Understanding My Emotional Masochism
Most of us are familiar with the term ‘masochism,’ and emotional masochism is precisely what it sounds like. According to an article by PsychCentral, emotional masochism is “the enjoyment of what appears to be painful or tiresome” and is actually more common in most of our lives than we may think.
I realized I had emotional masochistic tendencies when I took a good hard look at the traumas and hardships I’d been through in my life and how I chose to handle those situations and cope in the aftermath. Therapy was an incredibly productive outlet for me to do that and has helped me understand so much of myself that has been shrouded in mystery.
Sure, there were terrible things that happened to me that weren’t my fault, and I didn’t ask for them to happen. But there were also relatively more disturbing things that happened to me that I unconsciously sought out and allowed to happen.
These observations don’t justify the people who have wronged me or the unfortunate things that happened.
But they do force me to take responsibility for my own suffering and the role I played in certain situations and my decisions following these incidents. They also push me to understand the roots of these tendencies and how they’ve affected my life.
As a way to honor my own acceptance of my tendencies, let’s unpack some of my personal tell-tale signs that point to emotional masochism throughout my life.
#1. My childhood games always involved tragedy.
I was a weird kid to play games with. The games I played with my friends were always fantasy. We’d all be different characters and there would be some storyline that was usually made up on the spot, whether we were playing ‘house’ or on some epic journey.
Something tragic would always happen to my character. Always. And it had to be me. I hated when anyone else tried to steal that spotlight. Usually, some freak accident landed me in the hospital or a weird hostage situation where I needed to be rescued or escape.
I can’t say precisely when or how these patterns began, but they started early. By first grade, at the latest, I was a glutton for tragedy, and I wanted to be the star.
#2. All of my relationships were abusive.
I started dating at 15. All of my boyfriends until I was 23 abused me in some way. That seems like a stretch, but it’s true. There were different kinds of abuse, but the main culprits were verbal, emotional, and sexual abuse.
My friends were always amazed and confused. “How do you end up in these situations? It’s always you!” It was like I was a magnet for drama, and in a way, I was. I was subconsciously drawn to people who were waving red flags from day one.
Again, this doesn’t mean this abuse was justified or the abuse I or anyone else has experienced is our fault. But I have found freedom and closure for myself in honestly taking a look at all of the whys.
As I unpacked this with my therapist, I realized that all of my relationships were hot and heavy from the very beginning. We usually rushed into dating and saying “I love you,” usually within a week or two of knowing each other. For me, this was a beacon for drama, and I wanted in.
I was drawn to people who manipulated me and controlled me. I had boyfriends who would abuse me for years, and after each breakup, we’d find our way back to each other, even if months or years later.
For those 8 years, I was in perpetual emotional turmoil (and so was my unfortunate family who had to meet these people and get sucked into every shitty relationship I found myself in).
#3. Most of my life drama was avoidable.
That’s incredibly hard to admit because it means I played a role in orchestrating my own pain, and it’s honestly embarrassing.
But it’s true. There was almost always a solution, whether I was seeking out the pain or not. Sometimes the solution was easy, and sometimes it required more time and effort. But a solution always existed.
I could break up with him. I could block his number. I could pay attention to the red flags the moment I notice them. I could not go to that place I know I shouldn’t be and hang out with these people I know I’m not supposed to hang out with.
I would get frustrated when people would offer me solutions. I just wanted them to listen. And it didn’t matter how simple and instant the answer was; I wanted to be distraught, I wanted to be in pain, I wanted to be stressed.
#4. I would fantasize about tragedy and I could cry on command.
For me, personally, this behavior points to a deep connection to emotional masochism in my life.
Sometimes, I would start imagining some tragedy in my head, usually involving family members dying. I would imagine how they would die, how I would find out, what the funeral and the days and months following would be like.
And it was never just any family member. They were the family members who would be an even more tragic story where there would be extra concern and implications for me if they died.
I’d feel instant grief as if it was actually happening. And the more I would watch it play out in my head, the more it would hurt. I’d feel that tightness in my chest, the lump rising in my throat, and I would usually cry. I could do this on command, or sometimes it would just happen.
The twisted part is, if I’m being really honest with myself and you, some part of me, deep down, wanted it. Not just the pain but that tragedy; I wanted it to be a part of my story.
#5. I loved talking about my trauma.
I realized this when my friend, who I called daily during one of the dark moments of my life, finally said to me, “You enjoy this, don’t you?” I was so taken aback. “How dare you?!” But I realized immediately that it was true. I loved to talk about my trauma with him because I wanted him to hear it.
He didn’t say this because I was talking about it ‘too much.’ Trauma and tragedy need to be talked about. But what was key was how and why I was talking about these things.
I would divulge my life story (usually focusing on the rough spots) or recount whatever tragedy I was currently living through to anyone who would listen, friend or stranger. I would take it as far as pretending to be suffering even nothing notable was going on in my life.
I was a pro at painting myself as a depressed, damaged human being. I wanted to be dark and elusive. A mystery woman who had “seen some shit.” I wanted to be like Alaska from Looking for Alaska or Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars.
Why is that?
#6. Suffering was the narrative I wanted for my life.
To put it simply, I had glamorized tragedy.
Part of me believed that you had to be suffering or hardened by some painful life experience to be somebody. It was something to be respected. It was unique and made you special. That was my American dream: to have a heroic story of ultimately overcoming the pain and suffering of a tragic life.
As much as these situations hurt (and boy did they hurt), they made me feel like I was strong and significant. People would listen to me. They would pity me, be sympathetic, think I was brave, be in awe of my strength and perseverance. Or at least that’s what I thought.
These life experiences defined me. If you asked me about who I was or what my life was like up to that point, these stories are what I would focus on, regardless of the true weight of these experiences or the actual percentage of my life they took up.
This article just scratches the surface of why my life and my psyche turned out how it has. I don’t think emotional masochism is solely to blame for these tendencies and experiences. Life moments and decisions are complex and dynamic, guided by innumerous factors and variables that we’ve collected and molded throughout our lives.
I’ve come a long way, through years of therapy and self-realization, and my life is much less dramatic now. I’m in the healthiest relationship of my life, and I avoid tragedy wherever and whenever I can.
Regardless of the happy and healthy state of my life at the moment, I have found that these tendencies have lingered in my psyche. Sometimes I catch myself waiting (dare I say hopping?) for an argument or for my boyfriend to do some terrible thing like cheat on me or explode in a fit of rage.
These things never happen (we argue at times like any couple, but it is far from explosive and dramatic), so the only explanation I can come up with is that my subconscious misses that dramatic and emotionally charged era of my life.
Would I ever go seeking it out again? Hell no.
The other interesting thing I’ve noticed is that I no longer want or feel the need to talk about whatever ‘tragedy’ I’ve lived in my life. That’s a first for me. When I first met my boyfriend, he asked me, “What’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to you?” My dream question. And I found myself saying, “Nothing noteworthy.”
That doesn’t mean I’m ignoring or erasing those moments and relationships from my life. Sometimes they need to be talked about, and sometimes they still hurt.
But these people and experiences no longer hold the power that they used to. They don’t define me, and they no longer deserve as much of my time and energy as they did before. My identity no longer revolves around the pain and suffering I’ve encountered.
I think I got tired of it at some point. Therapy and realization weren’t instant remedies. I knew what I was doing and what I needed to do, but I still find myself repeating the same patterns and making the same choices.
I was being held back by constantly chasing pain. As much as I wanted the drama, I wanted to be a healthy, happy, successful person. Those things are hard to achieve when emotional turmoil is your priority.
I hated my abusive boyfriends, and I hated the painful things that I’d lived through, so why was I giving them so much control in my life, even years later?
Now, my life is marked by emotional health, intelligence, and wellness. I will still endure heavy emotions and hard times.
Just because you are a victim of tragedy doesn’t mean you are a victim of your own reactions. Pain is inevitable, but now I’m in control of how I define and confront those moments.
I’m not perfect nor a master of my mind and body, but I’m doing pretty well if you ask me.