The Types and Signs of a Masochist

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A masochistic person gains pleasure from experiencing various forms of pain. This can involve gaining sexual pleasure from pain or punishment, but it can also refer to situations where people seek out or enjoy activities that create distress, discomfort, or pain.

Masochism is associated with BDSM, an acronym for sexual practices that involve bondage, dominance, submission, and sadomasochism. A sexual masochist experiences sexual pleasure in response to pain, denial, or humiliation.

However, masochism can also apply to more general and often less healthy behaviors. In such cases, a masochist might engage in actions or accept treatment from others that are hurtful, degrading, or even painful.

Types of Masochism

While sexual masochism often comes to mind when people hear the term, other non-sexual forms of masochism exist.

The psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud described three types of masochism:

  1. Erotic (sexual)
  2. Feminine (psychological)
  3. Moral

The first two would be described today as sexual masochism and psychological masochism. Other researchers have also suggested adding a fourth type known as adaptive masochism:

  • Sexual masochism: Freud referred to this type of masochism as erotic masochism. It involves finding sexual pleasure in experiencing pain.
  • Psychological masochism: This is a non-sexual type of masochism that involves deriving enjoyment from experiencing psychological pain. Such pain can be self-inflicted or caused by others.
  • Moral masochism: This is a form of masochism that involves invoking suffering to alleviate feelings of guilt. It can involve self-punishment and may represent a form of guilt complex, but it can also involve self-sacrificing, prosocial, or altruistic acts that benefit others.
  • Adaptive masochism: This type of masochism involves deriving pleasure from temporary periods of pain or discomfort that ultimately lead to some delayed gratification. For example, a person might save a favorite treat to enjoy later because they enjoy the agony of anticipation.

One 2018 systematic review found that masochism connected to gratification inhibition (i.e., adaptive masochism) was the healthiest type. What the study showed was that feeling conflicted about masochism, or experiencing guilt, shame, or sadness about finding pleasure in pain, was the least healthy and most distressing. Such conflicts were associated with characteristics of personality disorders and depression.

What Is Self-Defeating Personality Disorder?

During the 1980s, a condition known as self-defeating personality disorder, which was characterized by masochistic tendencies, was considered to be a potential addition to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. While sexual masochism disorder is categorized as a mental disorder, emotional masochism was ultimately not added to the DSM. 

Masochist vs. Sadist

While 'sadist' and 'masochist' are often linked, they have different meanings.

  • A sadist is a person who gets sexual gratification from hurting others. It can also be applied to those who enjoy being cruel and hurtful.
  • A masochist, on the other hand, finds pleasure in experiencing denial, degradation, or physical pain.

How to Tell If Someone Is a Masochist

The only way to truly tell that someone is a masochist is if they tell you directly that it is something they enjoy. You might pick up on certain cues if you are their sexual partner, but the only way to know is if that person chooses to tell you.

When it comes to more general masochistic behavior, you might be able to spot signs that you or someone you know is a masochist.

Some potential indicators include:

  • Seeking out situations that involve self-sacrifice: Masochistic people may put themselves in situations where they have to put other people’s needs above their own, often to the point that they experience suffering.
  • Refusing to ask for help when dealing with painful or difficult situations: When faced with a difficult or painful situation, a masochist may opt to endure the pain rather than ask others to help or provide relief.
  • Getting involved in relationships with domineering or narcissistic people: Masochists may find themselves in relationships with people who are dominant or only interested in themselves. Their partners may humiliate, shame, manipulate, or neglect them.
  • Lack of assertiveness: Masochists are often accommodating to the point that they are submissive. When people take advantage of them, a masochistic person rarely fights back or stands up for themselves.
  • Perfectionism: Perfectionistic people often hold themselves and others to an impossible standard. When they fail to meet these self-imposed expectations, they might take some pleasure in punishing themselves for their perceived failures.
  • Lack of self-care, small pleasures, and everyday joys: Self-denial is often a sign of masochism. A masochist might neglect their needs to the point of pain or take pleasure in denying themselves the things they love. They enjoy creating their own discomfort.
  • Negative self-talk: Constant self-criticism and negative self-talk can sometimes signify masochism. A masochist makes no effort to change or refute this self-inflicted, hurtful self-talk.
  • Self-sabotage: Masochists also tend to sabotage their own chances for success. While this is sometimes linked to a fear of success, some people may derive pleasure from their own defeat. When things are going too well, a masochistic person might find a way to sabotage themselves so they can experience feelings of disappointment or misery.

What Causes People to Be Masochists?

The exact causes of masochism are not entirely clear. Different types of masochism may have differing causes. However, more research is needed.

Nonsexual Masochism

While sadism and masochism are distinct, some research has found that people enjoy hurting themselves or being hurt are also more likely to take pleasure in causing other people pain or discomfort.

One 2020 study published in the Journal of Personality found a connection between non-sexual masochism and antisocial personality traits.

In this study, masochistic people enjoyed eating spicy food, receiving painful massages, and hearing disgusting jokes. Such individuals also exhibited high levels of antisocial traits, including what the researchers referred to as everyday sadism, subclinical psychopathy, and low levels of honesty and humility. 

Sexual Masochism

While participation and interest in sexual masochism and BDSM practices have historically been linked to factors such as childhood trauma or unhealthy sexual fixation, research indicates that this is not the case.

One 2020 study found no such connection. Instead, researchers suggest that such interests represent a broadening of sexual interests, not a fixation.

In a study published in The Journal of Sex Research, participants reported that they had an intrinsic interest in masochism and submission that they first experienced at an early age.

The study also found other factors that were associated with interest in masochism, which included:

  • Power exchange: Participants reported enjoying giving up power and being forced to be vulnerable.
  • Pain: Participants suggested that "good" pain could be pleasurable.
  • Altered consciousness: Some participants also reported that masochism allowed them to experience an altered state of meditative, relaxed consciousness.

Research on Pain

Pain researchers have investigated how masochistic people process and experience pain, suggesting that these findings may prove useful for assessing and treating pain. Research suggests that motivation, context, and emotion can impact how masochists process and perceive painful stimuli.

Coping With Masochistic Traits

Being a masochist isn’t always a negative thing. Enjoying certain types of pain in specific contexts isn’t uncommon (such as gaining enjoyment from watching sad movies), and it can even be healthy (such as incorporating sexual masochism into a consensual and sex-positive relationship). 

But if masochistic tendencies are causing harm, distress, or leading to potentially risky behavior, it is important to reach out for help and find effective ways to cope.

Talk to a Professional

If being a masochist creates problems, talking to a mental health professional can be helpful. A therapist can help you understand why you might seek out pain.

Types of therapy that can be beneficial include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and psychoanalytic therapy

Practice Relaxation Strategies

Look for ways to address any anxiety that might compel you to seek pleasure through masochism. Relaxation techniques that can be useful for managing stress and anxiety include:

Deal With Negative Emotions

Masochistic tendencies might more likely emerge when you struggle with negative feelings, such as feeling bad about yourself or helpless.

It can be helpful to find ways to tolerate distress better and practice emotional acceptance when it comes to negative emotions.

Develop Health Coping Mechanisms

You might be more likely to turn to masochistic behaviors when you don't know how else to cope. Learning some more healthy coping mechanisms can give you alternatives that can be healthier and more productive. 

Positive coping skills can include seeking social support, journaling, distracting yourself, exercising, meditating, listening to music, and cognitive reframing.

Frequently Asked Questions

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a masochist someone who likes pain?

    Yes, masochism is a psychological tendency to find satisfaction and enjoyment in pain. This may lead people to actively or passively place themselves in situations where they are subjected to pain. This does not mean that they enjoy all pain, however.

    Consent, context, and motivational factors can all play a part in how and when people find enjoyment in physical, sexual, or emotional pain.

    For people who enjoy sexual masochism, this can be part of a healthy and fulfilling sex life when it occurs in the context of a safe and consenting relationship. In instances where it leads people to place themselves in emotionally, physically, or sexually risky situations, it can be destructive or even dangerous.

  • Is masochism a mental disorder?

    In some cases, sexual masochism can meet the diagnostic criteria for a paraphilic disorder. Sexual masochism disorder is a paraphilic disorder that involves urges, fantasies, or behaviors related to being abused, beaten, bound, humiliated, or otherwise harmed to gain sexual satisfaction. Such urges or behaviors lead to distress and potentially harm oneself or others.

    However, it is important to note that it is a common fantasy, and kinks can be a healthy and normal form of sexual expression. According to some research, up to 70% of people experience BDSM fantasies, while 20% participate in them.

    Sexual masochism is only considered a disorder if it is creating distress or harm. If not, then it is considered a type of sexual interest.

9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.