By Mike Bundrant of the iNLP Center.
Disclaimer: By writing this article, I do not suggest that emotional masochism is a conscious choice.
I also do not claim that it is anyone’s fault. Emotional masochism may be part of human nature with origins that predate the average person’s awareness of consciousness.
In my experience, becoming aware of emotionally masochistic tendencies for what they are is a rare phenomenon, even though such tendencies appear to be universal. Let’s start with defining masochism, then move to the emotional twist so many of us unknowingly place on it.
What is a masochist?
A masochist is someone who practices masochism. Many masochists define themselves as such openly. They know what they do and why. Emotional masochists rarely understand what they do and why. We can safely call them closet masochists.
What is masochism?
Defined as the enjoyment of what appears to be painful or tiresome, masochism seems quite a stretch for most people. Yet, it’s one of the more common occurrences in our daily lives. Have you ever allowed yourself to get sucked into an argument? The frustration and pain involved – however great or small – is avoidable. Yet, we rarely avoid such opportunities, do we?
Recognizing everyday emotional masochism is one of the more helpful things we can do. Learning how and why we do it so that we can recognize it a necessary step and the purpose of the short e-book Your Achilles Eel: Discover and Overcome the Hidden Cause of Negative Emotions, Bad Decisions and Self-Sabotage.
How can one possibly find pleasure in pain?
You’ve probably seen documentaries or movies that feature radically religious devotees who self-flagellate. The devout one bull whips himself to shreds, basking in the spiritual high that comes from the physical pain.
And you think, “Wow, that guy is nuts!”
What if, however, as we scorn the masochist, it is simultaneously happening right under our nose – inside our own mind and body? And what if we are scorning masochism in others because we don’t want to see self-flagellating tendencies in ourselves?
This might be particularly applicable to emotional masochism, which is defined as finding subconscious pleasure in emotional negativity.
The pleasure principle – the universal law of pleasure and pain – holds that people will consistently seek pleasure and avoid pain. This seeking pleasure and avoiding pain should manifest in behavioral choices.
On the surface, the pleasure principle would rule out self-harm, self-loathing, self-criticism, low self-esteem, anxiety of all kinds, depression, fear of success, fear of failure, and a host of other emotional ills. After all, none of the above is pleasurable, right?
Not so fast.
Why do we commonly do ANY of the following?
1. Start arguments for no apparent reason.
2. Engorge ourselves with food until it hurts.
3. Quit goals right when things start to go well.
4. Run from happy relationships.
5. Quit jobs that have potential.
6. End friendships over trivial matters.
7. Knowingly spend more money than we have.
8. Abuse alcohol and drugs.
9. Tolerate people who hurt us.
10. Tolerate people who control us.
11. Tolerate people who reject and demean us.
12. Tolerate people who humiliate us.
13. Refuse to stand up for ourselves.
14. Hold onto painful feelings.
15. Criticize ourselves incessantly.
It’s safe to say that – in general – none of the above is absolutely necessary. Also safe to say that each of these examples causes some kind of emotional pain. We have choices. Yet, we so commonly opt for the most painful one.
Why? Emotional masochism – the tendency to find some strange or subtle pleasure (familiarity, self-justification, delicious self-victimization) – may be the culprit.
An alternative way to view this is to call chronic yet avoidable emotional pain a psychological attachment. This phrasing suggests that, even though we consciously hate the angst, we are somehow attached to it. It’s often been with us so long that we can’t imagine any other way of being.
Acknowledging such attachments, since they are often unconscious, is a critical first step in recovery. For more on how psychological attachments create self-sabotage, watch this free and enlightening video.
For a personal story about how self-sabotage can ruin a life, read this post!