“Oh, humiliation is poisonous. It’s one of the deepest pains of being human.”
— Pierce Brosnan
Like all negative emotions, shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation seem to be concentrated in our species. We are, as far as we can tell, most aware of ourselves and so are most aware of our place compared to others, and most sensitive to what we look like when viewed through their eyes.
Shame, guilt, and embarrassment are all shades of our special kind of suffering, but it’s humiliation that we fear the most. Shame is internal, secret, it hurts but that hurt is ours alone. Guilt maybe public, but it is counteracted by the possibility of forgiveness and redemption. Embarrassment is temporary, and if the victim is strong and well humored enough the episode may actually bring them closer to their peers.
But humiliation is something altogether different. It puts you beyond redemption and out of cohesion with society. It is a shame that has been brought out into the public sphere. It’s guilt without forgiveness. It is the dark side of embarrassment that dwells in loneliness.
Humiliation is a forcible removal of your pride. It is a public lowering of your social station through “intimidation, physical or mental mistreatment or trickery, or by embarrassment” usually as a result of a person perceived to have “committed a socially or legally unacceptable act.” It is the loss of your ability to say who you are. It is as if your very identity has been taken and spoiled. It’s an intense emotion, and it hurts the deepest parts of us.
Of the negative emotions, humiliation may be the hardest for us to cope with because it is out of our control. It’s up to others when our isolation will end.
Even if we were to forgive and accept ourselves for the transgression and consider ourselves ready to reclaim our place in society, others might not. It is up to other people whether we can live comfortably as who we are and what we have done, and there may be nothing at all we can do to persuade them. We may be forever cut off from our place in our communities and that causes great pain and loneliness in us.
“Avoiding humiliation is the core of tragedy and comedy.”
— John Guare
Humiliation is the price we pay for protection and security. It is the price we pay for shared responsibility and fate. It’s a deterrent to taboo and destructive behavior as well as a reassurance to others that their cultural beliefs, rituals, and rules are working to keep the community going. Humiliation has been so helpful to our survival that it became embedded in the human condition. Humiliation shaped us, together.
Humiliation has made us who we are and—in a cruel and twisted way—made us stronger, but it has had some pretty severe side effects. Of the negative emotions, humiliation may be the most intense and damaging of all.
A person who suffers a public shaming can go on to suffer depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, anger, and private shame. These people seethe with rage and long for revenge, or they turn their anger inward and find they can no longer face themselves. Cut off from their communities and denied the opportunity to redeem and reclaim their status leads them to feelings of hopelessness and desperation. They will do anything to have any status at all rather than none.
We go to great lengths to avoid humiliation. We lie, to ourselves and everyone we meet. We make our mistakes, our flaws, and our greatest shame our deepest secrets, we let them fester and grow because to be filled with such self-loathing is preferable to the hate we might find in another’s eyes. We’ll do anything to avoid humiliation, even kill.
People die every day for someone’s humiliation. Whole wars have been started, massacres carried out, and families obliterated over regular old human humiliation.
“Public humiliation comes to us all, and never so surely as when we’re just a little bit pleased with ourselves and feel, just for once, that everything is going our way.”
— Kate Reardon
We suffer because we fail to see humiliation as a natural, essential, or universal emotion. We simply never consider that we will find ourselves feeling it. Humiliation, we think, is always deserved and, we think, we would never break the kind of social rules that warrant the embarrassment and ostracization. Humiliation, we know, as a means to an end, a tool to control others and only others are ever deserving of being controlled.
We suffer because we forget not just that the feeling of humiliation is in all of us, but the desire to inflict humiliation is in us too. We loathe to feel it ourselves but are quick to wield it against others for the pettiest reasons. Those people who lower others this way to gain a higher place in the hierarchy gain nothing by taking humanity from others. Those people have lost who they are and become a slave to their need for control.
We suffer because we allow our pride, the flip side of humiliation, to grow far too large. We inflate our place in this world and believe too strongly in its permanence.
There are other, more abstract kinds of humiliation, ones I believe can be positive forces in human life, should we have the forethought to see it that way. They are of spiritual humiliations, the lowering of the human status as a species, often only individually, but the time will come soon, I think, when we will feel it collectively.
This Earth, this rocky planet third from the sun, our only home and hope, will remind us that we have conquered nothing and are despite our technology and intelligence are at the mercy of forces we provoke with our ignorance, neglect, and arrogance. We will be lowered by climate change, by dwindling resources, by disease. I only hope the humiliation won’t come too late to save us.
And of course, the universe reminds each of us in time of our powerlessness too. We’re reminded that for all our bravado and grandiosity we are still quite fragile beings, some of the weakest on the planet even, and that at the end comes for us all. When it does, we’ll have nothing but regret and longing, just before we have nothing at all. The truth of who we are is one giant humiliation, and the worst part is we do not let ourselves feel this humiliation enough or for any of the right reasons.
Humiliation is the beginning of an honest examination of ourselves and if we can avoid bitterness, anger, and everlasting shame over it. Through humiliation, we find humility and humanity. We find out that the identity we hold so tightly to was but an illusion, easily shattered and stolen. Humiliation pulls back the curtain, tests the ego, and reveals the true self underneath. If we can hold on, we can find a new place in our world, one that suits us much better and offers peace, finally, from deception and fear.
“One improves by learning to be productively ashamed of who one currently is.”
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