Masochistic (Self-Defeating) Personality

Masochistic personality Graphics courtesy of SexducatesOpens in new window

Life is tough enough without making things even more difficult. Some people, however, deliberately put obstacles in their own way, seem to court suffering, and need to fail. Such individuals are called masochistic personalities, though they were termed self-defeating personalities in the DSM-III-R.

Behavioral Patterns of Masochistic Personalities

  • Cursed with an uncanny sense for defeating themselves, masochists routinely set sail for stormy weather and call down setback, loss, frustration, and grief on themselves.
  • When they do experience good fortune, they react with confusion or displeasure and secretly frown at the joy that others might feel for them.
  • Real accomplishments they attribute to luck, specifically to avoid a sense of pride.
  • Paradoxically, they may willingly contribute to the achievements of others, while subtly undermining progress toward their own goals.
  • In love, they often discard genuinely caring persons as tiresome or boring, turn otherwise ordinary mates into persecutors, and seem subtly attracted to those who are insensitive or even sadistic.

The self-defeating or masochist is thus fundamentally different from the other personality disorders, who want to succeed, however subjectively success is defined, but find themselves tripped up again and again by their traits.

Masochists trip themselves up, often at the very edge of success, and are willing to work hard at it, if necessary. In a perverse elaboration on Descartes, the masochist’s motto is, “I hurt, therefore I am” (Shainess, 1987).

The meaning and acceptance of masochism have waxed and waned over time. As a term, it is a recent invention, having been coined in 1986 by German neurologist Krafft-EbingOpens in new window as a sexual perversion to describe males who were impotent unless subjected to abuse or humiliation.

The concept of a class of persons who seem to enjoy suffering as an orientation to life, however, has been around for centuries.

The meaning of the term has since broadened to fit the concept so that most contemporary clinicians, especially those who are psychodynamic, are as familiar with the masochistic personality as they are with any other diagnostic entity. In 1987, it was provisionally described in the appendix of the revised third edition of the DSM as the self-defeating personality.

True to its name, the disorder ran into difficulties almost immediately. Despite its origin, masochism has historically been thought of as an extension of the feminine and submissive.

The classical psychodynamic notion is that masochistic personalities unconsciously encourage and enjoy the abuse they receive. The empirical fact is that most cases of domestic violence are perpetuated by males. When these two are brought together, the result is a political powder keg.

At least partially for this reason, the disorder was dropped from the DSM-IV. Nevertheless, it continues to enjoy widespread currency among clinicians as a construct that explains a great many facets of human behavior. Moreover, a number of studies suggest that the disorder is common (Kass, 1987; J. Reich, 1987), and its existence is predicted by the evolutionary model.

Case Example: Theresa
As an example of a masochistic personality, consider the case of Theresa. Her husband’s comments set up the diagnosis, made even more dramatic by the fact that they are volunteered. Thus, we learn that Theresa torments herself, it’s the pattern of her life, and “she seems to live for it”. She even takes classes that are too difficult, without having the necessary prerequisites, forcing her to give up, withdraw, and waste her time and effort.

Like most masochistic personalities, Theresa rejects the assistance that others offer. When she gets herself in trouble in her classes, her husband offers to find a tutor for her, but she refuses under the thin excuse of not wanting to burden him, thus ensuring a bad outcome. When good things happen to her, she finds a way to undermine their effects. For example, she refuses to celebrate the good or refuses to enjoy it. She even returns most of her Christmas gifts to the store.

Her husband even warns the therapist not to “let her enjoy herself too much, or you might make her suicidal.” Although he is being sarcastic, the meaning of his words is clear. Theresa also punishes herself by failihng to accomplish her personal goals. “Everything I touch falls apart,” she states. In fact, she uses work to impose on her school performance, and she uses school to impose on her work performance. Like most masochists, she is also excessively self-sacrificing. She always finds time to send cards on important events and volunteers for church and then complains that no one seems to want her as a friend.

From Normality to Abnormality

Although such persons would seem extremely rare, masochistic traits are as ubiquitous as guilt and, therefore, are easily found on a continuum with normality. In their normal expression, they can be considered adaptive, idealized, and, perhaps, almost saintly.

The self-sacrificing style individuals live to serve and to be helpful to others. When they are allowed to give selflessly of themselves, everything is right with the world. Forever putting others above themselves, they have a reputation for being kind, considerate, and charitable.

Always forgiving, they believe that people should be accepted and appreciated for who and what they are, not judged harshly by some extrinsic or legalistic standard. Although they willingly shoulder the burdens of life for those they love, they feel uncomfortable when their good deeds are singled out for praise, honestly believing that no thanks or recognition is necessary.

Moving closer toward pathology, Millon et al. (1994) describe the yielding style, individuals who usually possess abilities far in excess of what they lay claim to but nevertheless prefer to remain deferential and unassuming. They avoid displaying their real talents and abilities and instead place themselves in an inferior light to avoid any hint of competition. Sometimes, they seem to encourage others to take advantage of them. Although such traits have historically been associated with women, in fact, they are just as likely to be found in males (Stone, 1993).

Another way of creating a more normal masochistic personality style is by normalizing the diagnostic criteria of the DSM-III-R.

  • Whereas individuals with the disorder seem to seek out disappointment, failure, or mistreatment, those with the style do not.
  • Whereas the disordered individual rejects or undoes the assistance of others, the style tends to focus on the welfare of others before self.
  • Whereas the disorderd responds with negative emotions after positive personal events, the style prefers to remain humble and resists taking public credit for accomplishments.
  • Whereas the disordered sometimes deliberately provokes anger or rejection from others, the style is charitable and deferential, sometimes to the point of indulging misbehavior.
  • Whereas the disordered refuses pleasurable activities, the style enjoys activities that fall short of self-serving hedonism.
  • Whereas the disordered fails to accumulate personal accomplishments despite adequate ability, the style prefers to work behind the scenes in devotion to the achievements of others.
  • Whereas the disordered rejects legitimate sources of nurturance, the style is sometimes too indulgent in trying to bring out the positive in others.
  • Whereas the disordered is excessively self-sacrificing, the style is fulfilled by putting others before self, but not pathologically so.

For each of the preceeding applicable contrasts, Theresa falls more toward the pathological side.

Variations of the Masochistic Personality

Not every masochistic personality is like our guilty wife. In fact, although Theresa does not exhibit all the diagnostic criteria of the masochistic personality, she is, nevertheless, more of a pure type, meaning that she does not combine characteristics of any other disorders with her basic masochistic pattern.

Masochists often exhibit features of other personality disorders. However, the resulting moods and actions that these individuals manifest give a different coloration to the basic masochistic pattern that makes them similar to, yet different from, pure cases like Theresa’s. Variants of the masochistic personality are summarized below.

  1.     The Self-Undoing Masochist

Classical psychoanalysis views the masochist as actively and repetitively searching for circumstances that lead to suffering or even destruction. From the outside, such persons seem gratified by misfortune, failure, or humiliation, preferring instead to be disgraced, victimized, or even ruined. Driven by a “success neurosis,” they experience favorable outcomes as producing anxiety and guilt, not pleasure and happiness.

Rather than suffer success, self-undoing masochists search out failure or punishment, subtly reversing their good fortune. Seemingly striving hard for accomplishment, they either stop just short of its attainment or manufacture some means of proving themselves unable to follow through. Covertly, they are gratified by their own defeat (Schneider, 1923/1950).

Fearing things will suddenly turn sour, they would rather be pitied as an unfortunate victim of circumstance than as someone who had striven hard but failed. Failure may bring on a sense of relief that they must no longer live up to some standard. As such, they combine aspects of the masochistic and avoidant personalitiesOpens in new window.

  1.     The Possessive Masochist

Like other masochists, possessive masochists give constantly of themselves. However, they are unable to let go of their attachments. Instead, they become so indispensable and self-sacrificing that others are unable to withdraw from them without feeling incredibly cruel.

Others become entrapped and dominated by a dependency driven by the fulfillment of their every need. Through ostentatious sacrifices, possessive masochists intrude into the daily affairs of their children, spouses, friends, and peers, meddling in activities, romance, occupation, and anywhere else they can obtain a foothold.

Ostensibly altruistic acts create grounds for inducing guilt in others, which may be used to prevent them from distancing or ending the relationship. Mates are overprotected and jealously guarded, bribed for love, and controlled through guilt. In effect, they become self-sacrificing vampires whose kindness bleeds their victims dry.

  1.     The Oppressed Masochist

As a combination of the depressed and masochistic personalities, oppressed masochists mope around complaining of their terrible condition but end by saying, “But don’t let my suffering make you worry about me; do what is best for you.”

In one voice, they disavow any need for assistance and explain that they do not want to burden others, yet present themselves as having suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune.

Anyone who comes to their aid eventually feels emotionally drained and guilty, made to feel as if moving on with his or her own life was an abandonment.

Hypochondriacal manipulations may come to the fore when no other method of gaining love and dependence seems available. Becoming a sorrowful invalid is a rather pathetic solution, a genuine but self-created suffering that forces others to be caring and nurturing. Oppressed masochists do not necessarily enjoy their suffering; their discomforts are merely an instrumentality designed to secure pity and assistance.

  1.     The Virtuous Masochist

As a combination of the histrionic and masochistic personalities, virtuous masochists are proudly unselfish and self-sacrificial. Self-denial, asceticism, and stoic tolerance of adversity are seen as noble and righteous, a sign of purity and saintliness, the glorification of misery.

Rather than accept the inferior status of other masochists, they assert their specialness by sacrificing themselves completely to others or for some meritorious cause, all the while manipulating circumstances so that their good deeds are open to public view.

Pathways to Symptom Expression

Masochistic personalities are vulnerable to a number of Axis I disordersOpens in new window. As always, it is important to remember that there is a logic that connects the personality pattern with its associated Axis I syndromes.

As with depressivesOpens in new window, masochists frequently experience the chronic gloom of dysthmiaOpens in new window. Following rejection, these feelings may escalate into a major depression and then seem to subside again into the slow torment characteristic of the personality.

In part, depression may be used instrumentally to elicit sympathyOpens in new window from others, particularly where it can be attributed to dashed hopes and tragic self-sacrifice. Even the virtuous masochist, whose reaction formation trades suffering for the mantle of righteousness, sometimes deflates under the worldview that life’s punishments are intrinsically cruel and unusual. A diffuse anxiety may be mixed with these depressive feelings.

Like the dependent and depressive, the masochist is highly vulnerable to fears of loss and abandonment.

Particularly where they have made themselves exclusively dependent on a mate or caretaker for basic survival, they are likely to fear that desperate self-sacrifical efforts are not sufficient to protect them against personal loss. States of panic may also emerge under these conditions, especially when the attachments needed to maintain their stability are in serious jeopardy.

Finally, physical symptoms and illnesses that lack adequate medical foundation may be used to evoke sympathy from others, solidify unstable attachments, reduce criticism and hostility from others, exact sadistic revenge by further burdening unhappy caretakers, or even placate their own guilty feelings as a symbolic self-flagellation.

See also:
  1. Miller, G. A. (Ed.). (1995). The behavioral high-risk paradigm in psychopathology. New York: Springer.
  2. Shriqui, C. L., & Nasrallah, H. A. (Eds.). (1995). Contemporary issues in the treatment of schizophrenia. Washington DC: American Psychiatric Press.
  3. Theodore Millon, Carrie M. Millon, Sarah E. Meagher, Seth D. Grossman, Rowena Ramnath. Personality Disorders in Modern Life.