roots in this need for excitement. Masochistic persons suffer from the difficulty of being able to initiate excitation and of reacting readily to normal stimuli; but they can react when the stimulus overpowers them, as it were, when they can give themselves up to the excitement forced upon them” (2013 Kindle location 5,877).
Masochism vs. Sadism
Masochism is often compared with sadism. We see them both as negative traits. And in extremes they both are. Freud introduced sadism and masochism as mirror images of one another (2016). Sadism is outward aggression, with masochism is aggression turned inward. Perhaps, in some cases, suppressed anger soon internalizes and expresses itself through masochism.
In more lay terms, sadists are the victimizers, while masochists are the victims.
Fromm suggests that both masochistic and sadistic personalities struggle to relate with others. In their struggles they adopt either a masochistic or sadistic style. Fromm explains, “both the sadist and the masochist need another being to “complete” them, as it were. The sadist makes another being an extension of himself; the masochist makes himself the extension of another being. Both seek a symbiotic relationship because neither has his center in himself” (2013 Kindle location 4,833).
How Does a Masochistic Personality Form?
Personalities are a complex construction derived from biological givens and interactions within the environment. There is no specific event or gene responsible for personality. Instead, a host of contributors both inside and outside of the organism influence, interact and shape personality. We become through a reciprocal interaction between ourselves and the environment, dynamically interacting and creating a destiny.
Over the centuries psychologists and scientists have hypothesized about the causes of masochistic traits. A few theories are worthy of mention.
Childhood, Superego, and Masochistic Personality
One theory stemming from early psychoanalytical thought is the integration of early toxic family environments, where parental treatment is internalized by the child. The critical judgments, lack of validation, and harsh treatment of a primary adult figure in the child’s life is integrate into their own psych, continuing the harshness long after the child grows and leaves the family home.
One of the earliest and most significant contributors to the development of the masochistic personality is early deprivation. “Masochists’ parents, due to their own narcissism, fail to adequately meet the child’s early development needs. This early deprivation results int these children growing up unaware of their own needs (Pestrak, 2004).
A child develops a sense of self during early years. When the child is ignored, belittled, or treated as an insignificant being, they adopt these attitudes about themselves.
Lacking Ability to Feel
By ratcheting up the stress (emotional or physical), the masochist may puncture the protective screens and feel. Pestrak adds, “while this pain is not pleasurable for the masochist, it does serve some important functions…it is preferable to numbness” (2004).
Pain Blocks Other Thoughts and Feelings
Baumeister contends that masochists use pain to commandeer attention away from other painful aspects of self. He explains, “the appeal of pain in masochism apparently derives from its capacity to blot out the burdensome world and the meaningful aspects of the self.” Baumeister goes on to explain, “masochism can be understood as a set of techniques for stripping away the meaningful aspects of the self—for reducing awareness of self from a complex, symbolic identity to that of a merely physical body.”
Baumeister sees pain as a “central feature of masochism. The sensation of pain (or even sometimes the implied threat of pain) can focus attention effectively on the here and now” (1992).
Is the Masochistic Personality A Defense Mechanism?
Valliant lists masochism as an immature defense mechanism, adopted to regulate difficult emotions. Valliant explains that, “immature mechanisms of defense can be dynamic modes of adaptation and not simply a rigid armor that deforms the personality” (1998).
Masochism may perform defensive strategies to protect against pain, where ever the cause of the pain.
The masochist that focuses almost exclusively on others isn’t necessarily compassionate. We unconsciously focus on others to fulfill a selfish agenda. Pestrek warns that the masochist are “overly pleasing, self-sacrificing, and self deprecating. but inwardly willful, ambivalent, and angry (2004).
The conflict plays out in relationship damaging behaviors. Their kindness is motivated, like a social desirability bias, given in order to be accepted. Their self sacrifices are “trojan horses” filled with sharp barbs and traps. When their suspicious gifts of kindness don’t return the rewards they seek, resentments and anger build. The masochist still may mediate their reaction, fearing rejection, but express their anger in less obvious ways, such as through passive aggressiveness.
We refer to this overly generous, deceptive kindness as camouflaged altruism (2004).
Projecting Masochistic Inner Judgements on Others
The malignant nature of extreme masochistic personalities is the inner critic spills over onto judgements of others. We unconsciously mediate and disguise the judgements. Friend to your face, enemy behind your back.
We don’t always hide the meanness well. Kind remarks punctuated with non-verbal cues such as eye rolls and facial expressions. Kind but not really.
Leon Wurmser warns that these passive aggressions can transform into active behaviors. He wrote, “part of this omnipotent turning of passive into active is the active dehumanization of the other: the patient uses others as tools and part objects in the same way as he had been used—objectified, dehumanized, manipulated, depersonalized” (1997, Kindle location 7,088).
Malignant Self Regard
Some research points to a personality construct known as malignant self regard, finding this construct is a common component to all personality disorders (Huprich, 2014).
We may see malignant self regard as the mirror opposite of unconditional positive regard when applied to self views.
Literature describes malignant self regard as behavioral traits and tendencies for “perfectionistic and idealistic thinking, hypersensitivity towards criticism, core beliefs of being inadequate or not good enough, behavioral patterns that are ultimately self-defeating or hurtful to one’s intentions, and propensities toward depression and depressive affect” (2014).
These traits dreadfully impact interpersonal relationships, involving “tendencies toward self-deprecation around others, hyperactivity towards the opinions of others, and tendency to put others’ needs and well-being before one’s own ” (2014).Shame and Masochism
Shame is present in many psychological disorders. The pervasive and malignant feelings of rejection live in the minds and bodies of many, continually nagging, condemning, and stirring the destructive stings of chronic stress.
Wurmser includes masochism as part of thee “shame family.” He concludes, “the sadomasochistic interchange is always and only about shame, just as all forms of defensive withdrawal are about shame” (1997, Kindle location 6,660).
A Few Final Words on Masochistic Personality
We all have traces of masochism in our personalities, just as we possess traits of narcissism, and sadism. We can’t slam our complex personalities into a box with unforgiving definitions. However, groupings, such as these for masochism, help us understand the extremes so we can moderate our own strains of unhealthy expressions and traits.
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