Masochism… that label bears an enormous scale of intensity, but it likely either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Though I believe we can nearly all relate to certain everyday masochistic tendencies, that doesn’t mean we all consider ourselves “masochists” - and that’s a crucial distinction.
Masochism is beautiful to me - conscious masochism that is - in that it requires so much bravery to willingly choose pain over comfort. It’s not an easy thing to do and it requires much practice. But when we approach our pain with tenderness, it has true power, though it requires much discernment.
Discernment is tricky when it comes to emotional pain, because it all feels the same. Our survival instincts tell us to run pretty much 99% of the time. So how do we know which pain to embrace and which pain to release? How can we honor some of our pain and not all of it? Is this pain telling me to leave now or to stick it out? These questions frequent our minds during turbulent times and create added chaos to already sticky situations.
We all have different tools we turn to in those moments to help us find clarity and comfort. Prayer, meditation, creating external or internal space, talks with friends, journaling, or… maybe smoking, drinking, self-harm or avoidance. Whatever your path, you likely try to find ways to move through the pain as quickly as possible.
Our bleeding hearts won’t stop screaming until it’s over. But no matter the issue, our instincts typically urge us to fix, solve, ignore or run from the pain - anything to make it stop. However, pain is a tool we can use if we stick with it for a beat. One we can wield for causing more pain or for healing it, the choice is ours even when that choice is very difficult to make.
The definition of masochism according to Merriam-Webster is: “the derivation of sexual gratification from being subjected to physical pain or humiliation by oneself or another person. Also stated as pleasure in being abused or dominated, a taste for suffering.”
But masochism doesn’t just exist in the bedroom. Far from it actually, but those sides are not as frequently acknowledged or addressed. And where does conscious living or mindfulness align with, what is usually seen as a disorder or affliction? Conscious masochism is essentially the practice of mindfully choosing when and how we experience pain, because we understand that suffering is always optional.
But conscious masochism asks us to be honest about the fact that a part of some of us innately wants to suffer, to experience chaos and drama, to feel the immense spectrum available… both the “good” and “bad”. We accept that shadow within us and learn to work with it, instead of hiding from the uncomfortable truth that perhaps we subconsciously chose every painful circumstance and moment in our lives out of a denied craving for struggle, growth and tension that wasn’t being met.
Perhaps if we allowed ourselves pain and discomfort in certain areas, such as self discipline, inner or outer transformation, radical honesty and expanding our belief systems… then our immature, and rather sassy, inner masochist wouldn’t be so hungry all the time. But this calls for rather large doses of discernment and self compassion. When we have the inner awareness to lean into our emotional pain, then a helpful tool can be to create a bubble of safe expression by outlining a set of rules that make up our “hard limits”.
These hard limits can look like anything, but they are the walls, roof and flooring that make up our bubble of creative expression when it comes to pain. So it’s important that we get very honest with ourselves about what is an absolute no-go and doesn’t feel true, as opposed to something that’s simply uncomfortable because it requires faith or growth. Perhaps they are emotional or physical, but over time they’ll likely evolve.
Examples of some hard limits may be sending angry texts, blaming others or yourself, turning to negative self-talk, over-eating, turning to excessive substance abuse, hopelessness or emotionally shutting down. Whatever we know we are inclined to fall back on when the going gets tough, as we all have default protective mechanisms we lean on when working through pain.
The way of the conscious masochist is an inner dance of bravery, love, chaos and misery, all at once. It’s a way of life that embraces all aspects of humanity, while gently reminding us of the truth that this too shall pass and no matter what, we are always loved, safe and supported. Learning to create a bubble of safety around your experience of pain, grief or anger allows you to go into your darkest depths and express every ugly emotion or desire with safety, self-acceptance, curiosity and compassion.
You trust that no feeling will last forever, so you lean into those shadowy corners where fear lurks and become the light needed to heal it. Our pain deserves to be honored no matter how silly, trivial or scary it may be. It deserves to be felt and heard, and even if there is no one there to hold your hand during that, you always have you. Your pain should matter to you, but it’s usually when we’ve denied our pain for long enough that it rises up through immature acts of defiance.
This can look like comparison of our pain against another’s. Not being present to comfort or soothe a loved one or even a total stranger when they're in pain because we are so focused on our own. Even taking our pain out on others through passive aggressive actions in an attempt to transfer the discomfort we feel inside.
It’s so easy to cast excuses onto other people or outside situations as to why we are in pain, why we are hurt, upset or angry. That if only x, y, z changed or apologized or made amends, that then we would feel better. But this is a lazy tactic we lean on when we are either afraid, unaware of, or unwilling to meet our own inner sadomasochist and take responsibility for our actions when we’re hurting.
Through creating a safe and appropriate environment to play out our expressions of pain, we allow ourselves and our relationships much needed space from the blows we’re ready to deliver. Because denying our pain, our feelings and our right as humans to fuck things up when we feel shitty, only magnifies the resentment and self-denial we feel inside. But the alternative doesn’t need to be leaking our pain all over our loved ones, or through sabotaging our hard won progress.
Without clear boundaries and limits set in place beforehand - when you are in a strong and loving place towards yourself and others - your bubble will feel unstable and permeable. This allows for unsafe masochistic practices or choices to blur their way into your experience and your relationships with others, which is exactly what we are trying to be mindful of.
This approach is not about avoiding pain, nor is it about controlling pain. Pain is an energy bigger than us and most of the time, it feels like we absolutely cannot control a single thing about it. Except maybe to make it worse, for others or ourselves. But this perspective instead asks us to soften into the pain that life brings inevitably, and firmly walk away from the suffering that we choose to prolong through our unconscious and subtle acts of self-betrayal, self-loathing, or disconnection.