Feeling Guilty All The Time: Shame, Guilt, Or “Moral Masochism”?

While the words “guilt” and “shame” are often used interchangeably when describing our response to a transgression, psychologists define them differently. Guilt and shame are what are called “self-conscious emotions”… although, as we will see later, they are not always as fully conscious in their manifestations as we might think.


In the experience of shame, the transgression is felt to emanate from a defective or bad self. Since it is often difficult to change one’s overall self…one’s whole personality and way of being in the world…feelings of shame characteristically cause people to try to hide or escape from the situation rather than try to apologize or make restitution.

  • The classic physical reaction to feeling embarrassed is to lower your head, lower your eyes, and want to melt to the ground.

Guilt is often more healthy and adaptive.

In guilt the focus is on the act rather than the actor. Something mean or hurtful was done, but the actor wasn’t necessarily a bad person.

After experiencing guilt, people often report that they want to apologize, confess, or fix the situation.

  • Guilt feelings may lead a transgressor to approach the injured or offended party and attempt to make amends for the consequences of their action.
  • Steps can be taken to prevent similar problems in the future.

When the focus is on the behavior as the root of the problem, one can learn from the experience and work to repair the damage. The ability to feel guilt can be healthy and adaptive, especially if feelings of guilt motivate behaviors such as apologizing. But when a person feels generalized guilt too often (eg, guilt without a triggering event), it can actually be quite maladaptive…as in the case of moral masochism.

Moral masochism: desperately maintaining a relationship

Moral masochism is an unconscious psychological defense that works by twisting the meaning of unpleasant experiences so that they can be seen as beneficial.

  • A classic example is the idea of ​​”being punished for one’s own good.”

The human need to feel in control

You may be wondering why someone’s unconscious would lead them to create such unpleasant and interpersonal situations. The reason is usually that it feels better than the alternative.

  • If you are a child who is physically or emotionally dependent on a parent who frequently punishes or humiliates you, you may need to mentally “justify” this punishment as being done “out of love” to maintain the illusion of a loving relationship. sure father.
  • When the child or adult interprets punishment as a token of love (“I’m only doing this for your own good”), and when genuine acts of tenderness and care are rare, the child may begin to unconsciously tease or seek out situations in those who are criticized or punished… replacing it with a loving interaction.
  • If this “negative” attention-seeking behavior is not recognized and addressed, it can continue into adult life and wreak havoc on adult relationships.

Every human being is subject to “narcissistic defeats”…situations in which their self-esteem takes a painful hit.

  • The typical defense of the moral masochist is to “sweeten” his disappointment by proposing that “nobody frustrated me against my wishes, I frustrated myself.”

This creates a comforting illusion that the situation is really in their check. “If I behaved perfectly, my father or my partner would have no reason to attack me.” People who have had painful experiences of capricious and unwarranted criticism or punishment by abusive parents or partners who were unable to prevent or fight back may unconsciously decide that attracting criticism and punishment from others by provoking them puts them in the driver’s seat.

  • This attitude can develop with the unconscious goal of maintaining good feelings towards the aggressor when the relationship is abusive but important.

The psychological maneuvers of Moral Masochism

Through his own behavior or by abusing or misinterpreting an available external situation, the moral masochist succeeds in provoking those around him to disappoint, reject, or humiliate him.

  • Because it allows the masochist to continue to feel in control of their destiny, this dynamic unconsciously provides satisfaction and empowerment.

Pseudo-aggression and righteous indignation

The moral masochist usually does not recognize his own provocative contribution to the situation and reacts with righteous indignation and apparent self-defense to attacks and ill-treatment that he perceives as originating entirely from the outside world.

Because this pseudo-aggression is often inopportune and poorly timed, it can lead to further humiliation and slights and waves of self-blame and self-pity.

“Why can I never get it right?”

“I need anger management classes”

“I have no self-control”

“This always happens to me”

However, abuse and bad feelings are unconsciously pursued because maintaining the belief that experiences are “my fault” supports the unconscious need to feel in control.

Typical driving beliefs of moral masochism:

  • “I will be loved as long as I submit to the will of others.”
  • “If I assert my independence, I will be rejected.”
  • “Good people never express negativity.”

Typical self-punishing thoughts

  • “I will harm myself to prevent others from harming me.”
  • “If I feel too much, I will explode.”
  • “I am inferior and disgusting because of my negative feelings and bad behavior.

Typical provocative behaviors:

  • Passive-aggressive heel dragging tasks and responsibilities, interferes with the plans of others and causes frustration and criticism.
  • Give the other what he asks for but with so little grace or such bad timing that it spoils the gesture.
  • Martyr behavior, transparently launched to evoke guilt in others, instead provokes aggression in them (shame-guilt dynamic).

It is difficult to change “unconscious” behavior

Friends, family, and therapists can try to help by pointing out how they keep dealing with the same problems, however, moral masochists who find themselves engaging in self-defeating behaviors are often bewildered by how they seem to continue in spite of themselves. your appreciation and good intentions. change.

This is because the unconscious motivations and unacknowledged satisfactions that underpin dysfunctional behavior are not understood and therefore cannot be changed.

unacknowledged satisfactions

  • The desire to remain in control of fate is more important than whether the fate is pleasant or unpleasant.
  • Secret feelings of pride and superiority at being able to “take” it. they wish creditNo relief Of suffering

fear of gold…

  • Moral masochists do not change their provocative behavior and stop incurring punishment because doing so might reveal that the “loving” parent or partner really is. it is evil or abusive and cannot be controlled.

Moral masochists in therapy

Moral masochists may find it difficult to stay in therapy. They easily fall into their usual pattern and feel abused and disappointed in their therapists and leave prematurely.

Successful therapy must address at least two of the core satisfactions and fears that underpin moral masochism.

Secret feelings of superiority..

Many moral masochists are deeply committed to self-righteousness and, to safeguard their precarious moral superiority, spend a great deal of energy proving that those who treat them unfairly are morally inferior.

  • Therapy should help them overcome their reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which they themselves contribute to the problem.
  • Acknowledging their own contribution and working to make amends moves them away from shame/avoidance and closer to blame/reparation. In general, a more empowered and genuinely moral position.

Fear of revealing a lack of love or genuine abuse in important relationships.

While in many cases there was genuine abuse and misunderstanding in past relationships, this is not necessarily true in current relationships. The defense of moral masochism may be protecting against something that doesn’t really exist today.

  • Since provocative behavior that elicits criticism may be contributing to the problem, the true relational situation in the present can only be assessed if the moral masochist stops his provocative behavior and tests reality.

Moral masochists take on suffering, not because they love suffering but because they feel it makes them more lovable. Central to the treatment of moral masochism is working to develop the conviction that they too will be loved when they are happy and prosperous.

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