Humiliation describes the fear and shame that comes from being treated like you don’t belong among human company. It can happen when you are treated as less than human by others. If you have suffered sexual trauma, then you were treated as less than human by the sibling who harmed you. Humiliation can also happen when others treat you as if you are deserving of shame, disdain, ridicule, or disgust. You overhear a joke about sibling sexual activity and your body freezes. You see the initial reaction of shock and surprise when you tell your therapist why you’ve come for help. You are assigned a case number, treated as a 2-D label rather than a 3-D person.
Shame comes from inside, from feeling you don’t measure up to what you feel you should be or want to be. Humiliation comes from others treating you as if you are too small, too defective, or too worthless to deserve basic human respect and dignity--which just leads to more shame.
And if humiliation doubles shame, public humiliation triples it. Few experiences are more emotionally painful than being humiliated while other people watch. Just the thought or threat of public humiliation can cripple us with fear. Devices meant to cause public humiliation, such as medieval shame masks, are considered instruments of torture. Modern public humiliation comes in the form of social media, online news and court records, and the sex offender registry.
Why do people feel humiliation so strongly? Humans rely on each other to survive. Imagine how long a human could last truly alone in the wilderness, without the support of a group, civilization, trade or technology. Our brains are wired to keep us connected to the rest of our group and to behave in ways that will help our group stay together.
So when something happens that threatens to separate us from our families or make us into social outcasts, our brains perceive it as a threat to our survival. We feel the same level of fear that we would feel if our lives were physically threatened--because, for most of human history, being alone quite literally meant facing death.
Sometimes humiliation is active and intentional. Sometimes it is a result of thoughtlessness or insensitivity. Sometimes it is unavoidable given the situation. For example, if you are a Child Protective Services worker, just knocking on the door and identifying yourself is enough to cause humiliation. Professionals of all kinds should be especially careful to treat families with respect. Their feelings are raw and their sense of dignity is very sensitive. When they have to deal with unfamiliar systems, they are likely to make mistakes that compound their feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and humiliation. Your patience, understanding, and respect will all be appreciated.
You may not be able to avoid some kind of humiliation; but it can help just to name it, understand what it is, and know you are not alone in feeling it. Although the reflexive reaction to humiliation is to run and hide, t is better if you don’t have to face these things alone. The best remedy after people have treated you as less than human is to find supportive people who treat you as fully human, who value you and validate your experiences and emotions. Peer support can be especially helpful. A personal or family advocate can help withstand the humiliation of dealing with dehumanizing systems. Call rainn.org or ask at a Child Advocacy Center to help find one. Over time, therapy and personal healing can bring inner strength, a positive defense against the shame comes with humiliation.
Anne Kammerer, Scientific American: The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame
Joseph Burgo, PhD: Building Self-Esteem: How Learning from Shame Helps Us to Grow
Shame Masks at the Medieval Torture Museum in Germany
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter