Sunday, April 9, 2017
If not one yourself, you probably know persons who obsessively worry about how they’ve impacted others.
They think: “Did I say something that hurt his feelings? Did my remark elicit a sense of discomfort in her? Did my behavior make him appear foolish? Should I have helped out more at the end of the dinner party?”
You get the story.
Some consider this a form of social anxiety. Some view it as courteous.
I consider it only a variation on the human experience, a sort of hyper-responsibility or under-entitlement.
I have some personal experience with it. Particularly early in my career, I often worried if I had said the right thing during a psychotherapeutic session. Did I miss that chance to confront her? Did I allow enough silence while he wept? But many people struggle with such anxiety more frequently, usually in social settings.
You’ve heard of some of psychoanalysis’ more common typologies. Introversion versus extraversion is a common one, or cognitive versus emotional styles. Less discussed are more archaic concepts, like sadomasochism.
I find this one particularly helpful. The word sadomasochistic is awkward. It word-fragments, sadism and masochism, are associated with sexuality. Within the psychoanalytic literature, however, they are used to describe interpersonal styles, not sexual behaviors.
Lewis Aron helpfully notes how couples tend to fall into varieties of sadomasochistic ways of relating because of the intense difficulty in relating intersubjectively.
Intersubjective intimacy requires constant vigilance. Few can achieve it. More commonly, couples, friends, families, groups, even whole societies fall into varieties of sadomasochistic contracts. One person dominates the other; one group subjugates the other. Cliches like “happy wife, happy life” represent such dominance-submission patterns.
In other words, relationships require constant negotiation by the involved parties. Ideally, they remain in touch with their desires, communicate them clearly, and make efficient, conjoint decisions. More commonly, they do not. One or the other party dominates while the other submits.
An individual’s propensity towards one of these roles, e.g. the dominant party or the submissive one, exists on a continuum. Think of masochism as residing on the far left end. It results from a lack of sufficient valuation of self. At the far right end is sadism–more accurately described as narcissism–where an over-valuation of self occurs along with difficulty having empathy for others.
These propensities emerge from highly complex, dynamic factors. They result from a combination of biological, historical, cultural, social, and other forces. They are anything but simple.
Sadomasochism adversely affects individuals, families, groups, societies, and the world at large. The immensity of the problem is as large as the degree of its complexity.
Sadomasochistic streaks in relationships result from imbalances between love-of-self and love-of-other. Mature persons find some balance between loving themselves and loving others. They feel an adequate degree of self-valuation and self-interest. At the same time, they are sensitive to, and considerate of, the needs of others. The “golden rule,” found in most religious belief systems, runs along these lines.
Addressing these types of interpersonal contracts, and the individual psychodynamics propagating them, make up the bread-and-butter of most psychoanalytic practices. A detailed analysis of how psychotherapists address these common difficulties requires a full monograph or even a book.
In the meantime, here is an introduction, in brief:
Help consists of bolstering individuals’ capacities for whatever competency is lacking. Those leaning towards undervaluation of self–a form of under-entitlement–benefit from identifying their needs and desires and experiencing them as legitimate; those prone to overvalue self–a form of over-entitlement–need help sensing the needs and desires of others and considering them legitimate.
I meant to provide the barest introduction to a problem which, at its roots, explains many of humanities most pressing problems, like social injustice.
Submitted with humility,
Aron, L. (1996). A Meeting of Minds: Mutuality in Psychoanalysis. New York: Analytic Press.
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