What’s the Difference Between Masochism and Self-Harm?

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Hi Page,

I’ve been exploring my more kinky side and I would definitely say I’m a masochist. However, I’ve recently been wondering if I’ve been seeking this out as a new form of self-harm. I used to self-harm in the past and have stopped for a few years, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve just placed the responsibility on someone else. 

Could you help me understand the difference between self-harm and masochism?

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Hurting and Harming

One difference between self-harm and kinky masochism is in the name itself.

On a very basic level, the BDSM community makes a basic distinction between hurting someone and harming them. When you hurt someone, you cause them pain that’s temporary and goes away after a short time with little or no intervention. Harming someone, conversely, means causing someone damage that doesn’t go away on its own, at least not without significant intervention. This damage can be physical or psychological.

BDSM practitioners agree that it’s okay to hurt someone who consents to it, but the vast majority agree that harming someone is generally off the table (with perhaps a notable exception being made for permanent marks like tattoos or brands).

If you’re playing with someone who is hurting you with your consent, and you’re walking away from these scenes without any sort of lasting damage, that’s one major difference between masochism and self-harm. Because if you’re self-harming, it can result in physical or emotional scars that persist, especially if you are doing so because of feelings of shame, hopelessness, or helplessness.

So that’s one difference built right into the name: Self-harm is being harmed by yourself; masochism is being hurt by another person.

But for some people, hurt versus harm might seem like a flimsy intellectual distinction. So here’s another issue to consider.

The Pursuit of Endorphins Versus a Desire to Be Punished

A lot of the difference between self-harm and masochism also comes down to why the activities are pursued, an individual’s motivation for participating in them.

One major reason that people pursue masochistic play is that they find pain to be a pleasurable sensory experience — or at least they enjoy the endorphin chemical reaction in their bodies that comes after the pain.

However, similar BDSM activities can be employed as a form of punishment as well. And some masochists — especially ones who also happen to be submissives in a D/s dynamic — find that being punished physically gives them “closure” when they’ve done something that they regret.

For some individuals, the practice of self-harm generally has little to do with the first reason (pursuing painful sensations and/or a physiologic high of endorphin rush), but self-harm can definitely overlap psychologically with masochism’s possible role in punishment if a person participating in self-harm is doing so in order to punish themselves for what they perceive as wrongs they’ve committed or ways they believe they’ve failed others.

Do You Feel Different After Masochistic Activities Than With Self-Harm? People Often Do

However, there are also a variety of reasons that a person might participate in self-harm (others include boredom, as a coping mechanism for dealing with stress, etc.). And only you know why you struggled with self-harm in the first place. So you will ultimately be the person most able to judge whether or not the emotional patterns you’re experiencing are the same as your masochism.

If you felt shame and despair when you self-harmed, do you feel those same things when you participate in masochistic activities? Or do you feel a sense of security, joy, or pride?

Typically, masochists with a history of self-harm report that they find a masochistic kink experience to be much more pleasurable than the feelings of shame and low self-worth that accompanied their self-harm.

It’s Not Uncommon for Masochists to Have a History of Self-Harm That Stays in the Past

Perhaps you’ll take heart in knowing that there are a number of people with a history of self-harm who later go on to be masochists in the BDSM community post recovery. And many who do find masochism don’t revert back to self-harm again. Precisely because they’ve discovered something that for them provides many of the same benefits of their past self-harm (coping, endorphins, punishment, creating emotional or mental closure, etc.) but without the downsides (shame, self-loathing, despair, etc.).

…But It’s Good to Be Cautious and Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Help

That said, it’s good to be cautious about this, given your history.

It is encouraging that you were able to stop for a few years before pursuing BDSM. I also think it’s good that you’re aware of the potential to slip into unhealthy past patterns.  You don’t mention in your letter whether you’re currently in therapy, but if you do find yourself taking a dark turn or one that feels self-destructive, don’t hesitate to seek out help.

The National Coalition for Sexual Freedom has a directory of Kink Aware Professionals available for anyone who would like to seek out a kink-friendly counselor, many of which are also incidentally very polyamory-friendly and aware of consensual non-monogamy.

(The directory also includes other kink-aware professionals such as doctors or lawyers, for people who might need other help.)

If you find once you’ve searched their listings that’s there no one in your area in the directory, you can also contact NCSF via their website and ask if they can locate one for you.

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Have a question about a post? Maybe need some advice about a relationship or situation? Write me. I love getting messages from you.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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