Your vitality is your destiny; it defines you and allows you to be creative. It is your job to cooperate with it. If you don’t do your part finding a place for all your strength and promise, it will transform. Instead of being receptive to the constant invitations to increase the life in you, you will start being submissive to other people. The object of your surrender will shift from life itself to a particular person or group of persons. This shift in responsiveness creates a destructive pattern known for decades in psychology as sadomasochism. 

The pleasure you would have received by being responsive to life reverses. Now you may find pleasure in being disappointed, emotionally and physically hurt, or betrayed. This is how I imagine masochism and why I think it is so pervasive. It may be perceived in the tone of an interaction. You’re late for an appointment, and you berate yourself for your habitual tardiness. You could just take it as one of life’s mishaps, but instead, you focus on yourself. You can see in this example how egotism is part of the picture as well. Instead of letting life happen, you imagine the scene as centering on yourself.

When this habit gets deeper and more ingrained, your criticism of yourself may become harsher. You may judge yourself brutally and often. You may even find ways to get hurt or actually cause yourself physical pain. Some people cut and beat themselves. In relationship, you may act out your pattern in sadomasochistic forms of lovemaking, a rather common way of shifting broad issues of power and surrender to sex.

But sadomasochism works in two directions. In one case, the very person who takes pleasure in suffering often has a hidden sadistic side. He may present an image to the world as being powerless, always being beaten down. But in subtle ways, and without owning up to it, the same person may be extremely controlling and harsh. In the presence of a self-deprecating person, it is often wise to look for signs of subtle control and almost invisible force….

The sadomasochistic splitting of emotion may be responsible, in part at least, for your dark night of the soul. It may derive from the falling apart and rebuilding that goes on in a dark night, when your emotions are volatile and shifting. You may move frequently from feeling rage to feeling overwhelmed. You may not be certain just what you feel or what is happening in your life….

It is always tempting to compensate. You believe that you are a passive person, so you try to be assertive. What you fail to realize is that hidden in your passivity is some strong, anxious aggression. Here is a perfect place to “go with the symptoms.” If you are powerless, first learn how to surrender and be receptive in ways that work for you. Almost magically, you will find the power you were looking for. Things are often just the opposite of what they appear to be, and this is because life is made up of paradoxes and opposites.

If you tend to be passive, paradoxically, you don’t need to be more assertive but rather more receptive. The difference between passivity and receptivity is the difference between suffering and being open. Maybe you can’t tell the difference. When you are passive, you feel the impact of life on you at every turn. You can’t see that your passivity is a symptom of your failure to allow, tolerate, and cooperate with life as it comes along. Your very passivity is a form of control….

Masochism is an invitation to surrender to life, and in so doing to gain a sense of power and flexible control. This phrase, “flexible control,” describes the reconciliation of strength and submission. The Tao Te Ching recommends wu-wei: achieve things by not trying to achieve. But another quality helps turn masochism into flexible control – intelligence. You have to know when and how to surrender.

-- Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul