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”… though 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 flawed or bad self. Since it is usually difficult to change one’s global self… one’s whole personality and way of being in the world… feelings of shame characteristically make people try to hide or escape from the situation rather than trying to apologize or make restitution

  • The classic physical reaction to feeling shame is to hang one’s head, lower ones eyes and wish to melt into the floor.

Guilt is often more healthy and adaptive.

In guilt the focus is on the act rather than on the actor. A bad or hurtful thing was done, but the actor was not necessarily a bad person.

After experiencing guilt, people typically report wanting to apologize, confess or fix the situation.

  • Feelings of guilt can lead a transgressor to approach the injured or offended party and attempt to repair the consequences of their action
  • Steps may be taken to avoid similar problems in the future.

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

Moral masochism: Desperately maintaining relationship

Moral masochism is an unconscious psychological defense which functions 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”

Human need to feel in control

You might wonder why anyone’s unconscious would drive them to create such unpleasant and interpersonal situations? The reason is usually that it is felt to better than the alternative.

  • If you are a child who is physically or emotionally dependent on a parent who is punitive or who frequently humiliates you, you may have to mentally “justify” this punishment as being done “out of love” in order to maintain the illusion of a loving, safe parent.
  • When punishment is interpreted by either the child or the adult as a proof of love (“I only do this for your own good”), and where genuine acts of tenderness and care are infrequent, the child may begin to unconsciously provoke or seek out situations where they are criticized or punished… substituting this for a loving interaction.
  • If this “negative” attention-seeking behavior is not recognized and addressed it may continue into adult life and wreak havoc in adult relationships.

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

  • The typical defense of the moral masochist, is to “sugar-coat” their disappointment by proposing that, “No one frustrated me against my wishes, I frustrated myself”.

This creates a comforting illusion that the situation is really in their control. “If I would just behave perfectly, my parent or partner would have no cause to attack me.” Individuals who have had painful experiences of capricious, unjustified, criticism or punishment from abusive parents or partners which they could not prevent or defend against, may unconsciously decide that attracting criticism and punishment from others by provoking it puts them in the driver’s seat.

  • This attitude may be developed with the unconscious goal of retaining good feelings about the aggressor when the relationship is an abusive but important one.

Moral Masochism’s psychological maneuvers

Through their own behavior or by misusing or misinterpreting an available exterior situation, the moral masochist succeeds in provoking those around him to disappoint, refuse or humiliate him.

  • Because it permits the masochist to continue to feel in control of his fate, this dynamic unconsciously provides satisfaction and empowerment.

Pseudo-aggression and righteous indignation

The moral masochist does not usually recognize their own provocative contribution to the situation and reacts with righteous indignation and apparent self-defense to attacks and maltreatment which he perceives as originating entirely in the outside world.

Since this pseudo-aggression is often poorly timed and ill-dosed, it may provoke further humiliations and rebuffs and waves of guilty self-accusations and feelings of self-pity,

“Why can I never get it right?”

“I need anger management classes”

“I have no self-control”

“This always happens to me”

Maltreatment and bad feelings are nevertheless unconsciously sought out because maintaining the belief that the experiences are “my own 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 hurt myself to prevent others from hurting 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 in tasks and responsibilities, interferes with other’s plans and evokes frustration and criticism.
  • Giving the other what they asked for but with such poor grace or poor timing that it spoils the gesture.
  • Martyr-like behavior transparently pitched to evoke guilt in others provokes aggression in them instead (shame-blame dynamic).

It’s hard to change “unconscious” behavior

Friends, family and therapists may try to help by pointing to how they keep running into the same problems, yet moral masochists who become aware that they engage in self-defeating behaviors are often baffled by how they seem to continue despite their recognition and good intentions to change.

This is because the unconscious motivations and unrecognized satisfactions underpinning the dysfunctional behavior are not understood and so cannot be shifted.

Unrecognized satisfactions

  • Desire to remain in control of fate is more important than whether the fate is pleasant or unpleasant.
  • Secret feelings of pride and superiority about being able to “take it”. They desire credit, not relief from suffering.

or fears…

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

Moral masochists in therapy

Moral masochists can have difficulty staying in therapy. They easily fall into their habitual pattern and feel abused and disappointed with their therapists and leave prematurely.

Successful therapy needs to address at least two of the central satisfactions and fears that underpin moral masochism.

Secret feelings of superiority.

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

  • Therapy must help them overcome their reluctance to acknowledge the ways in which they themselves contribute to the problem.
  • Recognizing their own contribution and working to repair, moves them away from shame/avoidance and towards guilt/repair. Over-all 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 lack of understanding in past relationships, this is not necessarily true in present relationships. The defense of moral masochism may be protecting against something that is not really there today.

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

Moral masochists take on suffering, not because they love suffering but because they feel it makes them more worthy of love. Central to the treatment of moral masochism is work towards developing a conviction that they will also be loved when they are happy and thriving.

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