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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

Why So Many of Us Are Masochists

There are few psychological concepts harder for most of us to grasp than masochism: how can we speak of enjoyment and pain? How might we willingly seek out the unpleasant and the demeaning and privilege it over the sweet and the kind? Why don’t we simply head for goodness and reassurance and leave torment far behind?

We have to start by asking what exactly we mean by pain. We don’t — in this context — mean physical suffering; we’re referring to a variety of painful ideas to which our minds are drawn and that might run something like this:

— Everyone hates you.

— You’re a terrible person.

— You look despicably ugly.

— You are a loser and everything you do turns to rubbish.

— You’re a laughing stock.

— You’re about to be disgraced and removed from society.

The paradox only increases. How could we speak of someone ‘enjoying’ filling their minds with such dispiriting thoughts? Why would we show enthusiasm for hunting out this kind of judgement (perhaps by scouring the internet or surrounding ourselves with malevolent people), and privilege the resulting discomfort over alternatives?

To speak of enjoyment is deliberately circuitous. It isn’t pure pleasure that is involved, it might be more accurate to say that, as masochists, we find awful ideas about ourselves compelling and, above all, true, far truer than anything we otherwise come across about our identities, far truer certainly than love and approval. We are like moths to the degenerate claims of our worst enemies. In low moods, we deliberately rub ourselves with the stain of their insults and run away from the perceived blandness and naivety of kindness. We ‘love’ pain for being profoundly familiar; we love it for taking us home.

Horrible thoughts are likely to echo some of the feelings of our intimate pasts; they are versions of messages we may have received and internalised in our first homes, when we were small vulnerable creatures deeply impressed by the authority figures who produced us and who told us — along the way — what sort of people we were. They — who knew so much — understood what little cretins we were; they — who controlled the known universe — had a good sense that we were a mistake. And ever since, though hearing we are unworthy is appalling, in another way, it returns us like nothing else to a known and habitual place.

It takes only the slightest reversal to ignite the journey back. We might hear of a rumour circulating about us in the office and immediately jump to one of our ‘favourite’ ideas: that we are a laughing stock. Or we get into a dispute with a friend, leave the restaurant on a bad note and by the time we have reached our apartment, our minds are firmly fixed around another of our most often-accessed and most perennially intriguing ideas: that we’re about to be disgraced and removed from society.

The previous calm times we had, the generous assessments of friends and affectionate partners, these might have been flattering and easy, but they never had any of the solidity and perceived intelligence we associate with scenes of humiliation and fear. The real truth about us was worked out long ago and it has never had anything to do with ease or kindness. 

We might aspire to serenity but — as psychological masochists — we are wired for panic and terror; we may want to live in the house of love, but — until we have unpicked our traumas — nothing will feel more like home than the house of pain.

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