When we hear the word masochism, sexual masochism normally comes to mind.  Some people experience sexual excitement in suffering pain or humiliation.  Sexual masochism was named after the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who’s sexual excitement was dependent on suffering and torment.   Freud went further and found that some people (who may or may not be sexual masochists) seek suffering outside the sexual realm – he called these people moral masochists.

There are people who seem to attract or cause situations that is not in their best interest and can cause them pain and harm.  Freud started thinking about this, because he believed that people’s actions were initially motivated by the pleasure principle (seeking pleasure) and later by the reality principle.  Why would some people take the route of suffering that seems to be chosen or caused by themselves?  For these people there can also be an unconscious wish to torture others with their pain.  An extreme example of masochism is when people mutilate or harm themselves without wanting to commit suicide.  Do they enjoy this pain?  For many who self-mutilate the physical pain is nothing in comparison with the emotional relief they experience though this action.    This indicates that their suffering is in the service of a greater good (alleviating emotional pain).  The same can be true of someone who stays in an abusive relationship.  They  could be suffering the abuse to prevent something that feels like a greater harm, namely to be abandoned or breaking up their family if they assert themselves.

People with an underlying masochistic personality structure long for relationships and emotional connection.  They often sacrifice their power in order to preserve the relationship.  Masochistic people experience themselves as suffering unfairly and can feel deep anger and resentment.

Someone with this personality structure could evoke a painful, angry or rejecting reaction from others.  For instance, if you believe that others will eventually reject you, you my react in such a way that you evoke the rejection.  Then, at least,  you don’t have to wait for the rejection and you have some control over it happening.  Clearly this example shows that early pain like rejection and cause an unconscious repetition compulsion – meaning that the person creates a situation where they are rejected again, but this time(if they evoke the rejection) at least they have some control.  These people can provoke anger, rejection or abandonment in others because they do not trust the peace. They do not feel safe when things are going well, they anticipate an outburst of violence or an experience of rejection or even abuse.

Because these people have an underlying fear that they are bad, they try and seek  the reassurance from others that it is not they who are bad, but someone else (like their partner/spouse).  They may therefor try and get others to confirm the badness of their partners and their own innocence.

Why would someone function in this way, evoking or causing themselves pain and suffering?  Mostly the childhood of such a person is filled with premature loss because their caregivers did not meet their needs, neglected  or even abused them.  In many of these types of families children experience that if they are really ill or really suffering in some way their parent does respond.  This can set up a pattern of finding ways to attract other people’s care by suffering or other types of misfortune.  There is the idea that all hope for care is not lost, if you suffer enough you can elicit care from others.  For some of these people the only time that their parents were emotionally involved with them was when they were punished,  humiliated or teased. This creates a link between pain and emotional involvement.  At least when I am punished I am not totally neglected and ignored.   The greatest underlying fear that they live with is abandonment.   In some families  children are praised for excessive self-sacrifice.  For instance,  when a child’s mother dies and he is strong and takes care of the other siblings and he receives a lot of praise for this.   The idea is created that self-sacrifice attracts attention and praise.  Therefor masochistic people often sacrifice their own power  and do not act on their own behalf.  They could also use their suffering to enhance their self-esteem and look down on others.

Do people with masochistic personalities enjoy suffering?  No, but they could provoke suffering, because they expect it and if they evoke it themselves at least they have some control.  They can evoke punishment, because at least it can cause others to respond (negative attention is beter than no attention).  They can also hope that if they suffer enough this could illicit care and emotional investment from others.  They may believe that if they suffer and do not act in their own best interest they can be seen as courageous and special.  These people have an underlying fear that they are bad.  Unfortunately these people can cause themselves a lot of pain and destruction.  When they are offered help, they may not use the help because they are invested in suffering ( as a way to get attention or to be seen as righteous for endure mistreatment so courageously).

The information for this articles comes from the book Psychoanalytic Diagnosis by  Nancy McWilliams.