My Emotional Masochism Isn’t Therapy

A hand holding out an apple
Image by bycfotografem (public domain)

Last week, guest blogger Cava Supernova asked, provocatively, “Is racism sexy?

She told us the story of an early kink encounter in which an awesome black man begged her to call him her nigger and her sex slave boy.

This out-of-the-blue request floored poor Cava and she asked us to help her figure it out.

Um. I’m an emotional masochist. Just like that guy. So I didn’t even understand the question until commenters started chiming in, “Let me introduce you to the mysterious workings of degradation kink!”

Valery North, like other insightful people in my life, argued that it’s about facing your demons. It’s a safe place to experience the unspeakable. It’s spitting in the face of trauma. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Really? Huh. I’m glad it works like that for you. But not me.

Let’s take one of my fondest kink memories, the time when I volunteered to demo for Eric Pride’s interrogation class. His topic of choice: my first sexual encounter. Therapeutic? Hmm.

Maybe having me spread my legs, touch myself and promptly get laughed at by a large audience was not the best way to help me put sexual shame behind me forever?

And hell, I wouldn’t want to. Because, like I said, I am an emotional masochist.

I’m not quite sure if it’s the same thing as a humiliation kink. Because I was stunned to learn that there are people who get a kick out of smiling and calmly staring back when you call them horrible names and rip off their clothes. This is called fun?

See, for me, it’s about the emotions. Not anger. But fear and humiliation, yes yes yes. And the absolute best is shame. I go down so fast. Instant mental takeover.

Sexual shame is good stuff. But the most unforgettable, wonderful thing about that interrogation scene wasn’t recounting my torrid past. It was failure. Specifically, the diabolical instruction to keep my eyes on a ring in the distance.

At the time I thought my interrogator was being incredibly merciful, because no eye contact. Mercy, hah! Turns out I am hardwired to drop my eyes when talking about sex. Failure was guaranteed.

I must have done it at least fifty times in ten minutes. And every single time was devastating. Oh God, that implacable voice behind me had granted me this mercy, this undeserved kindness, and what had I done with it?

My oh-so-merciful interrogator never called me on it. But every time I jerked my eyes back to that ring, I felt his fist around my heart, pushing me further down the rabbithole. Thank you, I’m sorry, please punish me, please don’t hurt me, oh God please, oh God no.

You get the idea. Submissive nirvana, at least my version.

And this is my theory of how it works. Take one emotional masochist. How do you push her down where she wants to be? Look at what makes her tick. That’s where it will really hurt. That’s how to whack the emotional masochism.

What makes me tick? My sense of right and wrong. In vanilla life I am a judgemental, perfectionist pain-in-the-everything. The absolute worst feeling on earth for me is letting people down. And the nuns didn’t need to train me, my grandma got to me first.

So that’s how you get to me. Shame, guilt, failure. Please sir, may I have some more?

Obviously there are limits. I only get to have fun with the emotional masochism when I can let go. And I can only let go when I trust my tormentor. As I explained to my worried brother, “You know how you like screaming on rollercoasters? Well, I go silent because I don’t trust the damn things. I’m really, really choosy about who to trust.”

My poor brother was so relieved to hear that. He’s not the only one. I’m awfully glad my subconscious is so choosy.

Not, I hasten to add, because it’s logical. Remember, this is the same subconscious that went into agonies when I was ordered to spread my legs, which were then encased in long, loose and totally opaque pants. Sexual shame a specialty. I love it.

Am I facing my demons and getting stronger? Well, you could say that, because next time I’ll be able to handle a little more. But that’s how caning works too, and nobody tells my friends they’re subconsciously trying to eliminate their pain responses. So it seems a little strange to me that everyone assumes emotional masochism is about DIY therapy.

Except, of course, Cava Supernova! You got it right.

And you must have looked trustworthy enough that your lovely young man thought he could let go and enjoy it. Good for you!

I’m curious, will you bite the apple next time?

This post was previously titled “Emotional Masochism Isn’t Therapy”.

9 thoughts on “My Emotional Masochism Isn’t Therapy”

  1. Humiliation, degradation, and emotional masochism are all part of the mental BDSM type coin, but in my personal view I agree that they are separate things.

    Like anything else in kink, there’s plenty of overlap and ways for them to melt together into a deliciously sexy whole, but being into emotional masochism seems to be a different animal than someone who strongly identifies with a humiliation kink.

    I allow a very small amount of emotional masochism play because, well, I am a sadist centric masochist and submissive to my sadist so I want him to do the sadistic stuff he likes, and I get off on the fact that I’m suffering for him (on the masochistic side) and that he’s doing what he wants to me (obviously within hard limits, but that ticks my submissive box). Sometimes that involves fucking with emotions, especially right now since I’m physically not up to a whole lot of our typical sadistic play.

    A class I took on (coincidentally enough) humiliation and degradation play by the amazing Undergroundsea looked at emotional masochism as identifying the strong emotional / personal experience pillars you could push against. What he meant by that was the top getting in the bottom’s head, learning how they tick, as you said, and pushing. The pillars he recommended pushing against where those that were strong enough so the emotions would only cause hurt, not harm, and ultimately are ways of fucking with the bottom that pushes their buttons in a good way.

    Some emotional pillars I have that gets pushed against include messing with my perfectionist tendencies (hi there :P), creating frustration, and using my squick reactions to gross me out. And it’s a lot of fun in the suffering kind of way for me, even if I’m having fun in aggregate due to consensually suffering from those emotions and not because they’re necessarily what’s considered a “good, fun” emotion.These are strong pillars for me, compared to weaker pillars that may be trigger laden or otherwise problematic to push (such as emotional sadism involving anything relationship wise, embarrassment emotions, hobby restriction frustration, etc). Maybe how physical masochists build pain tolerances, emotional masochists build stronger pillar tolerances?

    And none of my emotional masochism involves humiliation emotions in the least, which is why I feel emotional masochism and humiliation kink are two related, but differing, concepts.

    1. Oh wow. I learn something new everyday. I would never have believed someone could be turned on by their squick! And the frustration part is different from me as well, so it’s fascinating to learn that it works for you. Thank you so much. It really, really helps to meet someone so similar and yet so different!

  2. (This got long, but doesn’t feel like a blog post, or something I want to work into one. So, sorry about the length, but here it is anyway)

    I’ll be honest, at times this piece felt like it was negating my experience and my remarks on the previous post. Looking carefully at what you’ve written, I see that this feeling comes about because you appear to have assumed that there’s a direct parallel between your emotional masochism, my fear/defeat/suffering/shame kinks, and Cava Supernova’s racial-abuse-kink guy. When you wrote, “Really? Huh. I’m glad it works like that for you. But not me,” it came across to me as though you’re saying the stuff in my mind isn’t real because you are saying it is comparable to the stuff in your mind and I don’t feel it is.

    When you start talking about humiliation, things become complicated for me. Back in January, I basically explained exactly how to do (and not do) shame play with me as bottom. The distinctions between what’s hot and a hard limit are significant. The reasons why are important, too, in relation to the OP.

    In your reply on the “Is Racism Sexy?” post you say, “we actually do agree that the pain is only hot if it’s not traumatic” but I am not sure we do agree: how do you define “traumatic” in this context? (Again, pesky language issues!)

    Am I facing my demons and getting stronger? Well, you could say that, because next time I’ll be able to handle a little more. But that’s how caning works too, and nobody tells my friends they’re subconsciously trying to eliminate their pain responses. So it seems a little strange to me that everyone assumes emotional masochism is about DIY therapy.

    But facing demons isn’t about destroying them. It’s about gaining control over them and being okay that they exist. No amount of therapy (DIY or otherwise) is going to take away the bad shit that’s happened to me and make it as though that stuff never happened. But it can help me come to terms with it, and choose what it means now, rather than letting it define my now. In discussing the nature of my extreme victimhood fantasies on a site dedicated to these (where I present as my female side, and as victim rather than top), I wrote, “Call it, the soul surviving intact even if the ‘body’ (virtual/fantasy) doesn’t.”

    Which leads to the top quote from Tilari’s reply:

    Undergroundsea looked at emotional masochism as identifying the strong emotional / personal experience pillars you could push against. What he meant by that was the top getting in the bottom’s head, learning how they tick, as you said, and pushing. The pillars he recommended pushing against where those that were strong enough so the emotions would only cause hurt, not harm, and ultimately are ways of fucking with the bottom that pushes their buttons in a good way.

    The concept of “strong emotional / personal experience pillars you could push against” and “those that were strong enough so the emotions would only cause hurt, not harm, and ultimately are ways of fucking with the bottom that pushes their buttons in a good way,” is very much familiar from the roleplay bottoming I do.

    I think a big part of the discomfort I feel in reading the OP is that our pillars are very different. The basic mechanism may be similar, but the pillars, or effects pushing on them has, are far apart. For instance, in my “humiliation” blog post, I wrote, “It’s not that they even hurt me, that makes them a hard-limit, in this sense. It’s that I respond with emotions that I find utterly unerotic. Without breaking my own self-image, to have such views projected against me or demanded of me, such humiliation makes me feel unsexy and de-aroused.”

    Similarly, the example of “failure” in the OP I find incomprehensible from my own perspective because I can’t construct for myself an emotional reaction to “not keeping my eyes on the ring” unless I feel judged for failing – which produces resentment, and not hotness, in my mind. If I found I could do it easily (i.e. if it turns out I’m *not* “hardwired to drop my eyes when talking about sex”) then looking away would be a failure of wilful disobedience – but that needs to be brought back in line to have emotional resonance (something that you said didn’t happen).

    There is a world of difference between what I need from the testing or targeting of pillars, and what you seem to: I really am not an emotional masochist. I think I kink on something more akin to emotional vulnerability/strength (remember how we talked about those themes before?): as I wrote in the “humiliation” post, “make me feel small, defeated, helpless, or exposed” – but also let me be strong enough to feel them. I wrote in my piece on Submissive Power, “But when I submit, my control is the same as when I am a top. I win because things are simpler and clearer. And I can stop if I need to.” Last night, I went seeking bottoming roleplay featuring the stuff I’m talking about here, not for “facing the demons”, but because I’d had a stressful day and just needed something to wash away the messy, painful, emotions and replace them with simple, clean, powerful ones: at the end of the (online) scene I felt cleansed, re-centred, focussed and calm even though the scene emotions had been fear, shame, chagrin/defeat, and so on. That was a form of therapy, too, but not dealing with past trauma, rather, rebooting and refreshing current selfhood.

    There’s also a curious thing for me about having to pick, not the strongest pillars, but the ones that are “just right”: the passage I quoted above about “unerotic” emotions is what happens when a pillar that is rock solid gets pushed. On the other hand, the “Don’t I feel stupid/set up to fail/like a jerk?” element I described is what happens when a pillar that is too weak gets pushed. (And that does cause emotional hurt, and because not am emotional masochist, is not fun for me). But in between, there’s all these other things – fear, vulnerability, defeat, self-judgement (i.e. shame), and so on.

    As I said in my reply to Cava Supernova’s piece, kink has many sources. It also has many paths.

    1. I’m sorry you felt like your experience was being negated. I wrote the piece because I felt that way too, and it was only while writing it that I realised you and I might just have different kinks. On the other hand, I can certainly identify with what you say about “rebooting”, though I’m not sure I would go so far as to call it therapy:

      Last night, I went seeking bottoming roleplay featuring the stuff I’m talking about here, not for “facing the demons”, but because I’d had a stressful day and just needed something to wash away the messy, painful, emotions and replace them with simple, clean, powerful ones: at the end of the (online) scene I felt cleansed, re-centred, focussed and calm even though the scene emotions had been fear, shame, chagrin/defeat, and so on. That was a form of therapy, too, but not dealing with past trauma, rather, rebooting and refreshing current selfhood.

      About what counts as “traumatic” … you’ve already heard my rather crude metric. If I used to enjoy it but now it hurts, then clearly something’s gone wrong in between. Unfortunately this posthoc definition is not very practical in terms of not getting it wrong in the first place, but I think it is essentially what Tilari said about picking strong pillars to push against. In my case, I think it does have to be the strongest ones.

      1. I find it therapeutic, so to my mind it is a form of therapy *shrugs*

        It’s interesting how many parallels or points to discuss we find in our exchanges, and yet when it comes down to it, we are very differently kinked. I’m sorry you felt negated by my reply to Cava Supernova, I guess I thought it was just a reply to her question, not a generalised “kink is like this”.

        I’m a long way apart on the trauma thing, but too tired now to dig deeper. And for that matter, not entirely sure how I want to use the term either.

  3. Something about this post doesn’t sit quite right with me, and I suspect it’s because my experience is, in its own way, much the same as Valery’s. My kinks are a weird mirror of the same things I experienced growing up that led to me having no self-worth or identity to speak of for most of my adult life. Experiencing those things in a controlled and positive context that I’ve chosen for myself isn’t therapy per se, but it does help me to have different ways of relating to those kinds of experiences. It’s not about desensitization so much as it is about getting the power to choose whether those things get to be universally hurtful or not.

    1. If both of you don’t feel right about it, then I got something wrong. I think I failed to edit out my initial disbelief that anyone could experience kink as therapy. By the time I finished writing I definitely realised that people are just different, and I tried to say so somewhere, but evidently the piece still has a sceptical tone. Apologies! I think it’s fantastic that you guys can do this.

  4. Hope it’s not too late to have a conversation about this. 2 months later isn’t too late is it?

    This article is why I don’t consider myself a masochist.

    There are many reasons to want someone to hurt you and I have come up with several reasons to want to be hurt. Therapy is one motivation that could lead someone wanting pain even if they don’t get pleasure from pain. Or someone could get an ego boost for being able to endure something even if they don’t enjoy it in and of itself.

    I personally love to feel things intensely so something that I hate might be a desirable experience just because it’s intense. Therefore I might enjoy a painful experience not because I like pain but because I like intensity. I might enjoy a painful experience because it’s surreal. Or because it’s unfamiliar.

    Another thing is that everyone enjoys mild pain. That’s what I think anyway. People like spicy food because it’s painful (and therefore stimulating) but at the same time most people (myself included) will enjoy any unpleasant stimulation (due to the fact that it’s still a stimulation) up until the point where it’s overwhelming. I think that’s different from masochism but it can motivate people who aren’t masochistic to seek out something painful.

  5. I hope 2 months later isn’t too late to have a conversation, because I’m now replying to your comment 3 months late! If I understand you correctly, we don’t disagree. I said my emotional masochism isn’t about therapy, and you listed several motivations behind things that look like masochism.

What do you think?