The Masochistic Personality and Health

December 5th, 2016






“The mind, at times, takes masochistic delight in suffering.”

― Saurbh Katyal



When people hear the word ‘masochist’ they may associate it with sexual deviation where pain is used for sexual gratification. It has less obvious manifestations however. While a ‘masochistic personality’ has never been formally recognised in psychology, masochistic tendencies within our personality can profoundly affect our lives and health in particular.


“Because I’m (not) worth it.”

Despite what advertising might encourage in us (at least in order to spend more money) we can have deeper programs that sabotage our self worth and esteem at very deep levels.



“My mother never wanted me. I found out she had tried to abort me.”


I would like to say that this was the story of a single client but unfortunately it is one I have heard several times. It is not something anyone wants to discover about their beginnings in life.



Who am I? – The roots of the Self


The roots of our relationship with our earthly self lie, appropriately in the earth. In traditional Chinese medicine, ‘Self’ is a key word attributed to the Earth element. (for more on the Earth element click here). It concerns the connection to our earthly mother and our relationship to the our earthly environment.


A large part of this relationship is self-nourishment. This is why the Earth element controls the major digestive organs (the Stomach, and Spleen/pancreas) and why the Stomach meridian travels through the nipple – usually our first contact with earthly nutrition.


guilty eating


The emotionally balanced Earth element relates to the nurturing emotion of sympathy. In imbalance, it manifests as anxiety – we lack grounding and centredness. It is like our concerned, nurturing tendency has been perverted into being overly and indiscriminately concerned about everything.




Self esteem vs Self confidence


While self confidence rules what we do (and therefore can be improved through successful doing and outward achievement), self esteem is a product of being.


Regardless of how successful we become out in the world, if our fundamental relationship with our Self remains unnourished or sabotaged we will feel a chronic sense of dissatisfaction, anxiety and meaninglessness.



Masochism and the search for meaning


Where our sense of self has been damaged we may try to sublimate the Self in order to go beyond it. Typically, this is found in religious practices. “Not my will but thine oh Lord.”




Many spiritual practices have much in common with masochism – from the self-flagellation of repentant monks to the austere practices of the fakir. What they have in common is the desire to transcend the Self.




Masochism has more subtle guises however and finds its way into everyday life. It can be so well disguised that it can even be seen as a virtue.




How does masochism manifest in health and disease?


Many diseases and symptoms in the body are really a manifestation of our attempt to reestablish balance. A fever, for example, while it may threaten our life, is trying to kill bacteria or viruses to re-establish health. A common cold attempts the same thing. We suffer to get better.


It may well be that a masochistic tendency is a sublimated attempt to define and regain our lost sense of self through challenging or transcending it.


Let us now look at some of the ways we might do this.



Anorexia and eating disorders


This is perhaps the most obvious challenge to our Earth element and self nourishment. By starving ourselves and fearing food we literally challenge our right to earthly existence. The fierce pride in controlling the body’s physical form (as a counterbalance to the internal chaos of emotions) is contrasted with an equal pride in self negation.


body mirror


Ironically, this may be an attempt to define the self. It brings to mind a famous anorectic who, referring to herself in the third person via a post-it note on her refrigerator wrote: “Susan took a carrot today. Who does she think she is?”




The work-aholic


This one is often disguised as a virtue. It is something that usually attracts praise more than blame. When one identifies oneself with what we do – work in this case – we only delay confronting ourselves. We are attempting to justify being through doing. Unfortunately, they are not the same.





Like all addictions, it is self destructive and often involves the loss of much that is dear to us before we see the problem. This can be anything from our personal relationships, children or our health. The estrangement from others mirrors the separation from our Self.



The addict


Whether it be via drugs, alcohol, medications, food, sugar, work, sex, gambling or the like, addiction is a profoundly masochistic endeavour. It is a test of self-destructive boundaries – how close we can flirt with annihilation of the self and through that, find ourselves.


The lyrics of a U2 song ‘The Wanderer’ illustrate the spiritual longing within the addict:

“…In search of experience. To taste and to touch and to feel as much as a man can before he repents.” Speaking of which…



Religious fanaticism and masochism




The attraction to the extreme within the masochistic personality can lead them into situations that formalizes and even idealises extremism. Religious cults that demand extreme self denial, austere practices, isolation from partners or family, dietary and sexual restrictions are confirmations for the masochist that they must be on a path to meaning. For them, if it doesn’t involve sacrifice or if they can’t feel it till it hurts, it is not real.





When the Earth element becomes imbalanced we can be easily become stuck in obsessions and compulsions. This can be hidden in some of the above listed activities like the repetitive rituals of addiction, work or religious practices.

Apart from these the masochist may seek to tax and drive the physical (Earth) body through repetitive and compulsive over-training. This inevitably results in physical breakdown from the resulting wear and tear. Unable to train, the masochist may direct their obsessions into some of the other activities mentioned or risk becoming depressed as they can no longer find worth and meaning through constant doing.




Constellation patterns


Psychologist Dr. Bert Hellinger, was the instigator of working with Systemic family dynamics or family constellations. He purported that one not only inherited biological DNA through the family line but also the ’unfinished business’ of generations. That is, each new generation has the potential to bring up to consciousness old traumas and resolve them or otherwise unwittingly repeat them.




Having participated in such workshops I have seen how guilt for actions beyond a person’s lifetime can profoundly affect their current situation and attitudes towards it. Masochistic behaviour may be one (unconscious) way we might attempt to make balance for those feelings.  




Paying the piper


From the above examples we can see how masochism can manifest in our lives in ways that can sabotage our otherwise conscious desire to be healthy, wealthy and wise. One way to ’pay the piper’ for old guilt or feeling of worthlessness is to be sick.


While we may not wish to be ill another part of us may feel that this is only fair in order to rebalance the system – that in some way, we deserve it. In that sense it functions as a well-meaning but dysfunctional homeostatic mechanism.


Before we can truly heal we must first understand how we are sabotaging our own right to health and happiness.





Till the suffering of another Monday pays the price of a new week.




© Jeremy Halpin all rights reserved. All images are the author’s own unless otherwise indicated or if the original source is unknown at the time of writing. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking the button in the bottom right hand corner of the page – or share it on the social media of your choice. If you have any wishes or questions regarding subjects to be discussed on this blog use the contact information below. Jeremy is also available for seminars, lectures and personal consultation:

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