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Losing trust in the world: Humiliation and its consequences

The author identifies acts of humiliation as a specific and often traumatic way of exercising power, with a set of consistently occurring elements and predictable consequences, including a loss of the ability to trust others. It is argued that these consequences are serious and long-lasting. The article makes a distinction between ‘shame’ as a state of mind and ‘humiliation’ as an act perpetrated against a person or group. The interplay between humiliation and shame after a humiliating act is discussed. It is argued that the patient’s recovery of the capacity to resume a relatively normal life is made more likely if the therapist acknowledges the specificity of humiliation, the impossibility of reversing a humiliating act and the importance of focussing on the consequences of humiliation.

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Journal: Psychodynamic Practice: Individuals, Groups and Organisations Volume 19, Issue 2, 2013
Author: Phil Leask
Publisher: © 2013 The Author(s). Published by Taylor & Francis
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Hartling and Luchetta (1999) describe humiliation as ‘a relational form of human behaviour stemming from interpersonal dynamics that cannot be adequately explained by individualistic, intra-psychic theories’ (p. 260). In this article, I suggest that there is a need to see humiliation as an act which objectively takes place and which has a victim whose suffering is likely to be substantial and long-lasting. This perspective makes a distinction between humiliation and related concepts such as shame. I argue that psychotherapists risk pathologising individuals by overly concentrating on the patient’s internal world and by treating humiliation and shame as though they were identical phenomena.

Approaching this subject from a multi-disciplinary perspective involving history, literature, philosophy, sociology, anthropology as well as psychology and psychoanalysis, I wish to acknowledge that psychodynamic thinking has not been central to my study of humiliation and its consequences (Leask, 2012). The readers of the journal are likely, therefore, to be experts in a field in which I am not. However, my aim is to indicate that acts of humiliation, at whatever level or in whatever circumstances they occur, consistently contain the same elements and have similar consequences, even if the extent of suffering or the ability to reduce the impact of the act of humiliation will vary, in part because of the resilience built in by successful early relationships and in part because of strategies of resistance (which themselves may owe much to such early relationships). I also suggest that recognising the specific nature of humiliation has implications for the relationship between the therapist and the patient.

It is not always easy to know from a patient’s account whether an act of humiliation has or has not taken place. Often what has happened is unclear and the possibility needs to be acknowledged that the ‘victim’ may be someone continually drawn to abusive and humiliating relationships. In such situations, psychodynamic therapists would see their role not only as working with the external factors – the alleged acts of abuse and their effects – but also as seeking to understand the unconscious factors (including the influence of early experiences which might themselves have involved humiliation) that have led the patient to become repeatedly entangled in such relationships (van der Kolk, 1996, p. 183).

In this article, when referring to victims of humiliation, I have chosen to use ‘he’ because the use of ‘she’ can evoke a sense of women as victims, particularly of men; this is unhelpful in attempting to understand the nature of humiliation and its consequences. A full discussion of the gendered aspects of humiliation and their significance is outside the remit of this paper. Readers will be aware that girls and women are disproportionately represented in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence (Herman, 2009, p. xiv). However, in many other circumstances, boys or men are the victims of humiliation.

Humiliation: the impact of the ‘first blow’

The Austrian-born writer Jean Améry, a Jewish refugee in occupied Belgium, was arrested in 1943 by the Gestapo for distributing leaflets condemning Hitler and the war. He was immediately subjected to physical humiliation: he was brutally beaten by the police and then hung from a hook with his arms behind his back so that his joints came apart with excruciating pain as he was interrogated by the SS. The impact of this, he says many years later, remains with him and will always be something he has to live with; the act of humiliation happened and, along with the emotions and consequences flowing from it, cannot be made not to have happened. Trying to make sense of this for himself, Améry (1980/1999) says that usually when someone is injured there is also the expectation of help, which compensates for the injury. An act of humiliation, however, demonstrates the futility of such an expectation: ‘with the first blow from a policeman’s fist, against which there can be no defence and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never be revived’ (p. 29). What is lost is ‘an element of trust in the world’ and the certainty that

by reason of written or unwritten social contracts the other person will spare me – more precisely stated, that he will respect my physical, and with it also my metaphysical being. The boundaries of my body are also the boundaries of my self. (p. 28)

Améry says that such an experience (which was followed by further humiliation in concentration camps) ‘blocks the view into a world in which the principle of hope rules’ and makes the victim of humiliation a ‘defenceless prisoner of fear’ (p. 40). Although Améry could be seen as displaying symptoms of ‘complex posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)’, resulting from chronic or long-term traumatisation (Courtois & Ford, 2009; Herman, 1992; van der Kolk, 1996), it is significant for a discussion of humiliation that it is the first brutal act which transforms his sense of his position in the world.

In common usage, humiliation appears to mean much the same as embarrassment or shame or ignominy. This reflects uncertainty over what humiliation is conceptually, whether it is an act, an emotion or perhaps both. The case of Jean Améry points to power being central to humiliation, and specifically to power being used both demonstratively and unjustly. It also suggests that the likely consequences of humiliation are a sense of permanent loss and feelings of impotence, frustrated rage, despair and a ‘foul thirst for revenge’ (p. 70). After contending with these consequences for 35 years, Améry committed suicide in 1978.

An example such as this suggests that humiliation is an act that causes a change for the worse in the position of the victim and in the victim’s feelings about himself and his relationship to the world. Since power is central to humiliation, the victim of an act of humiliation can be described not as feeling but as being humiliated, as the victim of an act of power. Humiliation is something actively done by one person to another, even if through institutions or directed in principle at groups. It is a demonstration of the capacity to use power unjustly with apparent impunity.

The definition I shall use here is that humiliation is a demonstrative exercise of power against one or more persons, which consistently involves a number of elements: stripping of status; rejection or exclusion; unpredictability or arbitrariness; and a personal sense of injustice matched by the lack of any remedy for the injustice suffered. Such a definition makes it easier to identify when humiliation has taken place, to understand the feelings that result from humiliation and to distinguish humiliation from shame. Humiliation leads to a strong sense that one has been wronged, while shame involves a sense that one has done wrong and diminished oneself in one’s own eyes or in the eyes of others. Additionally, as Hartling and Luchetta (1999) suggest, ‘shame can serve an appropriate adaptive function by inhibiting aggression or protecting an individual from unnecessary personal exposure. In contrast, humiliation has not been identified as serving an adaptive function’ (p. 263).

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Phil Leask

Phil Leask is a writer and researcher with a Ph.D. from University College London. His doctoral thesis considered the concept of humiliation and its significance in representations of the former German Democratic Republic. He is currently working on a research project on narratives of identity across generations and across borders, drawing on personal accounts of people in or from the GDR.

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