Sadistic Personality Disorder: Definition, Causes, Types, and Interventions

A sadist hurting another person

Sadist—what comes to mind when you hear this word? Someone who enjoys hurting others? That’s the basic definition you’ll find in dictionaries, yes, but what does it really mean, and why are there sadistic individuals?

In this article, you’ll find clarity on what’s commonly known as sadistic personality disorder. What can cause a person to have it? Furthermore, is it curable? Read on for the answers to those questions and more. Who knows? There may be someone in your life who has the condition, or perhaps you have it but aren’t aware of it yet.

What Is Sadism?

Sadism is a trait possessed by individuals with a personality of displaying recurrent aggression and cruel behavior toward others. Sadists, people who are sadistic in nature, have an innate desire or intention to hurt others physically, verbally, or emotionally and find pleasure in doing so.

Sadism is a personality disorder. However, in the present, it isn’t recognized as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV Personality Disorders). It was once categorized as a mental illness, but not anymore. It’s now considered a personality trait or a lifestyle choice. Sexual sadism, however, is categorized as a mental illness in the DSM-5. 

Sadists derive pleasure from imposing pain on others. The aggression phase, during which they see the victim suffering due to their actions, is pleasurable to them. After their violent behavior, as their enjoyment subsides, a feeling of guilt may surge through them. This is for some, not all. 

Sadism could also include purposefully manipulating others by using fear, emotional blackmail, emotional cruelty, physical assault, or the threat of violence. In short, someone who feels good about humiliating or hurting others is a sadist. In most cases, the sadistic behaviors of a person backfire on them, causing them more distress following their belligerence.

Sadistic Personality Disorder Diagnosis

Sadistic personality disorder was first introduced to the DSM in 1987. It was placed in the DSM-III-R to facilitate systematic research and clinical study. It was proposed to be included in the DSM because of individuals showing sadistic personality traits but have not been given a label. It’s notable, though, that during that time, victims of sadist personas were concluded to have self-defeating personality disorder.

But the question is: how is a person diagnosed with sadistic personality disorder? To meet the full criteria of the condition, an individual has to inflict harm on another who doesn’t consent to the act. Usually, the therapist may recommend the person to take the International Personality Disorder Examination to determine if they have the disorder.
Another indication is that the person may feel an uncontrollable urge to cause someone physical, emotional, or mental pain. Theorists like Theodore Millon concluded that sadistic personalities are physically abusive and mostly male. Additionally, sadistic personality disorder tends to have a paradoxical effect in that the person finds excuses for their cruel behavior.

Typical Characteristics of a Person With Sadistic Personality Disorder

How can you tell if someone has this specific condition? Perhaps you’re trying to ascertain whether a family member or friend is prone to this personality disorder. Here are some characteristics to watch out for:

  • They enjoy seeing other people get hurt and humiliated.
  • There’s the intention to harm others without thinking of the consequences.
  • They fail to take responsibility for their actions.
  • They think inflicting emotional, physical, and mental pain on others is acceptable.
  • They can’t stop fantasizing about hurting others.
  • They may perform unusual sexual activities on their partner such as gagging, hair pulling, choking, slapping, and using weird sex toys.
  • They have a penchant for bullying.

What Causes Sadistic Personality Disorder?

Even after decades of conducting studies on sadistic personality disorder, theorists and scientists remain uncertain on what causes it. Is it nature or nurture?

Some speculate that sadism is a trait related to slaughtering and hunting animals. Some studies show that sadistic acts allow people to gain power. Several have shown that sadists have an innate desire for power and control.

Though the cause of sadistic personality disorder has yet to be determined, there are risk factors that increase the chances of a person developing it:

  • History of injustice: There may have been moral wrongdoings committed to the sadist. For instance, if they spend their childhood experiencing gender discrimination, all the harm committed to them lead to pent-up emotions. Thus, they end up seeking vengeance on other people.
  • Abuse or trauma: Perhaps they repeatedly got hurt in the past. In the case of individuals who experienced abuse or trauma in any form, they find that pain is “normal.” That’s why inflicting it on other people has no negative effect on their emotions.
  • Poverty: If a person grows up in poverty and has no control over their life, they tend to mature emotionally and develop the desire to gain power. Their hunger for control includes wanting to dominate someone else.
  • Personal failures: Individuals who experience personal failure may go through intense emotional turmoil. This could hurt them so much that they want others to become just as miserable as they are by intentionally hurting them.
  • Unfavorable childhood experiences: Everything from bullying and lack of emotional support from parents to influence from peers and psychological or physical suffering can result in the development of sadistic traits.
  • Hereditary component: A personality disorder may develop due to environmental influence and genetic factors. Antisocial personality disorder and masochistic personality disorder, for example, have a genetic link. Inheriting the genes of someone with such conditions may make a person vulnerable to developing the same traits. When a traumatic life situation occurs, the actual development of the disorder may be triggered.

The D-Factor

There’s a moderate to large hereditary component to personality disorders, so some people may just be born that way. Alternatively, parents with a high D-factor—one’s tendency to put themselves before others—could pass their traits onto their children by behaving abusively toward them. Seeing others behave in a sadistic manner may teach us to act that way as well. With that said, keep in mind that we all have a role to play in reducing cruelty.

As you can see, personal experiences may make or break a person and allow or prevent them from developing sadistic personality traits. It’s undeniable that everyone, including you, has emotionally hurt someone else at some point in their life. However, that springs from ignorance since you’re often unaware that your words or actions are harmful. Or it can be a result of a heated argument or emotions running high. Lastly, you could end up hurting someone as a defense mechanism when you feel threatened.

In contrast, a person with sadistic traits hurts other people not because of ignorance, a threat, or a misunderstanding. They do it to gain pleasure and feel emotionally fulfilled. Seeing someone suffering or unhappy gives them satisfaction. That’s the difference between a person with sadistic personality disorder and a person who doesn’t have it.

What Are the Different Forms of Sadism?

There are four types of sadism, and each differs based on characteristics. Some sadistic behavior patterns may overlap, but the bottom line is that all forms involve deriving pleasure from other people’s pain. The four kinds of sadistic personality disorder are spineless sadism, tyrannical sadism, enforcing sadism, and explosive sadism. Here are their descriptions and shown behavioral patterns:

1. Spineless Sadism

People with spineless type sadism may act insecure or cowardly, thus the term “spineless.” When feeling threatened or in anticipation of danger, they project hostile fantasies and strike first before they themselves are hurt. People with spineless sadism may also:

  • Be deeply insecure
  • Display avoidant personality
  • Be afraid of impending danger
  • Pretend to be brave but are truly not
  • Dislike being violent and mean

2. Tyrannical Sadism

Individuals with tyrannical sadism relish in brutalizing and menacing others. Their aggressive behavior forces their victims to cower and submit. Understandably, this is the most frightening type of sadism. Unlike those with spineless sadism, people with this type of sadism are degrading and unmerciful. Here are their characteristics:

  • Verbally abusive (scathing and cutting)
  • Doesn’t take responsibility for their actions and accuses others
  • Destructive of objects or properties
  • Violent, unmerciful, and cruel
  • Has antisocial behavior and uncontrollable rage
  • Exhibits negative and paranoid personalities
  • Dramatizing or playing the victim mentality
  • Uncontrollable

3. Enforcing Sadism

This is said to be found in people whose nature of work involves being in authority. Examples are deans of universities, corrections officers, police officers, and military sergeants.

Just to be clear, not everyone with those occupations is automatically a sadist. It’s just that most research has found that most people diagnosed with the enforcing type of sadism are people in authority. They feel that they should enforce the rules the way they interpret them. They carry out punishment and find satisfaction in doing so to people who’ve broken laws, rules, or regulations.

Additionally, people with enforcing sadism tend to implement what they believe in even though it’s morally wrong. When they don’t get their way, they may act aggressively. Here are the personality characteristics of people with this type of sadism:

  • Their main goal is to take control and impose punishment.
  • Displays compulsive personalities
  • Can balance social norms and individual needs
  • Emotionless and judges other people’s intentions
  • May find it hard to put limits on their vicious behavior
  • Tends to be merciless

4. Explosive Sadism

People with the explosive type of sadism are often unpredictably violent when they feel frustrated, humiliated, or hopeless or they lose control of a situation. When faced with personal failures, they may seek revenge for the pain they feel. In addition, people with the explosive type of sadism tend to:

  • Exhibit borderline personality disorder
  • Resort to physical violence after reaching their limit
  • Act aggressively to release pent-up emotions of humiliation or frustration
  • Be highly sensitive to betrayal
  • Refuse to accept hopelessness in life

Sadistic Personality Disorder Comorbidity With Other Personality Disorders

Studies show that individuals with sadistic personality disorder may have other personality disorders such as borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder. This results in comorbid mental illness.

Out of all the personality disorders, sadistic personality disorder has the highest level of comorbidity with psychopathic disorders. On the contrary, sadistic behavior may also be found in individuals who don’t display psychopathic disorders.

Some studies have found that substance abuse disorders have a high rate of comorbidity in sadists as well. Other comorbid mental illnesses are narcissism, Machiavellianism, and dark factor personality.

Sexual Sadism

You may also have heard about sadists in the context of sexual intercourse; this is called sexual sadism disorder. With sexual sadism, a person inflicts psychological or physical suffering to be sexually aroused or until the peak of orgasm. The sadist may be called “dominant” in the bedroom, while the partner who’s suffering is “submissive.”

It’s possible for sexual sadism to cause distress or functional impairment, especially for a non-consenting partner. Sadists may use humiliation or physical force inside the bedroom, which could cause physical or mental harm to the other person. A sadist might also be fond of using constraints such as chains, ropes, or handcuffs. What’s more, they may prefer sexual activity that involves choking, biting, whipping, spanking, or beating up someone.

Can Sadistic Personality Disorder Be Cured?

Just like other personality disorders, sadism is notoriously hard to treat, but yes, it’s treatable. Take note that a sadistic trait is embedded in a person. It makes way for unusual thoughts and behaviors that stay in a person’s inner core for years or even decades. Those things don’t go away on their own, and while they can be addressed with several sessions of therapy, it’ll take time.

Therapy can significantly help in treating sadistic personality disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are the most effective interventions to cure the condition. So if you think your loved one has this personality disorder, or perhaps you notice characteristics related to it in yourself and want to change them, here’s what you need to know about the treatment options available:

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

People with sadistic personality disorder are quick to open up about their life, which can be helpful during therapy. However, they may drop out only after a few sessions because they’re quick at giving up and shutting down. They crave approval; that’s why they easily open up about what they feel. However, with a little provocation, they may turn violent or abusive, especially to those who are just trying to help them.

Dialectical behavior therapy aims to stop aggressive behaviors. Typically, the approach includes one-on-one sessions once a week plus skills training through in-person or online mental health counseling.

DBT allows you to regulate your emotion, especially since harming yourself and others is always a possibility. Through it, you’ll learn ways to control confusing or overwhelming feelings. Therapists may encourage mindfulness techniques too such as observing one’s emotions without reacting.

Does this kind of therapy work? Certainly, but the key to overcoming any personality disorder is long-term therapy and patience from one’s support system.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Unlike DBT, cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on emotions rather than behavior. Typically, this requires weekly sessions during which the therapist would help you identify and change unusual behaviors.

For instance, people with sadistic personality disorder often think they’re victimized, and that’s why they hurt others. They interpret everything that’s happening around them to be an enforcement of their beliefs, even if that’s not the case.

CBT helps eliminate those irrational beliefs. How? By exploring traumatic childhood experiences and interpreting the origin of the dysfunctional beliefs in question. In short, the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy is to confront the past in order for a person to be able to face the future.

A person with sadistic personality disorder can benefit with mental health counseling.
Image from WikiMedia by AdAstra77

Final Thoughts

Perhaps you’re thinking, how is it even possible for someone to find pleasure in the pain and suffering of other people? The idea may sound as though it’s from a movie or a soap opera. However, sadism is a reality that many individuals face.

To address the issue, it’s recommended to undergo therapy such as mental health counseling at Counseling Now. We provide services meant to regulate emotions and promote positive channeling of power to help modify the behavior of people with sadistic personality disorder. 

Overcoming the condition may be tough, but we’re here to guide you throughout the healing process. Book an appointment today with Counseling Now!

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