The Upside of Humiliation


I was eight when it happened. Climbing the school bus steps, I said good morning to my bus driver and proceeded up the aisle. My friend Darlene had already claimed our usual seat and I smiled at her, proudly clutching the drawing I had made for my teacher the night before. One moment, I was marching toward our seat and the next… WHOOMPH! I was sprawled out on the floor.

My knees stinging and my ears burning with acidic laughter, I pried opened my eyes and searched for my lunch kit, flung a few feet away. My gym bag was hurled under a seat and my drawing was crumpled beneath me.

“Have a nice trip? See you next FALL!” cackled the older boy whose foot had blocked my path. He sneered down at me for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a reaction while his dodgy gang of friends howled. Deeply embarrassed, but unwilling to give them the satisfaction of seeing me cry, I gathered up my belongings and limped to the back of the bus.

Everyone has experienced humiliation, whether because of someone else’s toxic behavior or because of our own failings. In some cases, like divorce due to infidelity, it feels like both. Discovering a spouse’s betrayal is the quintessential humiliation because it means a great deal of deceit went on right under your nose. They were having their cake and eating it too… now you’re the ultimate chump and the joke’s on you.

I’ve read that humiliation is the result of internally disagreeing with the injury that has been inflicted upon you. You’re put in a situation where your pride, honor and dignity have been stripped away, and now you feel degraded and devalued on top of being deceived. I should’ve known this was going on, you tell yourself, how stupid I must be.

During my divorce, I was plagued by infuriating dreams that always ended in being taunted by my snickering ex. It felt like being eight years old again, dazed and splayed out in the aisle of that school bus. Of course, it all made perfect sense. After 20 years in what I thought to be a solid marriage, I got tripped up by lies and fell flat in front of everyone.

The terror of being humiliated is powerful; it’s what continues to rank the fear of public speaking above the fear of being buried alive. We get so caught up in what others think of us that it can be paralyzing. Heaven forbid, we are singled out as different, or made to be the subject of a school bus prank, nasty joke or neighborhood gossip.

But here’s the thing about humiliation and really, most kinds of emotional setbacks: you can recover from it by shifting your attitude toward what has happened.

Personally, I found it helpful to realize that no one can make you feel humiliated, it’s something we bring on ourselves. Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent,” and it’s true. It means you can change the narrative of your story and insist on a different ending. We can let past events smolder and consume us from the inside, or we can use them as combustion to start and fuel our engine toward something better. Transform that mortification into motivation, so to speak.

I began peeling away the layers of my humiliation: 1) I had this perceived notion that my ex was laughing behind my back because I had been so easily outsmarted; 2) I was embarrassed for having foolishly loved and trusted someone so unworthy of my love and trust (try asking your family doctor to be tested for the whole gamut of STIs without feeling two inches tall); and lastly, 3) I felt ashamed for my “obvious” deficiencies as a wife.

Life coach Martha Beck says that if your shame is triggered because of what you are rather than what you do, you need to stop trying to change your behavior and rethink your beliefs. So I started at square one: my belief that the rejection was the result of something I did or could have prevented.

It took time, but I finally arrived at a mind shift. Mocking your vows and the life you have built with another person is the kind of heartlessness you’d expect from the devil himself, not your spouse. But the truth is, that spouse was not actually thinking of you at all. They were not out to destroy your happiness. You were merely an afterthought; an obstacle they had to bypass so they could continue in their selfish ways. A great deal of plotting went into keeping you in the dark. Their only goal was preserving what they wanted. You, my friend, were merely collateral damage in the inevitable fallout.

After cutting myself some slack, I began extracting myself from the equation, quit taking the infidelity personally and put the blame squarely where it belonged. No more beating myself up over my so-called shortcomings. The situation still hurt, a lot, but that mainly stemmed from my disappointment.

I took a stand against feeling humiliated by someone else’s actions, and by shifting my attitude, another emotion took the place of shame: pride. Martha Beck also says, “If you are following your own moral rules, the very things you’re ashamed of are likely the things about which you can feel the most proud.”

Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence falls onstage at the 85th Annual Academy Awards on February 24, 2013 in Hollywood, California. AFP PHOTO/Robyn BECK

As I opened up and shared my story with a trusted circle of loved ones and confidantes, I realized that I was actually proud of how strong I’d become in dealing with what had happened. I was proud of being a good person. I was proud of being a single mom. I was proud of being a divorced woman working on the life that she deserved. It took guts to be able to pick myself up and move on; after all, as the adage goes, it isn’t failure unless you stay down.

Feeling that kind of self-pride puffs out your chest and expands your whole being. Rather than be the victim, I choose to embrace my inner superhero, courageous and determined. From now on, if someone sticks out their foot and tries to trip me up, I know that’s their problem – not mine. I’ve proven more than once that I can get up, dust myself off and walk on with my head held high.

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