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Howell, E.F. (1996). Dissociation in Masochism and Psychopathic Sadism. Contemp. Psychoanal., 32:427-453.

(1996). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 32:427-453

Dissociation in Masochism and Psychopathic Sadism

Elizabeth F. Howell, Ph.D.

The interaction of masochistic and sadistic forces, of dominance and submission, along with their frequent referents, terror and trauma, is a powerful leitmotif of our current society. In this article, masochism and psychopathic sadism are viewed as differing posttraumatic adaptations that rely upon defensive dissociation. Broadly, the masochist has dissociated rage and aggression while the psychopathic sadist has dissociated vulnerability, attachment, and dependency. At least within the domain of these phenomena, a new tripartite division of the psyche might be postulated: victim self-state, perpetrator self-state, and the selfobserver/narrator.1 Whereas the masochist has dissociated the self-state of perpetrator (largely by having internalized it), the psychopathic sadist, bent on control of the lives of others, has dissociated the self-state of victim—by having externalized it. This contributes to the irony that the masochist feels like a criminal and the psychopathic sadist feels like a victim.

Recent literature suggests that the notion of a unified self is an illusion and that the human individual is characterized by a multiplicity of subselves and subsystems (Erdelyi, 1994; Kirmayer, 1994; Bromberg, 1993; Schwartz, 1994). Bearing this in mind, attention to dissociation is clarifying, for it removes certain theoretical problems that are inherent in the unitary self-view. For instance, with regard to masochism, in such phrases as “She is being hard on herself”

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