10 Signs You're an Emotional Masochist

If you seek out toxic, intense relationships with a lot of ups and downs, this could be you.

Two people solemnly embracing with illustrated overlay
Photo: Getty Images/InStyle


I have a tendency to have very passionate, intense, and unstable relationships. I frequently return to the scene of the crime — aka get back with my exes after a breakup. I find nice guys to be boring and love complicated men with a dark side. I have had my share of trauma, so I feel like I can relate to them more. A friend of mine told me she thinks I am actually an 'emotional masochist.' What is that ... and am I one?! —Maybe a Masochist


When you hear "masochist" your mind might immediately go to whips and chains, but emotional masochism is different than sexual masochism, which is actually listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) and is characterized by a pattern of sexual arousal from being made to suffer through physical violence or humiliation. (Keep in mind, it's only considered a disorder if it is causing the person to suffer from anxiety, guilt, shame, or other negative feelings related to these sexual encounters. When that does not exist, it is considered to be a sexual interest or preference, not a disorder.) While there can be some overlap between emotional masochism and sexual masochism, the two are very separate issues, not to be confused.

Back in the '80s, Masochistic Personality Disorder, also known as Self-Defeating Personality Disorder, was considered for inclusion in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) — and some argue that it should still be added — but being an emotional masochist is not a clinical diagnosis. That said, it is becoming a growing topic of conversation.

So, what does it mean? Well, people who are 'emotional masochists' tend to feel most comfortable in painful relationships. Sometimes it is because they don't think they deserve any better and other times it is because of a history of trauma, they think that is all they deserve. They frequently go back to people who caused them emotional pain and have a difficult time making boundaries with hurtful people in their life.

Signs You Are an Emotional Masochist

1. You go back to the same person to hurt you over and over again.

Despite the warning signs, hurtful patterns, or obvious character issues, you return to the same partner who hurt you over and over again. Sometimes this occurs because you don't think you deserve better. Other times you might be trying to play out old childhood wounds in current time. Either way, you get hurt over and over again by the same person.

2. You spend a lot of time with negative self-talk and criticism.

Spending a lot of time talking to yourself in negative and critical ways is another sign of this form of masochism. Your inner dialogue is consistently negative and you don't fight it. Whether it's because you have internalized an abusive parent, mean coach, or cruel partner, you spend a lot of time talking to yourself in cruel ways. If this is you, it is particularly important that you get therapy to break these patterns. Don't wait until you think you deserve it or it will be easy. Just take steps to get the help you need.

3. You thrive on drama.

When there isn't any drama in your life, you create it — sometimes intentionally and other times unconsciously. You may find that you feel dead inside when there is not some kind of chaos or conflict to keep your adrenaline going. You are unaware of how that negative energy impacts you and your life.

4. You are drawn to toxic people.

Another sign of emotional masochism? You find yourself surrounded by mean or abusive friends, family, or romantic partners. You are the common denominator. Perhaps this feels familiar and comfortable based on something from your past. Or maybe your self-esteem is so bad that you think that is all you deserve. Keep in mind, that who we surround ourselves with is ultimately our own choice.

5. You end healthy relationships.

If you're an emotional masochist, healthy relationships bore you, so you end them. It's so unfamiliar and lacks the ups and downs that you are used to. You may not even realize that you're ending things because they're healthy. Closeness makes you uncomfortable so you get out.

6. You start fights to ignite passion.

It's hard for you to know someone cares if they don't fight with you. The highs and lows of fighting enable you to have passionate sex and feel close to your partner. Angry sex, break-up sex, and fight sex are way more comfortable for you than making love.

7. You seek out approval from people who won't give it.

You find yourself compelled to win approval from people who resist giving it to you. You pursue people like this and cause yourself pain. You also have a hard time letting go and accepting someone who won't give you the validation you are hungry for.

8. You let people walk all over you.

You don't make boundaries. You have a pattern of allowing people to take advantage of you. You have a tendency to be a people pleaser, regardless of whether or not you respect the people you are trying to please.

9. You are more comfortable hanging out with unhappy people.

That old saying that misery loves company is your motto. You gravitate to people who are unhappy and spend a lot of time looking at the negative. This is different than being there for a friend who's going through a crisis, it's a choice to surround yourself with people who always see themselves as victims.

10. You sabotage your own happiness.

The last tell-tale sign of an emotional masochist? You make choices that lead to your own demise or failures. You tend to live in a repetitive loop of self-defeat.

How to Get Help

If all of this sounds like you, you probably have some unresolved issues from your childhood that you need to work through so you can better understand that you deserve to be happy and are worthy of a great support system.

You will probably need the help of a professional therapist in order to work through all of these negative patterns and help you better understand why you do the things you do. If money is a concern, you may want to look into mental health clinics in your area (Call SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for general information on mental health and to find a treatment service near you). Virtual therapy, including Wellnite and BetterHelp, is another option, as well as free hotlines that provide support or peer counseling. Have you considered bibliotherapy? There are many great books to help you get to the bottom of what you're going through and start to make some changes. Lori Gottlieb's Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend's Boundaries, and Julia Samuel's This Too Shall Pass, are just some of our recommendations to help get you started. 

Bottom line: Don't give up! It is possible to break this cycle and live a much happier life.

In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.

Related Articles