This post explores the abused, aggrieved, and masochistic (AAM) personality spectrum, characterized by a reversal of the pleasure-pain polarity that leads to a preference for pain in intimate relationships.
Self-defeating behaviors are pervasive and can be observed across different areas of life such as school, work, and social relationships. Self-defeating individuals tend to avoid or undermine pleasurable experiences and are drawn to situations or relationships that cause them suffering, or prevent others from helping them. They repeatedly become involved in people or situations that result in problematic consequences, and when they do experience rewarding events, they may feel dysphoric or guilty instead of pleasure or pride. They may even intentionally do things that result in psychic or physical pain.
Self-defeating individuals also repeatedly reject offers of assistance, prefer to remain in discomforting situations, and undermine others’ efforts to assist them. Notably, they often act in ways that prompt negative responses from others. They may avoid opportunities for pleasure, or participate in enjoyable activities but deny having experienced any pleasure. They also tend to undermine their own achievements and contribute to the tasks of others, while failing to complete tasks for which they are solely responsible.
Relationships also have a perverse quality to them for self-defeating individuals. They speak of caring and nurturing people as boring, and avoid or fail to pursue opportunities to relate further with them. Conversely, they see exploitative or insensitive individuals as attractive, and engage in excessive self-sacrifice to please them. However, this self-sacrifice does not usually make the self-defeating person feel content, more valued, or desirable. (Axis-II Work
Group Memos, 1991)
The self-abasing character has been observed for centuries, and its pathological form was officially recognized as a personality disorder in 1987. The DSM-III Work Group assigned the task of revising the manual proposed an Axis II category that would encompass the self-abasive and self-undoing qualities of a masochistic personality, which was later changed to “self-defeating” to avoid controversy due to sexist implications of “masochism”. However, this alternative did not achieve clarity or precision in its potential usage as every personality disorder involves self-defeating behavior, and so both masochistic and self-defeating have since been deleted from the DSM-IV.
The AAM spectrum is best defined as a lifelong pattern of unconsciously arranged difficulties or failures in multiple areas of functioning. This pattern is often seen in people who tend to fail at work and love, despite having the best credentials. They either cannot form a gratifying relationship or, if they do, they inevitably, although unconsciously, arrange for it to flounder. They may achieve great preliminary success but somehow snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and fail at the penultimate moment.
Masochism is a complex and diverse phenomenon. While some may misunderstand it as a sexual perversion or a moral character type, the AAM masochist does not enjoy suffering. The masochist’s credo is “I suffer, therefore I am.” This is a constant reenactment of early experiences that have had virtually nothing pleasurable in them. (Millon 2011 572)
The major pathological component is the reversal between the pain and pleasure segments of the first bipolarity. This means that the individual has learned to prefer pain over pleasure. This preference may be relative, as the person may be willing to tolerate significant discomfort and abuse as long as it is less severe than greater degrees of anguish and humiliation (Filippini, 2005). To be moderately distressed and disheartened may be better than to be severely pained and demoralized (Haller & Miles, 2004).
The masochistic, self-defeating personality is passive and accommodating, similar to the depressive personality. The distinction is fine, but significant. Passivity in depressives indicates an acceptance of their fate, a belief that loss and hopelessness are justified and that depression is inevitable, and that these experiences can never be overcome. They accept their state and the irretrievability of happiness. In contrast, for the self-defeating, there is a measure of both control and desirability in giving in to their suffering and discomfort. For them, a measure of moderate anguish may be the best of all possible alternatives available. Thus, passivity indicates an acceptance of pain as a realistic choice given the individual’s inescapable options, not a final and irretrievable state of hopelessness. (582-583)
Expressive Emotion: Abstinent: They tend to present themselves in a self-effacing and unassuming way, avoiding pleasurable experiences and refraining from showing signs of enjoyment in public. They appear nonindulgent, frugal, and chaste, and some may even dress shabbily or abuse their bodies to the point of self-starvation and anorexia. These behaviors are an active expression of self-denigration and a rejection of personal choices and self-respect. A taboo exists against most forms of self-enhancement and enjoyment, with the message being that pleasure and self-indulgence are forbidden and not good for them. Some may frame this as social concern and altruism, believing that material gains should be shared equally with others. In extreme cases, failure to rid themselves of attractive traits or material possessions can cause panic. (583-584)
Interpersonal Conduct: Deferential: AAM personalities tend to seek relationships in which they can be self-sacrificing and deferential to others, often to the point of being servile and obsequious. They often allow or even encourage others to mistreat them, while distancing themselves from supportive and helpful individuals. AAMs may even seek out condemnation and unjust criticism, accepting undeserved blame and rendering the attempts of others to be kind and helpful ineffective.
Their self-sacrificing behavior is aimed at arousing guilt in others, in the hope that their partner will admit to their exploitative behavior and feel remorseful. AAMs believe that they must submit and denigrate themselves to be loved and cared for by another.
Their self-contempt leads them to assume an inferior and contemptible role in relationships, often refraining from making requests or defending themselves when insulted. They behave as if they are defenseless and easily exploitable, and their fear of retribution or annihilation for their achievements leads them to avoid standing up for themselves or expressing anger or resentment towards others. This behavior also provides an alibi for their self-induced deficiencies and failures, allowing them to save face in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.
Overall, AAMs’ repetitive self-flagellation may seem perplexing, especially as it persists even when their partner shows no sign of guilt or remorse. By intensifying their self-disparagement, they hope to provoke their unprincipled partner to feel contrite and loving. However, this behavior only perpetuates the cycle of self-denigration and dependence, making it difficult for AAMs to achieve success and inner security in their relationships and occupations. (584-585)
Cognitive Style: Diffident: AAMs exhibit a diffident cognitive style, characterized by hesitancy to assert their views, reluctance to see events in a positive light, and a tendency to express pessimistic and negative feelings. They are self-effacing and restrained in their interpretation of life events, often expressing views and anticipations that are contrary to favorable consequences. Despite their persistent apologetic and self-deprecating attitudes, AAMs are not undone by them. These attitudes may be largely artificial and designed to deflect or defeat those who they believe may assault and demean them. In essence, AAMs simulate their communication to avoid aggression from others, much like a forest wolf avoids continuing a fight by exhibiting its vulnerability. By overtly exaggerating their weaknesses and ineffectuality, AAMs turn away the aggression of others. (585)
Self-Image: Undeserving: AAMs tend to have a negative self-image, focusing on their flaws and failures in public. They believe they have let others down despite their efforts to self-sacrifice, leading them to feel shame and humiliation. Some AAMs take this self-effacement to an extreme and believe that any personal achievement or success is due to good luck or others’ contributions. They avoid expressing strong opinions or beliefs, fearing that it could lead to potential humiliation and criticism. They do not strive for personal growth, preferring to remain in a protective shell to avoid ridicule and criticism.
However, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that many self-sacrificing AAMs are not actually preoccupied with the welfare of others. Instead, their sympathetic and self-sacrificial attitudes often hide a lack of genuine empathy and distrust of others. (585-586)
Intrapsychic Content: Discredited: AAMs alter their memories to have a negative tone, focusing on their past relationships as failures and disparaging their personal achievements. They transform their past affectionate and erotic feelings into their least attractive opposites, and intentionally aggravate their internal conflicts. Rather than reducing negative feelings, AAMs intensify them, subverting mechanisms that could alleviate their discomfort. Due to early life experiences, AAMs believe that all close relationships have the potential for frustration and cruelty. In their intrapsychic world, they reproduce the frustrations and cruelty of the past in their current everyday experiences. While some recognize genuinely caring individuals in their environment, they judge it to be their invariable misfortune that such persons are not the ones they relate to.
AAMs struggle with internal images of being both a tormentor and an innocent and abused victim, leading to a split of self and other objects into opposing elements. They believe that others will continue to seek to destroy them while also wishing to destroy others. Unable to resolve this schism and provide a genuinely positive attitude, the masochist attempts to be an unambivalently reliant and ever-sacrificing partner, bending over backward as a reaction-formation.(586)
Intrapsychic Dynamics: Exaggeration: In contrast to regulatory mechanisms, which are internal processes that alleviate psychic pain caused by objective realities, individuals with AAM tendencies tend to invert these processes for public consumption. Rather than seeking to reduce their discomfort, they recall and exaggerate past injustices to intensify their overt experience of distress. Additionally, they tend to anticipate and magnify future disappointments to raise their expectation of distress to levels consistent with their negative orientation. Furthermore, AAM individuals may sabotage their own plans and good fortune to maintain or enhance the level of suffering and pain to which they have become accustomed.
According to Shapiro (1981), these patients dwell on their misfortunes, not only for public purposes but also to manage their personal discomfort and private suffering. Despite the melodramatic manner in which they exaggerate past grievances, this behavior reflects a useful defensive mechanism that enables AAM individuals to control and recast their sources of bitterness. By repeatedly recreating early humiliations and injustices in their mind, they are able to diminish the actual pain and deprecation they experienced. This technique is akin to implosive therapeutic techniques, where excessive exposure to painful and threatening stimuli ultimately diminishes their impact and power.
In essence, exaggeration is an inverted form of self-protection and pain diminution for AAM individuals. By exaggerating their past experiences, they have diminished their suffering. They can now control it, compartmentalize it, bring it up at will, transform and moderate it, and make it less painful than it might have been, if that is the masochist’s intrapsychic desire. (586-587)
Intrapsychic Architecture: Inverted: As is typical of personalities who experience intrapsychic ambivalence or discordance, such as those with AAM, their inner world consists of contrasting and dual qualities. One segment of their intrapsychic architecture is structured in a more conventional fashion, while the other reflects opposing or contradictory components. As a consequence, AAM individuals exhibit a reversal of the pain-pleasure polarity, experiencing pleasure when pain would be more appropriate, and vice versa. This leads to a frequent transposition of channels of need-gratification, which results in frustration. Additionally, their inverted structural organization and dynamic processes often lead to perplexing and self-undoing consequences. The structure of personality undergirds many functions in the economy of the mind, including gratifying instinctual drives, imposing social constraints by means of psychic expiation and punishment, and providing methods of adapting to life’s realities. However, the masochistic intrapsychic architecture, like that of the sadist, the compulsive, and the negativist, possesses intrinsic opposition. For example, structural inversion of the basic polarities in AAM individuals results in their assumption that they are loved most when they suffer most, leading to the belief that they must first seek to suffer when they desire love. Instead of pursuing affection straightforwardly, AAM individuals may engage in “naughtiness” in the hopes of eliciting a rejecting or scolding response from their significant other, believing that forbidden behaviors will ultimately evoke love in return. These reversals of what are usually straightforward and natural orientations can be quite puzzling and perplexing. By defeating themselves, AAM individuals seek not only to avoid being beaten and humiliated but also to elicit nurture and affection. The direct pursuit of pleasure threatens them by evoking experiences of anxiety and guilt. These processes may stem from “internalized bad objects,” meaning that the person has internalized a punitive system that must be enacted when normal affective desires are sought. One must suffer, therefore, to be loved. This is most readily seen in their sexual suffering when some AAM individuals were brutalized in their first sexual/love excitements. To be loved again, they “need” to suffer concurrently.(587)
Mood/Temperament: Dysphoric: AAMs experience a complex mix of emotions that can be overwhelming and difficult to manage. At times, they may feel anxious and apprehensive, while at other times, they may feel forlorn and mournful. They are often disposed to feeling anguished and tormented, which can be accompanied by a socially pleasant and engaging demeanor. Some intentionally display a plaintive and wistful appearance, which may be designed to induce discomfort and guilt in others.
Suffering among AAMs is not always designed to impress others; it may serve to ennoble the self. However, once established, AAMs may effectively accuse others and excuse themselves. They may seek in every way possible to dampen their own spirits and those of others. At times of deepening distress, there is a powerful appeal for AAMs to simply let things go, to give up on what feels like a hopeless struggle for consistent and reliable love, and to be free of the terror of everyday life. These feelings can create a sense of ultimate triumph, a way to escape forever.
The broad dysphoric mix of emotions we often see in AAMs can serve to glorify their ultimate state of misery, providing proof of the fundamental nobility of their suffering.
The AAM patterns often arise from cultural values and customs, rather than from a patient’s unique personal experiences. In some societies, particularly those that impose self-demeaning and servile roles on certain individuals, particularly women, the impression is created that these roles are deserved, ordained, and should be assumed with pride. Oldham and Morris (1990) describe this normalized variant, seen in Western society as the “self-sacrificing” style. Individuals with this personality style believe that living life is to serve, and loving life is to give. They feel that their needs can wait until others’ needs are well served, and they derive comfort and peace from knowing that they have given of themselves. At its best and most noble, this is the selfless, magnanimous style of which saints and good citizens are made.
However, some self-sacrificers may feel unworthy and undeserving of love, attention, and pleasure, and thus are always trying to earn it. Others may have a good sense of who they are and what they want, but may feel that they should not indulge their “selfish” desires and instead tend to the needs of others. (588)
Subserviently Abused Personality: Subserviently abused individuals tend to prioritize the needs of others over their own, often assuming that they will receive little in return. They dislike relying on others and often make decisions to remain in a subservient position, regardless of the circumstances. They may try to please others, but in their own way, and tend to be socially deferential and self-abasing. They may also struggle with feeling comfortable in themselves or their environment, and may not achieve their goals in an optimistic or self-actualizing way.
This behavior is often prompted by childhood and adolescent experiences of being demeaned and belittled, leading the individual to strongly commit to behaving in a submissive manner. They may escape into transcendent and mystical rationales to cope, but ultimately feel most comfortable when alone and focusing on their own simplistic beliefs and ideals. Despite this preference for solitude, they may also demonstrate a high degree of sensitivity to social relations and inner emotions.
In extreme cases, entire societies may come to see themselves as subserviently abused, particularly in situations of poverty and deprivation. Individuals in such societies may become participants of a martyr subgroups, engaging in self-destructive behaviors as an act of honorable defiance against those who they feel have demeaned their culture or religion.
For most individuals, the inner emotional turmoil of subservient abuse is hidden from public view, and they may be reluctant to express their mournful thoughts and careworn emotions, even to close friends. This rich inner world may lead others to see them as mysterious and mystical, but may also cause them to avoid genuine concern for others and to invite mistreatment with overtly subservient behaviors.
As a result, they may be reserved and sparing in exhibiting or communicating their feelings, which can come across to others as self-abasing or cool. They may also view themselves as uninteresting and of modest competence, devaluing their own achievements even when meritorious. They may be hesitant to extend themselves socially, avoiding competitive encounters and acceding to the wishes of more assertive individuals. In public settings, they may behave in a reserved, self-effacing, and taciturn manner, leading some to perceive them as sullen or behaviorally limited.
Despite these challenges, subserviently abused individuals often have a fertile imagination and a deep capacity for reflection and introspection. They may have rich inner lives and may be accurate observers of social dynamics and inner emotions. With support and guidance, they can learn to overcome the limitations of subservient abuse and achieve their goals in a more self-actualizing way.(588-590)
Prudently Abused Personality: The Prudently Abused Personality is characterized by a cautious and self-protective nature. This personality type tends to avoid problematic situations and troublesome relationships, seeking instead to find a niche that maximizes security and psychic stability. They often feel upset by the actions of others and have a concern that good relationships in life do not last, and that its pleasures and joys are often ephemeral and not genuine or durable. As a result, they judge it wise to minimize social discomforts and to make life most gratifying by being prudent, sensible, levelheaded, and judicious, rather than seeking personal pleasures or engaging in social risks.
The Prudently Abused Personality is proactive in shaping their environment to meet secure and pleasing goals. They plan strategies and scan alternatives to circumvent difficulties and optimize their ability to master the events of their life and deal flexibly with unpredictable, challenging, and difficult circumstances. They react quickly to situations that might become a problem, expending much effort and energy to ensure that the opportunities in their life will not work out poorly.
Life experiences have sensitized the Prudently Abused Personality to depend essentially on themselves, to look out for their own needs, and to avoid being drawn into conflicts and tensions generated by others. They anticipate that others will not be as considerate of them as they would like and have learned to be conciliatory and yielding, feeling both a measure of discomfort and distrust of those who are not supportive. Their independence reflects a decision that life is likely to go better by acting in a self-determined, cooperative, and benign way, rather than assuming that others will act genuinely and generously of their own accord.
The Prudently Abused Personality is quietly accommodating, often blending with traits most characteristic of the RCC compulsive personality. They are responsible and conscientious in their endeavors, preferring to deal with the factual, tangible, and realistic rather than the abstract or hypothetical. They are inclined to follow established guidelines pertaining to practical matters that focus on details and order. They are notably self-effacing rather than assertive and are not willing to take credit for their efforts. They are painstaking and highly organized in approaching tasks and routines, often adhering religiously to the tried and true, attempting to fulfill the expectations set down by tradition, and typically meeting what they see as worthy goals in a quietly efficient and timely manner. They rarely express their more fearful inner thoughts and feelings to others, keeping their private concerns and reactions well in check. As noted, this surface reserve cloaks strong emotions of hurt and belittlement, which they recognize may be intrusive and problematic in that they might provoke further disfavor and possibly undermine the efficiency they seek to exhibit publicly.
The Prudently Abused Personality systematically arranges their affairs, finishes their labors before relaxing, perseveres, and is serious-minded. They readily accept responsibilities, especially in tasks where patience and mastery of details can be demonstrated. They rarely act impulsively and are more likely to approach a task methodically, overlearning its particulars perhaps to the point of inflexibility. Similarly, they strive to organize things in their own distinctive fashion, one that they have found to be both suitable and comforting. In all likelihood, they will feel out of sorts should things be in disarray or placed out of their accustomed sense of order. Acting in a dutiful manner, they express much of their energies in a practical and down-to-earth way.
The cognitive processing style of this personality is situated within a broader pattern of self-sacrifice, which is a notable aspect of their personality. Despite being talented and competent, they hold the belief that others do not think well of them and that they do not deserve to be thought well of. This social anxiety occasionally leads to a fear that their life can only get worse and that they are their own worst enemy, likely to spoil their own life. During these episodes, they tend to become socially reticent, withdrawn, and reclusive or deferential and self-abasing. They rarely criticize or judge others and are exceptionally tolerant of the misdeeds, abuses, and inadequacies of others, even when they take advantage of their patience, kindness, and self-sacrifice. By deflecting attention away from themselves, they consistently underestimate their contributions and achievements. Due to their tendency to focus on their negative attributes, they unjustly assert that they have failed to live up to the expectations of others. (590-591)
Virtuously Aggrieved Personality: The Virtuously Aggrieved Personality is characterized by their prideful selflessness and self-sacrifice. They see their asceticism and self-denial as noble and righteous, a sign of their inherent merit and even saintliness. They reject the idea that their altruism diminishes their status in the eyes of others, and instead assert their specialness and the veneration they deserve.
These individuals often feel aggrieved and resentful, believing that others have been ungrateful and thoughtless towards them. They demand a constant stream of gratitude and attention, insisting that they should be repaid for their lifelong sacrifices. Despite their display of self-sacrifice, they periodically exhibit pride and egocentrism, turning the tables on their role as the servant and demanding to be seen as the master.
However, these displays of narcissism are often shallow and concealing a deeper sense of low self-esteem and uncertainty. They worry that any recognition they receive is merely manipulation rather than genuine appreciation. As a result, these individuals can exhibit both overt narcissistic features and dependent behavior. Despite their self-approval and self-congratulatory tone, they continue to be self-sacrificing, doing for others what they wish others would do for them, but more genuinely. (591-594)
Possessively Aggrieved Personality: The Possessively Aggrieved Personality, like other AAM types, is characterized by a constant need to give of themselves. However, their actions are better described as insinuating, as they are unable to let go of those they are attached to. They strive to be indispensable, which can make it difficult for others to withdraw without feeling guilty or irresponsible. Possessive individuals draw others into a reciprocal dependency, disarming them with their intense concern and interest. Sacrificing themselves to a fault, these types make others feel simultaneously needy and fulfilled. They control others through an obligatory dependence, and are overprotective and jealous collaborators who dominate those they possess by sacrificing themselves in every way others desire.
This pattern of behavior is seen in personality admixtures composed of core AAM trait components permeated by characteristics most common to the narcissistic and negativistic personalities. Possessives make ostentatious sacrifices and intrude repeatedly into the daily affairs of their children, spouses, friends, and peers. They meddle in all areas of the possessed person’s life, seeking to induce so profound a sense of obligation that they become unable to function without their aid.
Possessive individuals believe they have proprietary rights and are justified in enveloping and possessing others. They have suffered and have been kind and giving, all for the benefit of others. They give kindnesses intended to advance and better, rather than to control and dominate others. On the surface, their actions may appear selfless, but their ulterior motives are often to bribe others to love them, give to others to control them, and become indispensable so that they can possess them. (594)
Oppressed Masochistic Personality: Oppressed masochists utilize both psychic and physical symptoms to manipulate their families and friends into feeling guilty. If someone is not initially responsive to their feigned illnesses, the masochist may prompt compliance by inducing guilt, essentially saying “ignore my suffering and do what’s best for you.” In the end, the apparent victim prevails by making others feel obligated and guilty. While the suffering of the oppressed masochist is real, it is often used as a tool to vent resentment and avoid responsibilities. These masochists may exhibit features of depressive personality disorder and frequently merge with it.
When other attempts to gain love and dependence have failed, hypochondriacal manipulations may surface. Illness symptoms become a reliable way to ensure attention and appreciation. Becoming an invalid is a sad solution, but it forces others to provide care and nurture. The oppressed masochist does not enjoy their suffering; it is a discomforting instrumentality to produce small benefits. By exaggerating minor discomforts, they intensify their suffering and make it seem greater than it is. It is the small secondary gains that make the process somewhat worthwhile. (595-596)
Self-Undoing Masochist Personality: The classical psychoanalytic conception of the masochist personality represents individuals who actively and repetitively, although unconsciously, seek out circumstances that lead to their own suffering, if not destruction. These behaviors do not necessarily bring pleasure, but may be the less distressing choice of two painful states. What is most notable is that these persons ostensibly create or provoke circumstances in which they will experience misfortune or abuse. They achieve what Reik (1941) called ‘‘victory through defeat’’ or what Freud (1916/1925) described as patients ‘‘wrecked by success.’’ They appear, at least from an outsider’s perspective, to be gratified by experiencing their own personal misfortunes, failures, humiliations, or ordeals.
A major manifestation of these behaviors is found in what has been termed the success neurosis; here, the deeper layers of psychic experience react to being successful by provoking intense anxieties and guilt, rather than pleasure and happiness. Success is responded to as if it were a horrible disaster. Rather than suffering these consequences, the individual undoes the success, behaving in ways that provoke failure, humiliation, or punishment. This process of undoing one’s good fortunes is what characterizes the self-undoing masochists. In effect, these personalities repetitively do the opposite of what objectively is in their best interests. Although striving to achieve and perform their best, they either stop short of its attainment, or quickly prove themselves insufficient to the task or undeserving of its rewards.
For undoing masochists, there may be more relief in sharing one’s troubles and failures than in experiencing the pressure of trying to live up to being successful and happy. In many regards, these self-undoing masochists are akin to avoidant personalities in that avoidants anticipate that they will ultimately fail or be disillusioned, even when matters appear to be going well for the moment. Rather than be disappointed when things inevitably turn sour, these personalities quickly undo themselves before they are undone by others. They would rather be seen as a victim of unfortunate circumstance, largely self-created, of course, than as someone who has sought rewards and gains and is expected thereby to maintain them and to behave in a valued and prideful way.
Moreover, the developmental background of these personalities includes those whose lives have been better for them when they are suffering than when things are going well. For example, a young child who learns that an otherwise mean-spirited and critical parent stops these abusive behaviors when the child is ill will also learn that being ill is the more comfortable state. Such persons may acquire a general belief that suffering is greatest when things are apparently going well than when they are manifestly in pain and discomfort. Hence, when faced in later life with opportunities for achievement and happiness, the undoing masochist steps back from these possibilities, fearing that more suffering will happen in ‘‘good’’ circumstances than when things are apparently problematic. (598-599)
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