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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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
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As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

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So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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