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Humility and Humiliation

On December 11th covering

It’s funny how these two closely related words mean such distinct things.

Humiliation is a terribly painful and destructive emotional state. It ranks very high among the things that people are afraid of. It is an overwhelming experience of shame and being degraded, usually in the eyes of others. Sometimes a person can be intentionally humiliated by another, in a sadistic attack that is intended to strip away all dignity and self-esteem.

Humility, on the other hand, is a relief. When individuals are able to gracefully accept that there are limits to their power and importance, and to not collapse into despair, shame, or impotent rage, this is a developmental accomplishment. It marks the move from fantasy to reality, from omnipotence to competence. It is a gift at every stage of life — when a 2-year-old can accept that they are not actually in charge of everything, or when an aged person accepts that they need to a depend on others in a way they haven’t before. There’s a key element of being at peace. Contrary to humiliation, humility gives a person their dignity and equilibrium back.

I often speak with people who have found that life is more complex than they thought — that they have to endure a loss or a failure that they didn’t think would ever be in store for them. When they can move from the brittle, narcissistic belief that they would be in control of everything important in their lives, to a humbler acknowledgement that the human condition allows for little pockets of control, at best, they are able to adjust and adapt. This is where humility affords wonderful relief from humiliation.

If I had a good dictionary handy, I could check out my hunch that “Humiliation” once had a neutral or positive meaning closer to that of “Humility” — being made humble, as in a person taking the vows of a monastery, or stepping down from office.

When people are humiliated, they become truly dangerous. People who know history better than I do tell me that the settlement of WWI was humilating to the German people, making them susceptible to a seductive con man who told them they were the master race. When a kid brings a gun to school, you can bet he is humiliated. One way to recover from humiliation is to strike out with a feeling of wounded, angry righteousness. In my professional tribe we call this narcissistic rage, and it’s one of the most dangerous things there is. It’s the plutonium of the emotions. It is a major factor in road-rage violence, bar fights, and street-corner shootings and stabbings. And of the affairs of nations.

Lincoln had the wisdom of ordering that surrendering forces of the Confederacy be treated with respect, including being saluted according to their rank. There must have been powerful temptation to humiliate them after such a painful and bloody war. I doubt the fragile nation would have held together if this were allowed. It makes me concerned about the number of people out there who are nursing humiliated rage toward my country.

On another note, I found that if you google “Humiliation” you find a wealth of web sites concerned with sexual practices that may or may not be your cup of tea. But that’s a different post altogether.

One Response

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Nov 17 at 2:59


Q: Is what’s going on in those websites perhaps an attempt to reach humility? Don’t know; not my balliwick.

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