Do you find yourself being incredibly hard on yourself? Do you secretly want revenge on people who have slighted you – but you hold onto resentment instead of doing anything about it? Or do you work relentlessly, to the point of exhaustion? These behaviours are typical masochistic traits within the personality. By masochistic we don’t mean sexual sadomasochism (where one is dominant, the other submissive). From a psychological perspective, 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.
Understanding the origins of a masochistic personality structure
The masochistic personality structure is also called the ‘self-defeating personality’. The roots of this personality structure come from a ‘battle of will’ between the developing child and over-controlling parents.
Parents seek to retain control at all costs. They require obedience and compliance at all times. There is no room for the child to express his own opinions and needs. Love is conditional on being good. Taken to extremes, parents may abuse, chastise and humiliate the child, threatening to abandon or punish if the child does not toe the line.
Growing up like this can have a profound impact. Children can hold onto their hurts, wishing to get back at their parents but lacking the power to do so. Any attempts at revenge are done furtively or passive aggressively. The intrusive or critical behaviour of parents can become the internal voice of a bullying inner critic. Masochists as adults can also become incredibly compliant, losing touch with their creativity, and choosing jobs that are demanding but dull.
Masochistic personality traits
Here we identify the typical traits of a masochistic personality, which you may recognise in yourself or others:
- You work to the point of exhaustion, just to meet your targets. This is abusive to the self, as you push yourself to your limits and beyond.
- You feel humiliated inside – you’re the same as everyone else, remember – but you take extra steps never to show others how you really feel.
- You feel unloved in the world: you always had to work that extra bit harder to be accepted by those around you, and that was never enough.
- Your inner critic attacks everything you do, pushing you to further extremes to prove your worth.
- Your body may be solid, symbolising your defences to the abuse or intrusiveness you experienced in childhood.
- You find it impossible to say no or to assert yourself. You instead try to please but are shaking with resentment inside.
- You complain about your lot in life but never do anything about it, even refusing attempts to help you.
- You may be attracted to abusive relationships where you continue to be humiliated and shamed. Enduring this pain, and not showing that it hurts, is the masochist’s way of maintaining some sense of pride in the self.
- You feel trapped in endless cycles of self-defeat. It’s impossible to enjoy pleasure without guilt or shame accompanying it. You feel hopeless about the future.
How to help yourself if you have masochistic personality traits
Find a therapist. Therapy can help you understand the patterns from your past that may be self-defeating and destructive. Through that awareness of your past you can begin to make conscious choices in your present by becoming aware of your triggers.
Manage your anxiety. It can be terrifying when you start to make changes in your life. After a lifetime of not taking risks, anxiety can kick in when you start to do something for you. A therapist can help with strategies for your anxiety, as well as offering a safe space where you’re not going to be punished for speaking your truth.
Tackle your inner critic. What does it want? When does it get triggered? Whose voice is it? Understanding your inner critic can be the first step to managing it and stopping it ruining your life.
Take personal responsibility. You can take charge of your emotions and feelings and actions without blaming other people for them. That includes getting in touch with your anger about what happened to you as a child and finding constructive ways to express it. Again, your therapist can help you find a way.
Grieve for your past. You may feel sad for the love you never had from your parents in childhood, and perhaps never will have. Working through childhood wounds and allowing them to heal is incredibly painful work. But, with the support of a therapist, grieving your past can free you to live a life of your own choosing.
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