Many people are bonded to suffering in some way. As children, they might have learned that they would be rewarded or comforted if they suffer, or they might have observed suffering people receiving special care and attention. Many children who grow up in unhealthy emotional environments, learn to associate love with their parents’ painful behavior, because they cannot not believe their parents love them. Thus they start to perceive such toxic behavior as expressions of love, even if on some level aware that it is inappropriate.
Such children and later adults might cling to these feeble rewards they associate with suffering. Not only a low level of emotional pleasure helps them find relief and ease pain, it protects them from feeling unworthy. Their unconscious minds can be very afraid of giving up suffering, fearing that the pleasure and illusion of love would also be gone.
Sometimes just the expectation of comfort and reward might be enough to encourage these people to continue suffering or even avoid happiness. This process is usually not conscious – most such people rationally know about healthy pleasure and want it – yet they sabotage themselves from reaching it. Some major religions include the idea of heavenly reward for people who suffer or sacrifice themselves in this life. This tells us enough about how common this defense mechanism is.
People bonded to suffering might play a victim, thereby alienating and frustrating people around them. They might spontaneously create drama and crisis in otherwise promising relationships. They might enjoy complaining and lamenting their lives (most people seem to have some of this trait!). They might be unable to enjoy happy and relaxed moments, fearing that if they relax, mistakes and retribution would follow (which might have been true when they were children).
A family victim reaps many short-term benefits. Other people are likely to avoid demanding much of such a person and will probably be more careful than average in their behavior. They might try to appease the victim by providing special treatment. Victims usually also enjoy the feeling that they are better than others – they are sacrificing themselves while other people are nasty to them. They are usually not aware of their own selfishness and lack of compassion. They invested too much into playing their role. They are not aware of how high is the price – how much potential happiness they reject in this way.
Yet what we commonly call masochism goes beyond this kind of games. Masochists can cause themselves serious physical pain rather than just emotional discomfort. They are more likely to criticise and blame themselves than other people. Their defense mechanisms might be sophisticated enough to enable them to feel normal and function well in most segments of life. Yet suppressed tension is intense enough to seek a painful release.
A client I will call Catherine grew up in a very toxic family. She was rejected, punished and humiliated in many ways. She could never truly relax while growing up. She developed serious self-esteem problems, perfectionism and need to control. As a teenager, she got used to physically harming herself and later found relief in sexual masochism. Another one of my clients wasn’t a sexual masochist, but used to cut herself as a young girl. She witnessed frequent fights between her parents and, while they were smart enough not to force her to take sides, she felt more than enough guilt and stress anyway.
Relief was the key word for Catherine. Experiencing pain meant that she was already punished and didn’t have to anticipate punishment anymore. For many people, anticipation and imagination can be worse than the real thing. Catherine started looking for people with whom she could experience such a relief in a safe way. She could feel safe in giving up control if she could let somebody else have it. What she couldn’t feel safe with was if nobody was in control.
Sexuality was where letting go was allowed and expected. It was the way for her to feel touched and loved. Yet gentleness would feel suspicious and unusual – pain and humiliation were familiar and, paradoxically, safe – and, in her mind, associated with love. Some masochists have also experienced sexual abuse and rape when young, which created another association between sexuality and suffering.
Many masochists feel that they are emotionally healthy and that their sexual preferences are just that – one of many possible “kinky” styles. Yet it is possible that they can only function in the rest of their lives because their sexual masochism is a way to vent stress and tension. Without such a vent, anxiety and self-hatred would probably find a way to spill into other parts of their lives. Similarly to gambling and other addictions, pain can be a strong enough stimulant to distract such people from emotional stress.
Some masochists claim that after such an experience of pain and suffering in “safe” environment they can feel cleansed, which indicates deep feeling of guilt. Masochism is not uncommon among successful and rich people, who might feel that they would be punished if their life works too well. Perhaps as children they could not relax and be spontaneous, as unrestricted joy would result in some “mistake” or an ill-judged act, and therefore punishment. Perhaps they were even punished in some way or threatened if they were simply expressing happiness. Either way, they feel they don’t deserve their success and they feel better if they can initiate punishment themselves, instead of waiting for it to come in unpredictable ways.
Violence and humiliation perceived as love
Another two (male) clients came from very patriarchal families with angry, controlling fathers and victim mothers. They felt closer to their mothers, and felt somewhat responsible to protect or at least please them. They felt guilt and shame about simply being themselves, as their true selves were never recognized and appreciated by either parent. They tried to earn recognition by being what they felt was expected of them, but it was never enough.
From the way their fathers treated their mothers (and sometimes from other family members, too), they started to associate anger, yelling, humiliation and sometimes physical violence with love. A small child doesn’t judge, it just accepts things as they are. Whatever happens around it, a child automatically perceives it as home, family – therefore safety and love. That happens before the child’s rational mind is yet developed, so such imprints are memorized in more primal, instinctive parts of one’s brain. So, no matter what their adult, logical brain would tell them, some older parts of their brains would find relief and pleasure in experiencing humiliation.
Like Catherine, another key factor for these two men was letting go of control and responsibility by giving it to somebody else. As the responsibility they felt in childhood was too heavy for them to bear, letting go of if was a relief and freedom they longed for through most of their lives. A controlling, overconfident person seems able to give them such relief – and when this is combined with some sort of love (or substitute for love) in experiencing humiliation and violence, they may feel they can finally let go and be loved without feeling responsible and guilty.
How to help yourself
One of the consequences is that, even if masochists willingly choose to be hurt and how, such pain is only superficially “safe”. Other parts of such a person’s identity, especially subconscious childish parts, can feel frightened and exposed, and keep losing trust in their own self. Some “inner voices” might not understand what and why is going on – they might only understand the experience of being hurt and humiliated, while the “adult” part of the personality denies them protection. Thus the relationship with one’s self slowly keeps getting worse, which can lead to increased feeling of dependence on other people.
The way for Catherine to heal herself was to first resolve her inappropriate beliefs about responsibility and deserving punishment, and then to resolve her association of love with pain and humiliation. This includes loving herself and developing self-esteem. There are many ways of doing this, but what is most important is to emotionally reach parts of her mind stuck in childhood and to help them change perspective and learn new habits.
Two most important new perspectives are to learn to associate love with kindness and respect, and responsibility with power and freedom rather than guilt. We adapt our approach to a specific person we work with, but in broad terms, we help their inner child create new perspectives and new “memories”. For example, use your fantasy to imagine a history full of love and appropriate responsibility, and focus on experiencing and integrating the good feelings that come with it.
This can take time because old emotional habits are deeply ingrained, but it can open a whole new life in front of you. Along sexual masochism, you can change your core perception of yourself and your place in this world.