Masochism: The Dance for Worthiness

Masochism The Dance for Worthiness

I had been “seeing” Abby for about 7 months.  We were getting to know each other as people often do in those early weeks and months of any relationship.  This one being no different, except that it was occurring with in the boundaries of therapy. 

Abby was striking. She was a tall, broad shouldered woman. Her hair was an effortless caramel swirl, save for one streak of Crayola blue tucked on the underside near her left shoulder. The blue streak suggested a rebel soul was somewhere not so far down, but perhaps kept in step by other, more conforming, aspects of her character.

Abby was fit, in the way that said “I-care-but-not-to-the-point-of-neurosis-care.” It was clear that Abby had a life outside the gym.  She was not manufactured or chiseled, but she was sinewy and taught. At 38, she was alluring, but also had an energy about her that was flighty and her movements often struck me as insecure. She moved in jittery, staccato-like gestures. 

As I got to know her over those early months a pattern of stoic suffering emerged that suggested she had a long and intimate relationship with enduring pain.  It whispered of a possible bond between the ability to endure suffering and her experience of connection. To herself and to others. 

She was a classic masochist with all the hallmark features that work in a delicate rhythm, operating as her both her greatest asset and also her most profound vulnerability.  She enjoyed exercising to the point of physical pain.  She worked hard to the point of emotional exhaustion. She would go the extra mile every time it was asked or expected of her.  She went all in all the time, even in matters of love.  And, of course, there was the tell-tale sign of littered relationships in her rear view mirror where she tolerated and withstood emotional abuse and neglect, that would have sent another woman running.  She was the classic case of a woman who could not resist the urge to pursue a “distancer.” 

Abby suffered for sure and as I got to know her we better understood the cadence of her own style of pain. When Abby would relay stories and incidences of how her husband had wronged her she would almost immediately stiffen her face and throw her shoulders back, replying, “which is fine…” Her tone was always pregnant with righteousness, which I felt certain was operating as a cover-up for the more pathological pattern of grievance collecting. Abby would later leverage those grievances as evidence to bolster her case to convince her husband that she was worthy of his love. I’d comment, “Is it? Is it fine?”

Slowly, I encouraged us to listen to her language in a more nuanced way. I invited us to listen for the tone of suffering and accomplishment, which was fused in an elegant dance of seduction.  Abby would say things like, “He’d tell me I was weak if I cried or became emotional and so I learned to calculate my feelings and control them so that he wouldn’t call me crazy or too emotional.”  

Blinking back tears in my office she would sit herself up straight, gesturing with annoyance at her tears.  When she gained composure Abby remarked with sarcasm  “Get it together Abby! I’m overly sensitive…” turning the rigid and abusive dialogue on herself, in the absence of achieving it interpersonally. I highlight that she no longer even needs her husband to inflict the pain; she has mastered the art all by herself.  Abby paused and thought quietly, “Yes, I expect a lot from myself.”  I reflect, “Do you see that there…hear that…there is a tone of accomplishment in that statement, as though you merely have high expectations for yourself.  But in fact, it’s suffering you require in order to feel accomplished and good enough. You expect and perhaps seek out the pain as a way to validate your worthiness.” 

Abby remarked, “I’ve gone through so much with him, so much has gone down in those 8 years, I wanted it to be worthwhile in the end. I had endured so much.” I reflected to her that theirs was a bond fused by suffering, for them the glue that tied them together was the degree of suffering she was willing to endured. 

I highlighted how it must have been burdensome to carry all that hurt and I remarked that it must have felt lonely too. Almost immediately Abby appeared to me as a scared and fragile child. This comment allowed for her loneliness to come full force into the therapy. All of her stoicism was replaced by a childlike fear. A fear that at its core was about worthiness and her deep seeded doubt that she was not “good enough.” I remembered her staccato and jittery quality that I felt in the very beginning of our work together and I recognized that as a fracture in her sense of “worthiness.”

This fracture sent her seeking relationships that would validate her suspicion that she was not good enough, not worthy of love, and/or only worthy if she earned it through the endurance of suffering. This pattern of seeking painful connection(s) was not conscious, but rather unconscious, tucked just beneath her awareness but operating with considerable influence. The ability to out suffer others became fused with a sense of accomplishment and strength, and therefore worthy of love.

The real triumph for the masochist comes from the endurance, and subsequent sense of accomplishment, when they out-wait and out suffer others. This sense of endurance provided Abby with both the punishment for not being good enough (via suffering) and the validation of her worthiness if she could “earn” the affection of her husband.  It also fused her to a pattern of rejection, pain, suffering and hurt. For Abby, in order to register an experience of love and being lovable, she had to suffer. At an emotional level, she needed the suffering in order to experience her own self as worthy. It wasn’t suffering for suffering’s sake; it was the endurance of the suffering that held all the emotional currency for Abby. 

Therapeutically, I started to realize that it was easy to be drawn away from her suffering and turn our attention towards the more emotionally palatable aspect of what she had told herself was strength and loyalty. Indeed, Abby would often unconsciously try to turn the attention away from the suffering and towards her ability to endure the suffering. She had the emotional endurance of a marathoner and she wore this badge as both a decoy and a statement of achievement.  The latter is how masochism, in all its forms, often goes undetected for decades or longer.  It thrives in the shadowy secrecy of stoicism and martyrdom. We miss the worthiness piece because we are seduced by the masochist’s ability to appear graceful and strong under circumstances that would otherwise crush most spirits. 

Abby’s journey is still very much in process, as we all are. But she now has the start of an observational lens through which she can begin to explore her conscious and unconscious motivations.  She has begun to build a new set of emotional muscles in order to better understand the interpersonal dynamics that have historically kept her rotating in an orbit of suffering, emotional endurance and loneliness. Her core worthiness fault line is there of course, but it no longer thrives in the secrecy of shame and self-doubt.  


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Sarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at DrSarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room

4 Comments

C

Wonder if this is why women go for the bad boys, to be honest, when I first started reading the article the first thing I thought was borderline.

Reply
jacqueline ward

Hi Dr Sarkis,
I was so relieved to read your article on Abbey as I recognise in Abbey alike-mindness to myself. It helped me to identify the personality traits that have dogged me most my life, shaping history before it begins, I am sabotaging my own life! Please I would like to hear strategies that help counteract the way masochism rules over ones life.
Thankyou

Reply
M.M. Ferrante

Dr. Sarkis,
I felt like I was reading a novel! You drew a detailed picture of Abby, the main character, that I could FEEL. And I feel her pain as well. We all to some extent have a tendency to feel unworthy but she had years and layers to dig out of and I can tell from your piece that you’re just the person to assist her on the journey. Keep up the good work and keep writing!

Reply
Debi

Awesome article! Wanted to let you know however, the paragraphs at the beginning have repetitive sentences. Also, several of the paragraphs end with an open sentence. I’m sure it was just an oversight in the copying of the article but wanted to let you know. :).

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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