Unmasking Masochistic Self-Defeat

Unmasking Masochistic Self-Defeat

Kathryn Levison, BA

Of all Sigmund Freud’s theories, his Pleasure Principle is so obvious, Wikipedia’s nutshell is good enough:

The Pleasure Principle is the instinctive seeking of pleasure and avoiding of pain to satisfy biological and psychological needs.

Self-defeating behavior and masochistic self-harm puzzled Freud. Masochistic self-defeating behavior only aligns with the Pleasure Principle “in reverse” in that psychological/emotional pain and failure “feel good” while success “feels bad.” 

Understanding why people sabotage themselves is both complex and simple, so let’s also work in reverse by starting with the easier task — defining the issue — then try to make sense of what is going on in the complex underground of the unconscious.

Man At The Tree Branch

Masochism & self-defeat defined

Masochism is the flip side of sadism

Sadism, named after the Marquis de Sade, involves taking pleasure in inflicting pain on others. A French nobleman with an infamous reputation as a libertine with few to no moral boundaries, the Marquis’ writings are primarily erotic and pornographic.

Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term masochism. Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was not particularly pleased to have a disorder named after him. He insisted that he only used the theme of torment and humiliation as a way for his characters to achieve sexual release in his writing. Krafft-Ebing saw it differently, believing that Masoch was writing about himself, and eventually decided that masochism has a genetic origin.  

If we’re going to speculate about the origins of sadism, one interesting note is that while he was still young, the Marquis de Sade’s father abandoned the family, and his mother joined a convent. Since he couldn’t punish his parents directly, he may well have unconsciously found another way.

Richard von Kraft-Ebbing and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
Richard von Kraft-Ebbing (left) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (right).

Masochistic personality disorder as defined by the APA (American Psychological Association):

A personality disorder in which individuals persistently and characteristically obtain gratification or freedom from guilt feelings as a consequence of humiliation, self-derogation, self-sacrifice, wallowing in misery, and, in some instances, submitting to physically sadistic acts.

Many clinicians find this definition controversial because, in some cases, it blames the victim when the truth is that all learned behaviors require a teacher.

For instance, if a child’s parents are constantly quarreling and insulting each other — especially if the child never witnesses them saying, “I’m sorry” — the child may learn not only that a “normal” marriage is an argumentative one. They may also come to believe that they never have to apologize to anyone for anything, no matter how hurtful the words or actions.

A child in a different household may have parents who do occasionally argue in anger but who also make a point of apologizing to each other — sometimes even apologizing to the child and explaining, “this isn’t how people who love each other should act.” That child may learn that while disagreements are to be expected — even in a close, loving relationship — purposely hurting another human being is not OK.

Can masochism be productive?

Usually, the outcomes of masochistic actions are detrimental, but there are examples of purposeful masochism for a positive cause. 

  • Helena Deutsch observed that motherhood is fundamentally masochistic — putting their young’s welfare ahead of their own can be mandatory for survival. Morality
  • Morality — the set of standards that let us live cooperatively in groups — sometimes decrees that we tolerate short-term personal discomfort to benefit society.

For instance, medical personnel who offer their expertise to organizations like Doctors Without Borders earn a fraction of what they’d make in a traditional medical practice. Other people may choose to forfeit a few creature comforts and serve in the armed forces when their nation is in crisis.

Moral masochism can go too far

Personal suffering for seemingly moral reasons can come across as a “holier than thou” stance that’s seriously irritating to others. These moral masochists may criticize people they believe wouldn’t be able to endure the same pain with such grace or who just couldn’t or wouldn’t work as hard.

Psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams treated an exhausted intensive care nurse who insisted on working eighty hours a week because “Maybe some professionals have lower standards. I’m not one of them.”

They can also have what’s known in poker as “a tell.” Therapists have reported seeing just a hint of a smile when masochistic patients talk about how badly others treat them, so it’s easy to conclude that they’re deriving some sadistic pleasure in defaming their tormentors. 

It’s more accurate to say that they’re getting some secondary gain from solving interpersonal predicaments with what McWilliams calls an attachment-through-suffering solution. 

Moral masochists may also “fight back by not fighting back.” Even if the therapist encourages the person to do something instead of grumbling about mistreatment by an employer, a relative or friend, or a spouse, the person looks disappointed, changes the subject, and complains about something else.

Self-defeat as defined by the APA:

A personality disorder characterized by a reluctance to seek pleasurable activities, an encouragement of others to exploit or take advantage of oneself, a focus on one’s very worst personal features, and a tendency to sabotage one’s good fortunes. 

Sweeping generalizations can be dangerous, but even within this more serious self-destructive situation, “we all” do things that we know in advance will not turn out well:

  • Procrastinating on writing a paper.
  • Failure to finish a report for work on time.
  • Money down the drain because half a dozen eggs fell out of the fridge and shattered on the floor even though you knew full well that balancing the carton on top of the milk was a dumb idea — and you don’t get paid until Friday, so there goes breakfast for rest of the week.

The confounding question is “Why?”

Why would anyone ever knowingly do anything to cause themselves physical or emotional pain — primarily actions, or lack thereof — that have the potential to kill a career and compromise their future?

Myriad theories, one bottom line

Most if not all arguments involving the roots of human behavior include at least some discussion of the nature vs. nurture debate regarding what determines a person’s fate. Do genetics (nature) have more influence? Or does the environment (nurture) play a more significant role?

Decades of discussion and research have settled the argument in favor of nurture and lays the blame for masochistic self-defeating personality patterns squarely on the shoulders of those supposed to love, protect, and guide the child in positive ways of interacting.

Masochistic self-defeat is not the same as “fear of success”

Business and personal self-help material that teaches “failure to plan = planning to fail” misses the mark. When a person is trapped in this vicious self-defeating cycle, they can wallpaper their lives with timelines and to-do lists and turn their refrigerator door into an inspiration board. But all of these are surface solutions — like putting RoundUp on a tree trunk and expecting the mighty oak to fall.

The process of identifying the root cause of why it feels good to fail can seem like the proverbial needle in a haystack situation. There’s also another dilemma: there’s no definitive prescription assistance for this situation. Masochistic self-defeat has no empirical neuron involvement like bipolar disorder. Antidepressants can help a person handle the stress when the going gets tough in therapy. However, nothing other than seriously deep self-introspection and much hard work will improve things.

The painful truth is that the masochistic self-defeating approach to life is a learned behavior that started in childhood — maybe even infancy — which puts healing squarely in the category of “changing bad habits.” The longer the habit has been in place — and the more rewarding it is, no matter how convoluted — the longer it takes to resolve.

The good news is that because habits of any kind can be conquered once you rip out the root, psychoanalytic psychotherapy is perfect. It just takes more work to get past unconscious negative rewards.

Child At Window

Roots of masochism & self-defeat: children learn what they live

In 1934, Dorothy Law Nolte spelled out the root of all negative thoughts and behaviors. Her poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” outlines both positive and negatives outcomes, opening with the kind of harmful input that results in what psychologists define as negative introjects:

  • If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
  • If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
  • If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy
  • If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.

The rest of Nolte’s poem offers hope by describing the source of positive introjects: 

  • If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
  • If children live with tolerance, they learn to be patient.
  • If children live with praise, they learn to appreciate.
  • If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
  • If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
  • If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
  • If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and others.
  • If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.

What exactly is an introject?

In the spirit of keeping it simple, let’s start with Merriam-Webster’s definition of introject as a transitive verb:

to incorporate (attitudes or ideas) into one’s personality unconsciously

The keyword here is unconscious. A professional depth psychologist can explain it far better. However, my working understanding is that introjects influence how you think and feel about yourself and your world in ways you’re not even aware of until something changes.

It would be nice if we all grew up with the love and acceptance in the latter half of Dorothy Nolte’s poem — surrounded by parents and teachers and siblings and friends, all of whom are on our side and joyfully teach us how to succeed no matter what life throws at us. But unfortunately, some of us get stuck with too many people who only know how to teach failure, and we end up needing help to undo the damage.

Bullying can instill dangerous negative introjects

In addition to experiencing hostility, deprivation, or misattunement in one’s family of origin — misattunement defined as a lack of relationship between child and parent that leaves the young child feeling unheard and unsure that their needs will be met — one of the most unfortunate situations that can lead directly to masochistic self-defeating behavior is bullying.

The American Psychological Association defines bullying as follows:

Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words, or more subtle actions.

Compounding the problem is that because bullied individuals have done nothing to provoke the bully intentionally, they often have trouble defending themselves. Even those victims with good overall self-esteem can have trouble when a bully is so aggressive as to react with anger to logical solutions.

Bullies with power can cripple a gifted child: an example from real life

One clinician reported his struggles to help a female patient in her mid-fifties who sought therapy after yet one more divorce.

While working to resolve the woman’s tendency to marry psychologically abusive men — all of whom seemed to be extensions of her mother — the therapist himself admitted to occasionally crying at home. He’d listened to endless stories of parental abuse, but how this woman’s mother had systematically — and with conscious intent — destroyed her teenage daughter’s chance for a professional music career despite repeated attempts at intervention both by the girl’s father and her male instructor — was enough to overwhelm this seasoned professional.

Note: While this woman’s story reads like a psychological horror film script, it is, unfortunately, all too true. Worse, she’s not alone when it comes to this degree of damage inflicted by a parent.

The woman’s mother’s campaign began in earnest after the girl was accepted for private lessons with a premiere woodwind teacher who recognized her potential. The first step to moving forward was getting her an instrument commensurate with what the teacher knew to her innate abilities. Of course, piano lessons were integral to training, but that suggestion only gave the mother more ammunition.

  • First, the mother insisted that the family “could not afford” the quality professional-level flute that the teacher could provide at a ridiculously low cost via his professional connections.
  • A year or two later, when the mother offered the girl’s brother piano lessons, and he declined, the girl asked to take his place only to hear, “There’s no money.”

(Interestingly, shortly before his death a few decades later, the woman’s father revealed that there had, indeed, been enough money both for the better flute and for piano instruction. He also confessed that he “never understood” why the mother withheld these easily affordable things, especially in the face of the girl’s obvious talent, so he didn’t know how to defend his daughter.)

When the daughter couldn’t perform the advanced literature required for acceptance into a college music program — not for lack of talent or practice but specifically for lack of an instrument that would respond — the mother went after the girl’s self-esteem.

  • “You’re not working up to your potential.”
  • “You have no self-discipline.”
Girl Playing Flute

Despite these obstacles, the girl placed first in state music competitions all four high school years. After her highest score — one point below perfect — the mother dismissed the impressive score as the “ignorant indulgence” of the judges.

  • “They weren’t paying attention. It’s obvious that you didn’t play [a particular passage] the way your teacher told you to.”

Remarks like these weren’t limited to musical performance. Everything the girl accomplished was either ignored entirely or dismissed as a fluke.

  • “You only got a decent grade because [the teacher] felt sorry for you.”
  • “You only got that seat [in a student orchestra] because the other girl was having a bad day at the audition.”
  • “You had just better hope that they [classroom and music teachers] never figure it out.”

After the girl started making a little pocket money playing in amateur theater orchestras — a sign that maybe she wasn’t such a bad musician after all — the mother went for the jugular: 

  • “You’ll never make a living in music.”
  • “You’ll never be worth more than minimum wage.”
  • “You’ll never make a living doing anything you like.”
  • “You’ll be lucky if anyone wants to marry you, so you’d better take the first offer you get.”

The results were heartbreaking. By the time she graduated high school, the girl truly believed that she was an inferior musician who was incapable of supporting herself in any way at all and that the only way she wouldn’t end up on the street was to, literally, “marry for money.” That resulted in a string of poor relationship choices and multiple divorces.

When she finally earned the bachelor’s degree that she hoped would give her a future in some other field, she ended up going from job to job, always underpaid and often fired due to different versions of self-sabotage.

She inadvertently learned the depth of her mother’s abuse when she found a professional flute on a fluke in a guitar store that carried woodwinds on consignment. After a few minor repairs, she could finally play all of the repertoires that were impossible on a lesser instrument.

However, while she’d taken a chance on one more marriage, this time not for the man’s money but for what she genuinely believed to be love, it turned out her husband had a vindictive streak. The woman returned home from a religious retreat to find that her husband had sold the flute to a local pawn shop in retaliation for an infraction he refused to name.

The result was that, at age fifty-five, she had nothing by way of pensions or retirement plans sufficient to live on after retirement and was afraid she wouldn’t even qualify for welfare. After the psychotherapist helped her identify the different ways in which she unconsciously sabotaged herself with employers, the woman found and held onto two part-time jobs. However, not even both incomes together would provide for retirement, nor could she replace the quality flute she needed or buy a used piano.

Her therapist, coming from a performance background himself, was able to help her find two or three hobbies as creative outlets. But he knew from his previous work with people robbed of their passion by their parents that she would still more than likely live out her remaining years with the soul wound inflicted by her mother.

Bullied Child

How repeated bullying & negative introjects cause real damage: the Illusory Truth Effect

The Illusory Truth Effect — aka illusion of truth effect, validity effect, truth effect, reiteration effect — is the tendency to believe that false information, repeated often enough, is correct.

In his book Suffering from Illusion: The Secret Victory of Self-Defeat, psychoanalyst Sayers Brenner confirms the “simple and paradoxical” roots of self-defeat:

“Childhood errors of thinking unconsciously lead us to cause our own pain by pursuing mere illusions, such as pure love, perfection, certainty, security, and grandiose power.”

Brenner’s text offers far more specific examples than can be covered here that vividly illustrate how parents’ and authority figures’ negative words and actions worm their way into a child’s thought processes and become part of the fabric of how that child sees him or herself.

The illusory truth effect can also be viewed as one aspect of what Freud defined as repetition compulsion in relationships.

Repetition-compulsion: the dark flip side of “Practice makes perfect”

At its core, masochism is the belief that “I’m bad and deserve to be punished.” Therefore, they’re unworthy of love given freely. If you can get someone who’s been nice to be angry with or mean to you, that can turn a relationship failure into a twisted version of “success.” How do you succeed? By overcoming obstacles.

The problem is, getting into one negative situation after another is not the way to “overcome” anything. When it’s all going on in a person’s unconscious, connecting the dots and ending the cycle can be tough.

How psychoanalytic psychotherapists define repetition compulsion:

an unconscious need to reenact early traumas in the attempt to overcome or master them. Such traumas are repeated in a new situation symbolic of the repressed prototype.

Translation: a person chooses people to interact with or gets involved in (reenacts) a situation that they unconsciously recognize as a chance to finally “torment the tormentor” (repressed prototype) from their childhood.

Layering on their belief that they can only survive if other people bail them out financially sets the stage for relating to others in technically manipulative ways but not intended to damage the other person.

The manipulations are always based on personal survival, not others’ defeat.

The masochistic self-defeating approach to relationships

People who behave masochistically carry the unconscious hope that enduring pain and suffering will get them what they desperately want: Love, acceptance, and someone who can help them survive.

Because it’s not uncommon for a masochist to have had a parent or caregiver who came to their rescue if their situation was grave enough, psychoanalyst Nancy McWilliams sees masochists as “depressives with hope.”

Usually, the history of a masochistic person sounds like that of a depressive personality with losses that go unmourned, guilt-inducing overcritical caregivers, role reversals in which the child is made to feel responsible for the parents, and other trauma and abuse characteristic of depressive role models.

The underlying theme is whether or not caregivers and others finally responded when the child was in truly serious trouble. The difference lies in how these two personalities view other people.

  • Depressive: “No one will ever help me, so I won’t even bother to ask.”
  • Masochist: “If I can get them to see how much I’m suffering, they’ll help me, and I won’t be completely abandoned.”

Both types — depressive and masochistic — tend to gravitate toward people who treat them poorly. The character traits that draw them to others can range from insensitivity to silent passive-aggressive responses to the worst-case scenario of sadistic physical abuse.

“Whenever things are calm, a storm is about to break”

Some people choose a spouse who has a pre-existing tendency for abuse. Others will connect with a genuinely loving partner only to have the repetition compulsion of “you only love me if you treat me badly” rear its ugly head, driving them to do seemingly ridiculous things that bring out the worst in the other person.

One of Nancy McWilliams’ patients married a man who preferred a conservative, sometimes frugal approach to finances. While the woman didn’t suffer too many other damaging repetitions, she’d still go on a spending spree whenever the relationship began to feel comfortable and warm. Worse still, she’d also come home and tell her husband — in detail — what she’d bought and how much it cost because she knew that would send him into a rage.

The therapist’s relationship challenge: masochistic self-defeating repetition compulsion

The first goal for every psychotherapist is to create and maintain an authentic, caring relationship with their patient that does not mimic the dysfunctional situation that drove the person into therapy in the first place.

Psychoanalytic psychotherapists often have to work harder to avoid being drawn into the game because they have to help the patient get past their “unconscious amnesia,” remember the original trauma, and see how it affects their present situation and behavior.

How masochistic self-defeating patients may treat their psychotherapists

The therapist treated like a parent to be persuaded:

  • “Why won’t you help me? You’re supposed to help me.”

 The therapist keeping professional boundaries with schedules and fees:

  • “You just don’t want to cut me a break because you’re selfish.”

The therapist as an abusive authority figure:

  • “All you ever do is criticize me.”

A light moment: “All” that a psychoanalytic psychotherapist will ever “do” when it comes to “criticism” is to point out a negative introject — an unconscious attitude that the patient had drilled into them by someone else. But because these attitudes are so ingrained, the patient can take offense and think that the therapist is criticizing them personally.

Nancy McWilliams describes the process in a way that’s both dead-on accurate and highly amusing once you wrap your head around it:

“[The thing that] is being criticized is a critical introject.”

Why masochistic self-defeating patients treat their psychotherapists this way

Because self-defeating people live in a state of terror, even though it’s almost always unconscious, they expect that everyone — including caring therapists — will see right through them, find all their horrible shortcomings, and reject them for their imaginary crimes.

When the therapist tries to help the person uncover the root of rejection by a genuinely abusive authority figure in the past, it’s easy for the person to think that it’s their worthlessness that’s being exposed — that the therapist is “blaming the victim for being victimized.” In the patient’s mind, the only way out is to run, to abandon the therapeutic relationship.

Ironically but in true repetition compulsion style, a person will run from one therapist only to find another. Then, when that new therapist gets too close, the person will run again.

Man At The Table

The therapist’s diagnostic challenge: masochistic self-defeat vs. depression

The common thread between depressive people and those who live with masochistic self-defeat is the unconscious negative introject laundry list that runs a person’s life:

  • I’m unworthy (of pretty much anything and everything positive in life)
  • I deserve to be rejected (but I can’t tell you why)
  • I’m guilty (of someone else’s manufactured crime)
  • I deserve punishment (for those same false infringements)

The key difference between masochism and depression

Going back to the idea that masochists are “depressives with hope” is a good place to begin. But it’s also possible that masochistic people are naturally more social than depressives. If so, this may be because masochists have learned that if their pain is great enough, someone will come along to help them. Depressives, on the other hand, have pretty much given up.

One depressive patient’s experience offers a heartbreaking but accurate illustration:

The principal abuse this woman suffered, mainly at the hands of her mother, was neglect. It’s difficult to find genuine memories from infancy, but she could remember several instances in early childhood when her needs were either ignored or punished. She also couldn’t recall being held or comforted by her mother, not even after she suffered a blow to the head that required stitches.

One of the techniques her psychotherapist adopted early on was to call her by a nickname she’d told him she liked but that her mother rejected. He added “little” to try to pull the woman as early into childhood as he could. Then, one day in session, he interrupted her.

“Don’t you ever cry for little Betsy?”

“In here? That’s a waste of time.”

“You don’t cry at home?”


“Why not?”

“What for? Crying doesn’t change anything.”

A masochistic patient with a similar childhood but a different parent would probably have learned that enough tears — or, in the case of a head wound, enough literal blood — would elicit the mother’s attention and care.

A few other examples of how depressives and masochists handle their worlds

  • A depressive — like the woman above who never cried — knows she’s unloved, so not even tears have power.
  • A masochist will sacrifice power for the sake of feeling like they are loved, even if no love exists.
  • A depressive will internalize false blame and retreat into loneliness.
  • A masochist will first project their “badness” onto others and then act out in ways that prove the other person is wicked.

Like depressives, masochistic people may turn in against themselves, but they rely more on acting out — meaning self-defeating behaviors. However, in general, masochists are more active than depressives and usually need to do something with their depressive feelings to counteract discouragement, inactivity, and isolation.

The key is that a masochist’s acting out risks injury because they know they’ll get the attention they need. It’s their way to conquer expected painful situations. It’s a complicated if/then scenario:

  • If the person knows — or assumes — that all authority figures will eventually and impulsively punish those who depend on them, the person is always in a state of anxiety, waiting for the punishment to happen.
  • Then provoking punishment in advance not only relieves anxiety but also reassures the person that they do have power because they chose the time and place of their suffering.

The good news:

The time and place of the beginning of a masochistic self-defeating person’s healing is also their choice.

A closing note from the author

Shelves in stores like Barnes & Noble and online resources like Amazon are filled to overflowing with material in the personal growth department. The sub-genre of “how to stop shooting yourself in the foot” is and always will be a hot topic. Some of the advice is valid, but books can only do so much.

Going back to the garden metaphor and the mighty oak:

Just like the timelines and to-do lists in motivational materials, affirmations and suggestions in self-help books are also a lot like RoundUp: They work great to keep things in check — after you’ve cleared out the overgrowth. But same as you need a professional with a backhoe to dig out a dead tree, roots and all, you need professional help you find and rip out the roots of self-punishment and self-defeat.

A psychoanalytic psychotherapist will take the time to go through the seasons with you — to help you un-learn the lies and re-learn the truth about yourself that somebody else buried. Truths like:

  • You’re worthy of love because you’re breathing. Anyone who tells you differently is just passing on the lie they learned from someone else — the psychological version of a bad penny.
  • You’re valuable to the world because you’re in it. If it takes you half your lifetime to figure out your contribution to the world, then that’s how long it takes.*
  • You make mistakes just like everybody else. Your “punishment” for those mistakes is to suffer through figuring out where you went wrong, so you don’t make the same mistake twice — at least, not the exact same mistake.
  • You need help sometimes, just like everybody else. The trick is learning who, when, and how to ask for what you need without resorting to manipulation.

*Here’s a thought: What if the longer it takes you to figure out what you have to offer, the more impact you make when you finally get there?

In the movie Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin won the practice battle for his army, the Salamanders, at the last minute precisely because nobody expected him to show up when he did — least of all, his commander, Bonzo Madrid.

I guarantee the last thing my mother ever expected me to do was write. Finding out that I’ve been honored with the privilege of writing for a depth psychology group would send her into convulsions.

A word of personal encouragement

Believe it or not, most of the “weeding” isn’t that painful. What does feels like a mortal blow is the moment you uncover the horrifying truth that someone you trusted set out to destroy you.

That afternoon on my analyst’s couch when I knew for sure that my mother’s abuse wasn’t unconscious on her part. The moment that I remembered the look on her face — and I was right there in the room. I watched her make the conscious, calculated decision to do everything in her power to rob me — her first-born child — of both hope and a future.

The only way I survived that moment on the couch was through my twisted sense of humor. I growled at my analyst, “I thought this was therapy, not do-it-yourself surgery — without anesthesia.” 

I cried myself to sleep on and off for almost a year. Just writing about it makes me reach for a Kleenex. I still remember everything she did, everything she said, everything she denied me for no other reason than that she could.

I see her hand in most of my mistakes.

My mother chose to be my enemy — my most negative introject. Through psychoanalysis, I chose to learn to defeat my enemy but not by holding onto hate, even though what she did was beyond hateful. With my analyst as my most positive introject, I defeated her by learning to love her — providing love is still synonymous with forgiveness.

Finding love and forgiveness toward those who hurt you is the ultimate victory. Some say the ultimate weapon is faith alone. I have clergymen in my family tree, and I say the ultimate weapon is faith plus the process of psychoanalytic psychotherapy.

If you lost something irreplaceable or had it stolen from you — like the female patient and her flute — I can’t promise that you’ll get it back. I can promise that your psychotherapist will help you find a way to work around the loss, to find a psychoanalytical prosthesis, if you will.*

Mazer Rackham’s (Ben Kingsley) advice to Ender (Asa Butterfield) on how to emerge victorious over the alien race known as the Formics is a near-perfect description of the step-by-step process of conquering masochistic self-defeat in psychoanalytic psychotherapy: 

“You will have to win this war one battle at a time.”

*I have one of those, by the way — a psychoanalytical prosthesis. My heart will always limp a little, but I’m still here.

About the Author

Having enjoyed a successful career as a musician in the Chicago suburbs, Kathryn Levison shifted gears after experiencing first-hand the power of quality psychological counseling. However, life had other plans, and her goal of pursuing the advanced credential required to offer that same hope to others was put on hold. Many years and two cancer surgeries later, she again sought help, this time from esteemed psychoanalyst Norman Ellman. Seeing in her what his mentor, Theodor Reik, saw in him, Dr. Ellman first unleashed Kathryn’s latent gift for creative writing and then incorporated informal training into her analysis with an eye toward her own analytical practice. After his death, life intervened once more, so today, instead of a couch, Kathryn uses a pen to both entertain and encourage. While she loves nothing more than spoofing Sigmund Freud and all things analytical, Kathryn has also written award-winning biographical prose. Her most rewarding — and challenging — project to date is a co-authored memoir of paternal incest and maternal psychological abuse, published one gut-wrenching, soul-mending chapter at a time. 

Other writings:
Baby, Can I Bum a Cigarette?
Ashes: a Holocaust Haggadah for Passover
Houses: Chapter 1 (Lucy: Based on a True Story)
Friday the 13th with Freud: Spoofing Sigmund on Triskaidekaphobia Day 


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American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Self-defeating personality disorder. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://dictionary.apa.org/self-defeating-personality-disorder

Nolte, D.L. (1934). Children Learn What They Live. Retrieved January 17, 2022, from https://childrenlearnwhattheylive.com/

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