Who, in his right mind, could accept something that hurts him? It would be normal to escape from what hurts us. And yet, defying common sense, many people remain prisoners of toxic relationships, maintain jobs that generate a huge dose of tension and low satisfaction and are still tied to a family that catalogs and treats them as a black sheep.
For Freud himself it was an enigma that someone could surrender and act systematically against his own interest and that his choices did not respond, at least apparently, to the principle of pleasure or reality. To describe these cases, he coined the term “moral masochism”, referring to a general pattern of suffering at the service of some objective that other people find difficult to understand.
The normalization of suffering
In 1995, psychologist Theodore Millon described a self-destructive personality style that is characterized by a recurring pattern of choice of people and/or situations that end up leading to disappointment, failure or abuse, although there are better options available. They are the people who, without knowing very well why, always end up establishing harmful relationships or enroll in projects condemned in advance to failure. These people suffer from what Freud called “repetition compulsion”, which consists in repeating the relationships or circumstances that evoke a painful past.
However, the truth is that beyond that trend, we can all surrender and fall into self-destructive adaptation. Viktor Frankl, Austrian psychiatrist and prisoner of the Nazi concentration camps, gives us a clue to understand what happens. He said that “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is a normal behavior.”
As human beings, we have an incredible ability to adapt, even to the most extreme conditions. In some cases, that ability to adapt can be our salvation, but in others it can make us suffer uselessly. Thus, although for an external observer that dose of masochism is a completely abnormal reaction, for those who live it is a “normal” response to a situation that should not be happening.
When a situation is constantly repeated, it can become the only reality for those who live it. A person who is mistreated, manipulated or humiliated frequently, may end up normalizing these behaviors, assuming that they are part of his life and, therefore, do nothing to end them.
When are experienced situations that generate suffering or harm us, the first reaction is pain and rebellion, but if we decide to remain in that situation – for whatever reason – it is likely that our unconscious will set in motion a psychological mechanism to “protect ourselves” from what is happening to us.
This mechanism acts like a smokescreen, preventing us from seeing what is happening, preventing us from suffering more from analyzing the situation we are immersed over and over again. If the problem is the partners’ possessive jealousy, we can begin to see it as a “proof of love.” If we are stressed by the amount of work tasks, we will assume it as a sample of our “competence.”
This mechanism of rationalization of what happens to us allows us to better deal with a harmful reality that puts at risk the concept we have of ourselves, but also prevents us from taking the necessary steps to get away from it. This becomes a vicious circle from which we find it increasingly difficult to escape.
From toxic attachment to moral masochism: Why do we endure the relationships or circumstances that harm us?
The pain and suffering caused by self-destructive adaptation comes drop by drop, so it may be “easier” to bear than the lacerating pain that big changes usually cause. Resistance to change and fear of uncertainty are very powerful sensations that keep us tied to the known, even if it is not precisely the best or healthiest for us.
It is worth clarifying that falling into a spiral of self-destructive adaptation does not imply that we like to suffer, but that it often becomes the only way we believe possible to achieve an objective that, in our eyes, is more valuable, or to avoid consequences that seem even more painful. For example, a person can endure the humiliations of the partner because he believes that a break would be even more painful or he may continue to keep tied to a lacerating job because the prospect of not finding another job is even more frightening.
Therefore, the dynamics that are established with self-destructive adaptation are often expressed in a continuum that ranges from anaclitic to introjective behaviors. People with a more anaclitic tendency tend to stay in those harmful situations for maintaining the bond, because the prospect of losing the relationship or certain benefits is unbearable.
Those who have a more introjective tendency may get caught in such situations due to the “moral masochism” referred to by Freud, because they exalt their ability to tolerate suffering and face adversity. These people can even feel proud for stoically enduring suffering, but in reality they do not enjoy it, it is only an unconscious mechanism to protect their fragile “ego”. Since they feel they cannot escape and feel fragile in their condition, they try to project an image of strength, reframing the situation they are living.
How to break the circle of self-destructive adaptation?
When we are immersed in a toxic situation, it is difficult for us to analyze it objectively and impartially. Listening to other people’s opinions can help us change our perspective to evaluate what is happening to us more rationally.
If you don’t have anyone by your side to talk to, a very effective technique is to imagine that a friend is in your same position and you have to give him an advice. What would you say? So you can assume the psychological distance necessary to see what happens to you in a detached way.
It is also important that you prop up your self-esteem. When we fall into a loop of self-destructive adaptation, it is normal for our self-esteem to suffer. In some cases we may even think that we deserve what is happening to us, we blame and devalue ourselves. Therefore, to get out of the toxic circle in which we find ourselves, we need to regain confidence in ourselves, be aware that, whatever happens, we will be able to get out stronger from that experience.
Millon, T. (1995) Disorders of personality: DSM-IV and beyond. Nueva York: Wiley.
Ghent, E. (1990) Masochism, submission, surrender – Masochism as a perversion of surrender. Contemporary Psychoanalysis; 26: 108-136.
Kernberg, O. (1988) Clinical dimensions of masochism. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association; 36: 1005-1029.