A masochist is a person who purposely inflicts humiliation and pain on herself or himself. Masochistic tendencies can rise to the level of masochistic personality disorder, also known as “self-defeating personality disorder.”
People with masochistic tendencies judge themselves harshly. They desire consequences for people who’ve wronged them, but they stifle their resentment instead of taking action. They endure pain without showing they’re hurting in an attempt to maintain some sense of self-pride. And they often work to the point of exhaustion.
In this context, masochism doesn’t involve sexual behaviors such as sadomasochism, in which one partner dominates and the other submits. From a psychological perspective, masochists inflict humiliation and pain on themselves. In other words, masochists’ self-defeating behaviors are inflicted by themselves on themselves.
The Roots of Masochistic Personalities
Masochistic personalities usually develop out of the battle of wills between developing children and their over-controlling parents, who sought to retain control no matter what. They required compliance and obedience at all times, which left no room for the children to express their needs and opinions. Love was conditional, based on the perception of good behavior. At the extreme, parents humiliated, chastised, and abused the children, threatening to punish or abandon them if the children didn’t meet their expectations.
Growing up like this has profound effects. Children hang on to their hurts and want revenge on their parents, but they lack the power to do anything. Attempts to get back at the parents are done passive-aggressively or furtively. Parents’ critical or intrusive tendencies can evolve into the bullying voice of a harsh inner critic. As adults, a masochist may become excessively compliant. This may lead them to lose touch with their creativity, or to choose careers that are challenging but tedious.
Traits of a Masochist
Here are several common masochistic personality traits. You may recognize them in yourself or in others.
- You work to exhaustion to meet your goals. This is self-abuse, as you push yourself beyond your limits.
- You feel inner humiliation. You’re the same as everybody else but you go to great length to hide how you truly feel from others.
- You feel unloved. In the past, you always had to work to gain acceptance from those around you, but it never was enough.
- Your inner critic judges and denounces everything that you do. This pushes you to extremes in an attempt to prove your worth.
- Physical strength is important to you. Strength results from your childhood desire for a defense against the intrusiveness or abuse you were going through.
- It’s impossible for you to assert yourself or to say “no.” Instead, you try to please, but you’re full of resentment inside.
- You’re dissatisfied with your situation in life, but you don’t do anything about it and even refuse others’ offers and attempts to help you.
- You’re drawn to abusive relationships, so you continue to be shamed and humiliated.
- You’re trapped in an endless cycle of self-defeat. It’s impossible for you to enjoy pleasure without also feeling shame or guilt.
- You’re hopeless about your future.
The Value of Therapy
Therapists can help their clients understand the self-defeating patterns from their past. With an awareness of your past, a therapist will be able to help you start making conscious choices and become aware of your triggers. Here are four specific ways a therapist can help people find healthy ways to alleviate the suffering from masochistic personality tendencies.
- Manage anxiety. Starting to make changes in your life can be intimidating and scary. After avoiding risks for your entire life, anxiety will likely kick in when you begin doing things for yourself. A therapist will be able to help you develop techniques to deal with your anxiety, as well as offer you a safe place where you won’t be penalized for speaking the truth.
- Silence inner critics. Understanding the origin of your inner critic is the first step toward silencing it so it stops ruining your life. To start this process, a therapist will help you discern what it wants, when it’s triggered, and whose voice it is.
- Take personal responsibility. It’s possible to take charge of your actions, feelings, and emotions without blaming others for them. This includes gaining control over your anger regarding what happened to you in your childhood, and developing healthy ways to communicate about it. Again, a therapist will help you walk through this process.
- Grieve for the past. You may feel sadness over the lack of love from your parents in your childhood, which likely will continue through your adulthood. Working through childhood hurts and letting them heal is painful. But a therapist will support you as you grieve over your past and gain the freedom to live the life you choose.