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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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