Self-Defeating Personality Disorder

· September 21, 2018

A few psychologists proposed self-defeating personality disorder (also known as masochistic personality disorder) as a new category of personality disorders to be included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III-R) in 1987. After a series of lengthy deliberations, the group changed the name of the disorder and excluded it from the manual.

Its name became “self-defeating personality disorder”. Scientists did this in order to avoid association with the psychoanalytic concepts of female masochism. Writers included the disorder in an appendix of the DSM-III-R dedicated to conditions that needed further studying.

In 1994, authors completely eliminated it from the DSM due to social and political reasons. Although this disorder affects the people who suffer from it, its elimination has significantly decreased the amount of research that can shed more light on it.

The concept of masochism has its origins in Kraft-Ebbings descriptions from the 19th century. He described the behavior of certain people who sought sexual pleasure by submitting to physical pain from a dominant partner. Subsequently, Freud and other psychoanalysts described a pattern of submissive non-sexual behaviors (mental masochism).

The self-defeating personality

People with this personality put other people’s needs before their own. That is, they put other people’s needs in the forefront.


What gives meaning to their lives is giving themselves to others completely. These people even go as far as giving up on what they want in order to please someone else. They don’t seek gratification. It pleases them to simply direct their efforts into improving another’s life. Oldham and Morris (1995) proposed a series of characteristics that define a self-defeating person. Let’s delve deeper into them.

A person giving another a hug.

Characteristics of people with a self-defeating personality

The essential characteristic of self-defeating personality disorder is a pathological pattern of self-defeating behavior. People with this disorder:

  • Cater to other people’s needs. They try to satisfy others without waiting for them to ask for help.
  • Aren’t competitive or ambitious.
  • Go out of their way to be at the service of others.
  • Are very considerate of others.
  • Are tolerant of others and never criticize or judge with cruelty.
  • Don’t like being the center of attention.
  • Have a lot of patience and a great tolerance for discomfort.
  • Aren’t ironic or pedantic.
  • Are ethical, honest, and trustworthy.
  • Are naive and innocent.
  • Don’t suspect that others have ulterior motives.

Also, these people can often avoid or dismiss pleasant experiences. They often allow themselves to be dragged into situations or relationships in which they’ll suffer. In addition, they frequently don’t let others help them.

Diagnostic criteria of self-defeating personality disorder

Masochistic or self-defeating personality disorder is characterized by the following criteria, according to the DSM-III-R.

A) A pervasive pattern of self-defeating behavior, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts. People with this disorder may often avoid or undermine pleasurable experiences, be drawn to situations or relationships in which they will suffer, and prevent others from helping them, as indicated by at least five of the following:

  1. They choose people and situations that lead to disappointment, failure, or mistreatment even when better options are clearly available.
  2. They reject or render ineffective the attempts of others to help them.
  3. Following positive personal events (e.g., new achievement), they respond with depression, guilt, or a behavior that produces pain (e.g., an accident).
  4. They incite angry or rejecting responses from others and then feel hurt, defeated, or humiliated.
  5. These people reject opportunities for pleasure or are reluctant to acknowledge enjoying themselves (despite having adequate social skills and the capacity for pleasure).
  6. They fail to accomplish tasks crucial to their personal objectives despite having demonstrated an ability to do so.
  7. They’re uninterested in or reject people who consistently treat them well.
  8. They engage in excessive self-sacrifice that is unsolicited by the intended recipients of the sacrifice.

B) The behaviors in A do not occur exclusively in response to, or in anticipation of, being physically, sexually, or psychologically abused.

C) The behaviors in A do not occur only when the person is depressed.

sad man

As we can see, people with masochistic or self-defeating personality disorder have a strange tendency to harm themselves, accumulating setbacks and frustrations. The required intervention isn’t easy. In this sense, these patients often resist treatment because they feel like they need to be submissive to others. Therefore, they use defeatist schemes, and this makes psychological intervention lengthy and difficult.

Note: In this article, we use the word disorder for the sake of convenience. The truth is that, at present, masochistic or self-defeating personality disorder has a controversial clinical identity. It’s more a problem than a disorder.