Department of Psychiatry
Penn Behavioral Health

PAH Outpatient Behavioral Health Clinic

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Newsletter: October 2011

An Introduction to the Concept of Masochism

Robert Riordan, JD, PsyD


The term masochism tends to conjure up associations with sex and sexual behavior.  However, in modern clinical psychology, the term masochism refers broadly to the act of engaging in self-defeating behavior (and the term masochist refers to the individual who engages in such behavior).

Individuals with masochistic traits often appear to have a difficult time “getting out of their own way” when they attempt to address problems in their lives.  For instance, an individual with masochistic traits - let’s call him Mark - may claim to be depressed because he does not care for his current job. Mark’s loved ones might explore with him a seemingly obvious solution to his problem – it would seem advisable for Mark to seek a new job.  However, as opposed to pursuing such advice, Mark, as the result of his masochistic traits, may engage in behavior that makes it impossible for him to benefit from such advice.

Specifically, Mark may unconsciously put obstacles in his own way as he contemplates or undertakes the pursuit of a new job.  For instance, he may conclude with limited information that all available positions are not suitable for him and that none of them will be an improvement over his current job. As such, Mark may not take any steps to secure a new position even though his current job appears to be a source of dissatisfaction. Alternatively, if Mark does pursue a new position, he may find that he is unsuccessful because, for instance, he may sabotage his own efforts by failing to follow instructions when applying for a new position (such as job application deadlines) or failing to arrive on time for his scheduled job interviews.

Why would Mark act in this manner when he appears to believe that his current job is causing him discontent? Or, alternatively, why would Mark act in a seemingly self-defeating manner after he had bothered to make the effort to apply for new jobs?

Prevailing theories hold that, among other things, masochistic behavior may be a means of maintaining significant interpersonal relationships.  As noted, Mark’s loved ones may believe that Mark is unhappy at work and, as such, he would be well-advised to find a new job. However, some theorists maintain that, based on his early relationships with the people on whom he depended, Mark may have learned that pain and discomfort are equated with getting love; in order to get love (attention, concern, etc.) from the significant people in his life, Mark may believe that he must suffer.  In effect, Mark’s suffering draws the important people in his life closer to him and prompts them to display their love for him.  From this viewpoint, Mark is not discussing his discontent at work because he wishes to fix his employment situation.  Rather, he is focused on his employment problems because this discussion unconsciously serves as a means to engage others and to draw from others the caring that Mark desires.

Therapists who work with masochistic individuals attempt to help these patients to recognize and understand the unconscious function of their self-defeating behavior.  While many individuals would respond to Mark with sympathy and caring, and many would offer Mark concrete advice, the therapist instead would try to help Mark understand that he need not demonstrate his suffering in order to receive from others the love and care that he desires.  Rather, the therapist may help Mark take ownership of his wish to receive care from the significant people in his life while also placing the onus on Mark to address troublesome things in his life (such as an unsatisfactory job) in a manner that is ultimately not self-defeating. In other words, the therapist would seek to help Mark get out of his own way as he addresses those arenas in his life that he believes would bring him greater personal satisfaction.