Sometimes dubbed ‘masochistic personality disorder’, self-defeating personality disorder is a proposed mental condition and personality disorder that causes those who experience it to continuously engage in self-defeating behaviour, or avoid pleasurable experiences.
Since it was first proposed in 1987, our understanding of self-defeating personalities has changed considerably. It was initially discussed among other personality disorders, in the DSM-III-R (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed., revised), though wasn’t formally accepted. Since the publication of the DSM-IV, self-defeating personality disorder has been excluded from the manual, though remains an informally recognised diagnosis among many mental health practitioners.
It’s important to note that self-defeating personality disorder is not an explicitly sexual condition. Though it is often confused or conflated with sexual masochism disorder, the conditions are unrelated. If you have questions or are concerned about sexual masochism disorder, The Awareness Centre has professional help available in the form of psychosexual and relationship therapy.
Are you worried that you or someone you love is struggling with self-defeating personality disorder, but aren’t sure how to tell? In this blog post, we’ll take a closer look at the diagnosis and treatment options for this challenging mental health condition.
Diagnosing Self-Defeating Behaviour
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) characterises masochistic personality disorder as a condition where individuals continuously “obtain gratification or freedom from guilt feelings as a consequence of humiliation, self-derogation, self-sacrifice, wallowing in misery, and, in some instances, submitting to physically sadistic acts.”
Self-defeating personality disorders are recognised as a pervasive pattern of self-defeating behaviour, rooted in childhood trauma. It doesn’t occur exclusively in any one single context; rather, it presents in a wide variety of situations.
The condition is noticeable by early adulthood, and typically the individual masochist will: actively avoid positive personal events, undermine pleasurable experiences, be ‘drawn into’ relationships where they will be emotionally, physically or psychologically abused, and/or stop other people helping them in achieving his or her personal objectives.
Before it was removed from the DSM, a diagnosis was only possible when an individual presented with at least 5 of the following behavioural symptoms:
- Rejects opportunities aligned with personal interests, and selects relationships/situations that will invariably result in disappointment or failure
- Snubs or spoils the attempts of others to help them
- Engages in self-defeating behaviours, or behaviour that produces pain, following a ‘positive’ event, such as a work promotion
- Incites angry emotions in others, or provokes people into an angry retort, which leaves them feeling defeated. For instance, the individual might belittle a friend, who responds irritably, after which the individual is hurt and humiliated
- Turns down opportunities for enjoyment, despite having adequate social skills to participate, or refuses to acknowledge enjoying themselves
- Consistently fails to accomplish tasks crucial to their own personal development, goals or objectives. For example, the individual may enthusiastically help a friend with household chores, but be unable to perform them in their own home
- Avoids or is not interested in spending time with people who consistently treat them kindly
- Repeatedly carries out behaviour that might be considered ‘self-sacrificial’, despite not being asked or encouraged to do so
- A compulsive need to spoil or dodge positive experiences, or a tendency towards self-sabotage
A possible origin for self-defeating personality disorder may lie in childhood. Overly controlling parents, requiring constant obedience and compliance, can quash a child’s ability to express their own opinions and needs. In extreme cases, this controlling style of parenting may become abusive, where the child might be routinely humiliated, hurt, or threatened with abandonment in the wake of ‘bad’ behaviours.
However, many critics of self-defeating personality disorder brand it as a damaging concept. In the eyes of some, it victim-blames sufferers of abuse, holding them ultimately accountable for the traumatic experiences they have been through.
Theodore Millon, who has written extensively on a range of personality disorders, proposes 4 subtypes of masochistic personality disorder. Millon’s subtypes are:
- The virtuous masochist
Characterised by proudly unselfish behaviour, a noble perception of significant burdens, a need to have their loyalty recognised, and an expectation of gratitude for their self-sacrifice.
- The possessive masochist
Characterised by ‘trapping’ people in jealous, overprotective relationships, or controlling and dominating others by behaving with unvarying self-sacrifice.
- The self-undoing masochist
Characterised by experiencing “victory through defeat”, gratification at misfortune, lack of attention paid to best interests, and choosing to be “victimised, ruined, disgraced.”
- The oppressed masochist
Experiences real misery and despair, which is used to create guilt in those around them, or expresses hardship by burdening themselves with the responsibilities of others.
Depending on the severity of your condition, it is often possible to help yourself manage self-defeating behaviours. If you believe that you’re struggling with masochistic personality disorder, there are several ways you can help yourself:
- Allow yourself to feel grief for past experiences
The withholding of parental love can have a profound impact on a person, with effects that last a lifetime; and the impact is amplified if the behaviour of one or both parents was abusive. The pain caused by this trauma may never truly heal, but it can be helpful to give yourself the emotional space to work through the experience. Try to acknowledge your childhood pain in a non-confrontational way, be patient with yourself, and aim to draw a line between hurtful experiences and mental challenges.
- Try to take control of your feelings
If you’re able to peaceably come to terms with the way your childhood pain has led to self-defeating behaviour in adulthood, the next step is to try and take personal responsibility for your feelings and emotions. This may mean accessing the pain or anger held within you, but finding new ways to express it; by creating art, having conversations with trusted people in safe spaces, or spending time in nature, for example.
- Understand your triggers
Self-defeating behaviour may be rooted in deep memories, but it is triggered into action by events that occur in your day-to-day life. If you feel self-defeating behaviours coming on, ask yourself: ‘what did that person say to make me feel this way?’ ‘Where was I spending time before these feelings came on?’ ‘What scenes have I witnessed recently that caused me pain?’ Understanding the triggers of self-defeating personality disorder is one of the most effective preventative techniques you can cultivate in yourself.
- Work on anxiety-management techniques
Stress and anxiety are often the unwelcome counterparts of self-defeating behaviours, and can cause tremendous mental and emotional pressure. You may also experience stress and anxiety when you start to engage in self-rewarding behaviour, or do things for yourself, after declining these activities for a period potentially stretching back years. If stress and anxiety start to creep in as you tackle masochistic personality disorder, it’s a good idea to contact a professional, who can help you manage the feelings as you navigate this challenging time.
Professional Guidance for Masochistic Personality Disorder
Sometimes, in a case of extreme self-defeating personality disorder, the best course of action may be to seek therapeutic assistance.
Do events which should be ‘happy’ cause you clinically significant distress? Do you find yourself drawn to sexual partners who hurt you? Are you routinely rejecting responses of kindness from friends and family? Are you in a relationship with someone who makes fun of you?
If so, you could be experiencing a more acute case of self-defeating personality disorder. Though the condition may be deeply-seeded, it is absolutely treatable, under the caring guidance and warm advice of a clinically-trained mental health practitioner.
If you’d like to discuss anything you’ve read in this blog post, book an appointment with The Awareness Centre today. Our team of over 300 specialist therapists has the knowledge and experience to help you tackle your self-defeating behaviour, and help put you back on the path to a happier, more rewarding and enriched life.