The Psychology of Masochism

The Psychology of Masochism


Masochism, a term derived from the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, refers to the tendency to derive pleasure from pain, suffering, or humiliation. While traditionally associated with sexual gratification, masochism extends into various psychological and social realms, manifesting in behaviors, emotional states, and interpersonal relationships. This article explores the complex psychology of masochism, examining its origins, types, theoretical explanations, and implications. 

Origins and Types of Masochism

Developmental stages and early childhood experiences can be linked to masochistic behaviours. The originator of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, claimed that the “pleasure principle,” which holds that people pursue pleasure in order to avoid suffering, is the fundamental source of masochism. This idea is inadvertently flipped in masochism, where suffering serves as a means of achieving pleasure. Freud also made a distinction between primary masochism, which is a natural aspect of the human psyche, and secondary masochism, which is a later development frequently connected to self-punishment and guilt.

Related: Father of Psychoanalysis: A Deep Dive into the Life of Sigmund Freud

Modern psychologists make a distinction between moral or psychological masochism, where the agony is primarily emotional or psychological, and sexual masochism, when people get erotic pleasure from suffering pain or humiliation. This more inclusive perspective aids in the understanding of non-sexual actions that could be mistakenly labelled as masochistic, such as self-defeating habits or remaining in unhappy relationships.

Theoretical Explanations

The psychology of masochism has been explained by a number of ideas. Masochism is thought to be a protective mechanism against emotions of guilt or unworthiness, according to psychodynamic theories that have their roots in Freudian psychology. Feeling humiliated or in agony, the person subconsciously feels they are making up for perceived shortcomings or transgressions.

Related: Sigmund Freud’s 5 Most Important Contributions to Psychology

Behavioural theories, on the other hand, concentrate on the parts of conditioning in which masochistic behaviours are gradually taught and reinforced. Someone may come to equate pain with comfort or love, for instance, if they receive attention or care after being harmed.

Cognitive theories emphasize how attitudes and beliefs influence masochistic behaviour. Some people may think that their prior experiences of abuse or low self-esteem justify their current misery or suffering. They search for circumstances that support these false perceptions about themselves as a result of this cognitive distortion.

According to attachment theories, masochistic tendencies might be influenced by early relationships with caregivers. Masochistic behaviours can be adopted by people with insecure attachments, which are marked by a fear of rejection or abandonment, as a means of preserving emotional intimacy or control in relationships.

Related: How Does Your Attachment Style Affect Your Relationship?

Implications and Coping Mechanisms

Determining coping strategies and comprehending the psychology of masochism are complex processes that call for in-depth reflection and frequently expert advice. The major objective is to pinpoint the underlying causes of masochistic behaviour, deal with them, and swap out unhealthy behaviours for better ones. Here is a summary of the main points:

Therapeutic Approaches: 

In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), other therapeutic modalities may also be advantageous. Psychodynamic therapy, for example, investigates the unconscious mechanisms and early life events that give rise to masochistic tendencies. In order to find hidden memories and unresolved issues that might be impacting the patient’s current behaviours, this style of treatment digs into the patient’s past.

Related: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Concepts, Types & Techniques

Developed initially for borderline personality disorder, dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) can also be helpful, particularly for those who self-harm. DBT focuses on teaching coping mechanisms to control emotions, handle stress, and strengthen bonds with others.

Another source of assistance is group therapy, which enables people to discuss experiences and coping mechanisms with other people going through comparable difficulties. It can offer a network of support and lessen feelings of loneliness.

1. Mindfulness and Self-Compassion: 

These procedures can be explained in more detail because they are essential to the healing process. Being mindful entails focusing on the here and now without passing judgment. This can assist people in distinguishing between constructive and detrimental ideas and behaviours. Additionally, it aids in controlling impulsive responses to emotional distress.

It can be especially difficult for people with masochistic inclinations to treat themselves with kindness, empathy, and forgiveness while practicing self-compassion. Leading expert on self-compassion Kristin Neff recommends exercises like self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity to develop a more sympathetic outlook on oneself.

2. Building Healthy Relationships:

Relationships are frequently the setting in which masochistic behaviours surface. As a result, treatment may concentrate on teaching patients how to set limits and develop their interpersonal skills. This may entail figuring out how to communicate requirements and desires effectively, saying ‘no’ when necessary, and recognizing unhealthy relationship patterns.

3. Lifestyle Changes and Self-Care: 

Resilience and general mental health can be enhanced with consistent physical activity, a balanced diet, and enough sleep. Engaging in joyful and fulfilling hobbies and pastimes can also have therapeutic benefits, such as enhancing self-esteem and lowering the need for masochistic behaviours to cope with emotions.

4. Education and Awareness:

Acquiring knowledge about masochism and comprehending its psychological foundations will enable people to make knowledgeable decisions regarding their healing and rehabilitation. This can involve reading pertinent books, going to workshops, and keeping up with the most recent findings and coping mechanisms.

Related: What is Rehabilitation Psychology?

5. Support Networks:

Having a network of friends, family, or a support group can also help by offering accountability and encouragement. Gaining knowledge from others and exchanging experiences might open your eyes to fresh ideas and inspire you to keep pursuing your recovery. Recall that conquering masochistic inclinations is an individual and sometimes difficult path. It’s critical to approach it with tolerance, empathy, and a readiness to ask for and receive assistance.


A wide spectrum of behaviours, motivations, and underlying psychological mechanisms are covered by the intricate and multidimensional psychology of masochism. People can start addressing and recovering from these inclinations and live happier, more satisfying lives by knowing the causes and expressions of masochism. It is critical to approach masochism with compassion and an open mind, acknowledging the deep-seated anguish and vulnerability that frequently underlie these behaviours, as research and understanding on this topic continue to advance.

References +
  • Baumeister, R. F. (1988). Masochism as Escape from Self. Journal of Sex Research, 25(1), 28-59.
  • Kelsey, K. T., & Ornduff, S. R. (2001). The Paradox of Masochism: Current Theory and Research. Journal of Psychology & Human Sexuality, 13(2), 21-33.
  • Cross, P. A., & Matheson, K. (2006). Understanding Sadomasochism: An Empirical Examination of Four Perspectives. Journal of Homosexuality, 50(2-3), 133-166.
  • Freud, S. (1924). The Economic Problem of Masochism. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 5, 157-170.
  • Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.
  • Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.
  • American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.

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