When you hear the words “emotional masochism,” what comes to mind, for you? In broad terms, I would define it as deriving masochistic enjoyment (feeling aroused or otherwise “good” while experiencing painful sensations) from an unpleasant emotional state rather than from physical pain. This unpleasant state could come with being degraded, humiliated, denied, abandoned, or any number of other activities which bring up unpleasant emotions.
While most people think of denial in BDSM to immediately mean sexual denial, there are many other forms of denial which I think can fit well into emotional masochism. For example, I have had subs eat bland food from a can while I enjoy a three course meal, taunting them with photographs and descriptions of the food over text messages. I have also caged and ignored subs while I went about my business, cementing the feeling of insignificance through denying them attention or interactions.
Much like with physical sadism/masochism, playing with emotional pain can cause serious harm if safe words, negotiation, and mutual understanding of interests and limits are not discussed between everyone involved. Much like there is “good pain” and “bad pain” for a physical masochist (for example, a person may love to be whipped but hate having their nipples twisted), emotional masochists generally have types of emotional pain which stir up masochistic enjoyment and ones which do not. For example, a sub may go deep into arousal or subspace if I tell him he is undesirable as a lover, but it would completely ruin the scene if I said something about professional failure or inadequacy. Another sub could love feeling worthless and insignificant as a person, while being totally averse to having their physical appearance insulted. As will all forms of play, no assumptions can be made about what will feel good or bad to an individual.
Deeper forms of emotional masochism can merge with consensual non-consent, often bringing a sub into an intense state of emotional pain which they do not necessarily find enjoyable, but nonetheless find satisfaction in because it is the will of the Dominant. Psychological manipulation such as mind-fuck play can be part of this. Personally I find these intense forms of emotional/psychological domination to require the most emotional labor, and the most aftercare for the sub afterwards. They also generally require an established relationship with the sub so that there is enough trust and knowledge there as a foundation to play with fire, without being burned.