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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When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.
Sometimes we all just need space to talk to someone who will listen without giving advice, or problem solving, or lecturing. Someone who will let us talk, and who can handle our experiences and words and feelings without having to smooth out the wrinkles or tidy the frayed edges. 

Our kids need this too, but as their important adults, it can be hard to hush without needing to fix things, or gather up their experience and bundle it into a learning that will grow them. We do this because we love them, but it can also mean that they choose not to let us in for the wrong reasons. 

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Words can be hard sometimes. The right words can be orbital and unconquerable and hard to grab hold of. Feelings though - they’ll always make themselves known, with or without the ‘why’. 

Kids and teens are no different to the rest of us. Their feelings can feel bigger than words - unfathomable and messy and too much to be lassoed into language. If we tap into our own experience, we can sometimes (not all the time) get an idea of what they might need. 

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It takes time to reach full flight in anything, but in the meantime the stumbling can make even the strongest of hearts feel vulnerable. The more we focus on process over outcome (their courage to try over the result), and who they are over what they do (their courage, tenacity, curiosity over the outcome), the safer they will feel to try new things or hard things. We know they can do hard things, and the beauty and expansion comes first in the willingness to try. 
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