Every once in a while I come across a research article that opens my mind. I have come across the idea of “subpersonalities” before, and have recently been researching on the “repetition compulsion”, amongst other things psychological. This article really stuck out from the crowd in offering a concise, coherent, and useful model to explain self-defeating behaviour (specifically masochism.) I recommend it to anyone who finds the following excerpts interesting.. (The author has also written a book called: “The dissociative mind” which has been highly aclaimed.)
Victim-blaming connotations stemming from (the term masochism’s) historical linkage to the motivational concept of pleasure in pain disappear when masochism is re-framed as an outcome of dissociation rather than of volition.
Although masochism is not limited to these diagnoses, dissociative processes appear to be central to the development of masochistic psychopathology.
A key issue in a discussion of masochism is that of responsibility for harm…. Obviously the perpetrator is responsible for the harm done.
Many of the hallmark characteristics so often found by writers about masochism are also symptoms of traumatic abuse: passivity, lack of will, and symbiotic enmeshment, a sense of being blameworthy and unworthy, and hypnotic-like feelings of helplessness and tendencies towards revictimization. Long before the recent literature on trauma, these symptoms of traumatic stress were described in the psychoanalytic and pyschological literature about masochism, but without recourse to the vocabulary of dissociation.
The repetitive,driven quaility of much masochistic behaviour lends itself to observes’ interpretations that the abuse is desired, invited, or pursued. One theme of some recent theoretical approaches is that the masochist is not seeking pain or punishment per se but tolerates it in context of something else that is desired. For instance, attachment need can take priority over the avoidance of pain. However, even a desire for attachment would in itself be insufficient to sustain the quantity and intensity of abuse that is often sustained by masochists. The pain would be intolerable and priorities would be reordered. It is dissociation of the pain that makes the abuse tolerable and that, together with attachment need, drives the masochistic solution. The dissociative phenomena associated with this process include depersonalization, derealisation, amnesia, identity confusion, and alteration, and isolation of affect.
…attachment behaviour is often increased by threats from the attachment object. Threat from the attachment figure increases the need for protection. Abuse can increase separation anxiety.
One way for the child to deal with attachment to a punitive, dangerous figure may be to split off constellations of representations of the abused self, the abusing attachment object, and the accompanying rage and pain, so as not to impede attachment.
The”good” segment of the self is enthralled, often unawares, as if unconsciously spellbound by a rageful, persecutory self-state, trying to avoid the provocation of others through pre-emptive internal persecution or self-criticism. In contrast, the rageful persecutory self-state must be aware of the ordinary conscious self to control it.
Furthermore, it will be harder for the masochist to separate from the abuser: the locking in effect of projective identification (in which the victim may project his or her own dissociated rage onto the abuser), is another reason that abuse begets more attachment behaviour. In projective identification, a person locates a dissociated aspect of the self in another person, and then, often rather passionately interacts with the dissociated part. In my opinion, projective identification, which is often described rather magically in the psychoanalytic literature, is premised upon dissociation.
Unfortunately, anger (abuser self-state) and fear of abandonment (abused self-state) can each elicit the other, activating the protector/persecutor. This is one of the reasons that when things go badly for masochistic people, they can become more and more rigidly self-punitive as opposed to comforting themselves. The self-blame about which we hear so often follows from the trauma-induced assumption that the person’s own behaviour is the only relevant behaviour to be modified.
Since attachment is kept in focal awareness and aggressiveness which could otherwise protect and serve the self is not available to self-experience, the dissociatively adapted individual feels quite vulnerable.
the past abuse was so intolerable, so unbearably repugnant, that it could not be assimilated and awareness of it has been banished from ordrinary consciousness. From this point of view of the processing of danger cues, instead of seeking abuse, the masochist (abused self-state) is “subject” to it.
Thus, the illusion of escape through dissociation may be rewarding, creating a chronic dissociation that perpetuates the perception of helplessness that has been learned in certain situations.
While the masociist has dissociated aggression, agency, and will, what she or he has not dissociated is attachment need. While idealization and the dissociative tuning out of danger cues is part of what gets the masochist in trouble, the illusion of hope holds in place the possibility for the development of real hope. The hope for hope in the masochistic psyche is like holding the place of a person invited to a dinner party until he or she can get there
This organization of self allows for the hope for a better form of relatedness. Thus, the illusion of hope, with good psychotherapeutic treatment and/or life experiences, can serve its function of holding in place the possibility for the development of real hope. Having retained the capacity for attachment, the healing masochist may also have the capacity to take it in, at least to some degree, when an honest, caring, interpersonally – rewarding relationship is encountered.