Self-defeating personality disorder (also sometimes referred to as masochistic personality disorder), whilst not included in the current edition (fifth) of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), is still frequently referred to by mental health professionals to help explain various aspects of behaviour. To be considered as suffering from a self-defeating personality disorder, an individual will be suffering from a minimum of five of the following symptoms :
– avoidance of accepting the help offered by other people.
– drawn to people and situations which lead to negative outcomes (e.g. to relationships with abusive partners) despite the availability of more positive options.
– avoidance of pleasurable activities despite having the psychological capacity to experience pleasure (unlike those suffering from anhedonia) or a reluctance to admit to feelings of enjoyment.
– the tendency to induce anger in, and rejection by, others, but then feeling emotionally shattered when this happens.
– undermines own abilities by not undertaking vital tasks (of which s/he is capable) that would allow him/her to achieve his/her personal goals, leading to under-achievement and under-performance. Also, may set self clearly unobtainable goals which ensure failure and humiliation.
– indulges in excessive, unsolicited self-sacrificing behaviour – rejects, or undermines relationships with, those who treat him/her well (instead, forming relationships with those who are likely to have a negative impact upon him/her – see above) as feels unworthy of love, particularly the love of ‘decent’ people
Theories Relating To How Self-Defeating Personality Disorder / Masochism May Be Related To Adverse Childhood Experiences :

– Francis Broncek theorized that self-defeating personality disorder/masochism is linked to the episodic or chronic experience of not being loved as a child, as having been rejected/abandoned as a child, and/or having been used as a scapegoat in childhood,

– Berliner (1947) stated: ‘in the history of every masochistic patient, we find an unhappy childhood, and frequently to…an extreme degree.’ He also proposed the idea the masochism serves as a defence mechanism that protects against the development of depression or, even, schizophrenia.

Grossman (1991) stated that self-defeating personality disorder and masochism are linked to severe traumatisation inhibiting a person’s ability to sublimate the pain psychological pain generated by the traumatic experience into productive mental activity.

-It has also been hypothesized that a child who has been brought up by a very strict parent or another significant authority figure and has been treated in such a way as to make him/her feel worthless, unlovable and frequently deserving of harsh punishment, may grow up to internalize such views so that they form part of his/her set of core-beliefs.

Such individuals are also likely to have profound, pent up feelings of shame and guilt which they seek to exculpate and atone for through self-punishment (both consciously and unconsciously) or by subjecting themselves to abuse, mistreatment and punishment by others.

A Study Examining The Link Between Childhood Trauma And Self-Destructive Behaviour :

A recent study, carried out by the researcher Van der Kolk and his colleagues, looked at this link between having suffered childhood trauma and the subsequent development of self-destructive and self-damaging behaviour.

Each person in the sample of 74 individuals who participated in the study had a diagnosable psychiatric condition (either bipolar disorder or a personality disorder such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and each was monitored over various lengths of time (the average length of time and that a participant in the study was monitored was four years).

During the period of time that each individual was monitored the researchers recorded all instances of self-destructive/self-sabotaging behaviour (such as substance misuse, bulimia, anorexia, deliberate self-injury and suicide attempts).

The extent to which each of these individuals had experienced childhood trauma was measured by their own self-reports of their childhood experiences.


It was found that those who had suffered childhood trauma (including neglect and separation from the primary carer) were far more likely than average to self-injure (by cutting self), to attempt suicide and to behave, in general, in self-destructive ways.

It was also found that those who cut themselves did so in order to achieve a dissociative state (in this case, the dissociative state is induced to distract the self from unbearable mental anguish by inducing physical pain which is more tolerable and, therefore, preferable to the mental pain.

Further Findings:

Individuals who participated in the study were least likely to recover from their proneness to behave in self-destructive ways if, as a result of their childhood trauma, they had developed problems forming and maintaining relationships with others in their adult lives (click here to read my article on how these two things can be inter-related).

It has been suggested that those individuals who have a propensity to self-cut and/or attempt suicide find stress extremely difficult to cope with as adults as it triggers memories and feelings associated with their particular childhood trauma.


Treatment for this disorder can be complicated, not least because those suffering from it may well shun offers of help (a symptom of the condition – see above). However, treatment options include group therapy, family therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and counselling.


According to psychodynamic theory, if we do not resolve these issues relating to our childhood trauma, we will continue to be unconsciously driven to put ourselves in situations that cause us to re-experience the highly distressing emotions originally generated by our traumatic childhood experiences.


Well, according to Sigmund Freud, the answer is that this repetition compulsion (as he phrased it) represents our inwardly driven frantic and desperate attempts to gain mastery over the original trauma and its associated negative emotions, something we (inevitably, because we were powerless) failed to do in childhood.

Example: A woman rejected in childhood by her parents may be unconsciously driven to try to form relationships with utterly unsuitable men who are bound to reject her.

Yes, incredible as it may sound, according to psychodynamic theory, her unconscious mind compels her to form relationships that are doomed to failure (some go as far as to say all our behaviours are, in the final analysis, unconsciously driven and our sense of control over our own fates is a foolish fantasy; but we are submerging ourselves in murky and hazardous philosophical waters here).

Finally, it is also theorised that we will also interpret events negatively, when it is not objectively justified, in an attempt to recreate our adverse childhood experiences and the negative emotions which pertained to them at the time. So, following on from the example above, if we were rejected by our parents as children, we may constantly believe others are rejecting us when this is, in fact, NOT the case.



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  David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).