- "Masochism" is related to humiliating sexual encounters, but its broader definition regards attraction to self-defeating behavior.
- Anyone may engage in a self-defeating action, but some are pervasively drawn to them.
- Masochism colors borderline, dependent, depressive, and masochistic personality types, creating hurdles for patients and therapists.
- Pervasive, self-defeating patterns should alert therapists to the possibility of personality pathology.
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch probably didn't intend to live on in popular culture as a synonym for sexual kinks that can reach disorder status. While his namesake is associated with the desire for bedroom humiliation, masochism has a much broader definition regarding setting oneself up for failure.
Origination of the Term
The term "masochism" was first coined in the late 1800s by psychiatrist Richard Kraft-Ebbing after a character in Sacher-Masoch's novel, Venus in Furs, who sought torture and deprecation for sexual pleasure (Millon, 2011).
This narrow, sexual-based definition persisted until Freud, in 1924, coined the term "moral masochism" (McWilliams, 2013), hypothesizing that some peoples' unconscious guilt is assuaged by punishment-seeking, otherwise known as self-defeating behavior (Castelloe, 2021). This wider conceptualization led to several well-known analysts (e.g., Reich, Horney, Sullivan, etc.; (Millon, 2011)) expanding on the idea and recognizing that masochistic, or self-defeating, behaviors weren't uncommon but existed on a continuum.
On the more innocuous end of the self-defeating activity spectrum is the person who continues to exercise with heavy weights, "working through" their pain/injury to maintain gains, but ultimately is sidelined for a more acute injury. Then there is the child who, for instance, learns that getting themselves in trouble is a quick way to gain their parent's attention. On the most pervasive end of the continuum is the Masochistic personality, a relational style defined by self-defeat. Perhaps best summarized by Berliner (1958), these individuals lead lives where "it is the suffering that matters."
Masochism Within Personality
As discussed in "Masochistic Personality, Revisited," there is a colorful history of debate regarding its inclusion in modern diagnostic manuals. Despite the current lack of inclusion in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), or the International Classification of Disease (ICD), a purely masochistic personality, often referred to as the "self-defeating personality," remains readily accepted by personality aficionados, particularly by analysts (e.g., Millon, 2011; Kernberg, 2012; McWilliams, 2013; Glick & Berger, 2021).
Further, borderline, dependent, and depressive personality types have their own unique masochistic characteristics. Noticing pervasive, self-defeating patterns, as illustrated below, can inform clinicians of the presence of personality pathology and guide care/supervision. This is especially important if the therapist is not versed in working with matters of personality, and referral may be necessary.
Manifestations of Masochism in Personality Disorders
Borderline personality: At first glance, the borderline's penchant for self-mutilation, suicidal activity, and bingeing on substances may seem like their form of masochistic activity. However, their general core schema is most self-defeating in nature.
As discussed in "10 Core Beliefs of Personality Disorders," those with borderline personalities interact with the world through the lens of "I'm a victim." People with borderline personalities likely were somehow victimized early on, engendering a sense of rejection. Desperately wanting acceptance but fearing the pain of rejection, they evolved a hypersensitivity to rejection that ironically (and ultimately self-defeatingly) brings about what they fear most.
To illustrate, I once worked with someone who, upon visiting her new boyfriend's house for the first time, noticed photos of him with his ex-wife and children. Fearing this as a sign she would not be the central woman in his life, she emailed an accusation that he was still attached to his ex if he had those photos displayed, how she couldn't believe how insensitive he was by leaving those out, and to forget about seeing her again.
It might seem counter-intuitive that someone whose greatest fear is abandonment would push away someone so fast. However, to the person with a borderline personality, it makes sense as a preemptive, face-saving strike, i.e., "You didn't abandon me. I abandoned you." Thus, they may go through life perpetuating a self-defeating, self-fulfilling prophecy.
Dependent personality: People with dependent personalities will readily submit to please their attachment figure. Not unusually, this is regardless of energy they have to expend or perhaps even in contrast to their own values. It functions to maintain a satisfactory standing with the attachment figure as protection against abandonment and being left to fend for themselves. Further, such individuals can highlight their self-sacrifice as if to say, "I suffer for you. You must love me!" In short, they enter into self-defeating behavior in order to maintain dependence.
Depressive personality: As written about in "Depression or Depressive Personality," this condition is no longer in the DSM or ICD. Like masochistic personality, however, it remains widely accepted by personality experts as a valid condition (e.g., Finnerty, 2009; Millon, 2011, McWilliams, 2013; Shedler, 2021). Such individuals exhibit remarkable, pervasive pessimism and self-abnegation. Always complaining, they naturally repel others, only to complain that no one likes them.
The depressive personality's self-defeating/masochistic streak, however, is in their tendency to believe they are so inadequate there is no point in trying. Further, people with depressive personalities are often self-flagellating and could feel they deserve to succeed. They may wear the "poor me's" like a badge, complaining of how they've tried this or that and nothing comes of it, so they've just given up over the years, hoping to garner the empathy they can't provide themselves.
Masochistic (self-defeating) personality: In this personality style, individuals tend to find self-worth and reward only in sacrificing for others; it can be akin to pathological martyrdom. They likely came from a background where the only time they were rewarded was when doing for others, like what happens to parentified children, and their needs came second, if at all. Resigning to this as their purpose and what gives them value, and the primary manner in which to gain positive regard/be able to relate to others, the pattern is repeated at their expense.
This is perhaps best illustrated by the person who is always dropping everything to help others, or offering their services unsolicited, only to bellyache that they have no time for the things they want to do or need to get done.
The wife of one person I worked with complained that my patient would even “find causes,” which was wearing on their relationship. For example, after standing in line for 15 minutes and about to be called on for a table, he asked the family behind them if they’d like to cut simply because their child was getting fussy.
Another patient struggled with the dichotomy of feeling a sense of fulfillment but hating themselves at the same time for still yielding to their mother's every need, despite the mother having a caregiver, and gravitating towards romantic relationships where the partners required inordinate amounts of their attention.
It was as if suffering was the price of relationships and acceptance, a common experience for those with this personality style.
Berliner, B. (1958) The role of object relations in moral masochism. The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 27(1), 38-56. DOI: 10.1080/21674086.1958.11926077
Castelloe, M.S. (2021, March 22). Understanding the pleasure of pain: The forms of masochism. The Me in We, for Psychology Today Blogs. https://bit.ly/3jlxuLI
Feinstein, R. E., Glick, R.A., & Berger, B. (2021). Masochistic/self-defeating personality styles. In R. Feinstein (Ed.), Personality Disorders. Oxford Academic, https://doi.org/10.1093/med/9780197574393.003.0025
Finnerty, T (2009). Depressive personality disorder: Understanding current trends in research and practice. Worldwide Mental Health Publishers
Kernberg, O. F. (1988). Clinical dimensions of masochism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 36(4), 1005–1029. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306518803600407
Kernberg, O.F. (2012). Clinical constellations of masochistic psychopathology. In Holtzman, D. and Kulish, N. (Eds). The Clinical Problem of Masochism, (pp. 15-28). Rowman & Littlefield.
McWilliams, N. (2013). Psychoanalytic diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process (2nd ed.). Guilford.
Millon, T. (2011). Disorders of personality: Introducing a DSM/ICD spectrum from normal to abnormal (3rd ed). Wiley.
Shedler, J. (2021). The personality syndromes. In R. Feinstein (Ed.), Personality Disorders. Oxford: Oxford University Press