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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

Are You a Sadist or a Masochist?

Two of the strangest but most powerful aspects of our psychology are drives we refer to respectively as sadism and masochism. By sadism is understood an enjoyment in causing others suffering. And by masochism, an enjoyment in receiving ill-treatment from others. Though commonly associated with sexual scenarios, these drives operate in all areas of life: at the office or in the school yard as much as in the bedroom or the dungeon. Unfortunately, much of what humans do is in the end explicable only with recourse to these two melancholy concepts.

Which begs enquiry. Why do we seem to delight in inflicting suffering or, even more strangely, to take satisfaction in enduring it?

1850s illustration showing a woman beating a man with a strap in a leather-making workshop.

The best way to understand the phenomena is to view them as attempts to deal with an earlier intolerable experience of fear, cruelty or unkindness. Before anyone winds up either a sadist or a masochist, they have first been a victim. Subsequent behaviours are a reflection of the mind’s concerted attempts to find a way out of a naked encounter with pain. Masochists and sadists are both trying to ensure that they will survive what once felt like it might annihilate them. 

The sadist hits on the more straightforward move. Having received cruelty, they conclude that the best way to escape its shadow is to be cruel to somebody else. The poison is redirected outwards. The former terrified child becomes a terrifying adult. Implicitly, the sadist believes that there are only two roles available – victim or perpetrator – and that their best chances of never again ending up as the former is to ensure that they are always the latter. Cruelty promises to buy protection. Sadists can’t believe in a world without nastiness (their life stories tell them as much); they just want to make sure they will mete it out rather than receive it. 

Masochists have – like sadists – also been the victims of cruelty. Like sadists, they are also in flight from defencelessness. But their method of adaption is more roundabout. A sense of weakness, real or imagined, holds them back from attempts to persecute others. And yet they still need some psychological way of alleviating the memory of suffering – and so hit upon what could almost be labelled an ingenious idea.

They decide that they will henceforth choose suffering rather than have it forced on them; they opt to turn a necessity into something akin to a choice. They do to themselves, in their own time, what the world once shocked them to their core by doing to them at a moment of its choosing. Once they had no option but to be bullied by their family of birth; now they go out in active search of mean-minded partners whom they can unconsciously tell will deny them tenderness and care. Once they were told by others that they were worthless and undeserving; now whenever they succeed, they tame their anxieties by cutting themselves down to size by their own hands, they destroy their chances of happiness before anyone else has the chance to do it for them when they are innocent and unprepared. They are assiduous in spoiling every opportunity for contentment and harmony. It may not be easy but it feels like their first home and this time, they’ve at least gone there of their own volition.

Sometimes, the rigmarole turns sexual: a masochist whose parent betrayed them might carefully choreograph a scenario in which they witness their partner making love to a third party. Once loss was imposed, now it happens at their precise behest; they choose the betrayer, they pick out the torture instruments, they decide when they are going to be spat on.

To liberate ourselves, we need to find our way back to the pain that lies behind our behaviours: the bullying we received, the hurt we suffered, the losses that devastated us. And then we should do something we have until now avoided: mourn what we have gone through. We should exchange pain for sorrow. We should cry for what we have had to endure, not ask anyone else – it might be a stranger or, as regrettably, ourselves – to suffer any further. We should restrict pain to the past rather than offering it an indefinite future.

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