The Power of Humiliation
By Jessie Close
I’ve been dragging my feet about writing on this topic, even though I was the one to suggest it. The inner depths of me have been scarred by humiliation. This is the one, the noun that causes me to shrink, gives me pain in my center. To humiliate; a verb, to make someone feel foolish and ashamed. Humiliation; a noun, the action of humiliating someone or the state of being humiliated.
I remember how, many many years ago, I humiliated someone. We were in 4th or 5th grade and she couldn’t hold her urine for whatever medical reason. She tried to join in with a small group of girls, but I told her she couldn’t join us. She asked why, and I told her that she smelled. How was I able to be so cruel? I knew right away that I had crossed a line, that I was a bad person for being so mean. The act of humiliation also humiliated me.
I wonder if those who disparage mental illness know they are being mean? And stupid. And ignorant. Or are they just afraid and building a wall to protect themselves from… What? Us?
A carpet cleaning guy came to my home today. It wasn’t until he was about to leave that we discovered we were both recovering alcoholics. He has 21 years sober, I have 16. We had a good conversation about being sober and how difficult it can be sometimes. I thought about letting him know that I also live with bipolar disorder, that those of us who have mental illness are so very prone to addiction. But my stomach dropped and my mouth went dry. I felt the sharp nudge of self-imposed humiliation. This response is my own, my own scary box that locks me in without notice.
Sometimes, I’m completely open to speaking about my mental illness. Sometimes, I’m not. Sometimes, I feel naked and judged. Sometimes, I don’t. Feeling comfortable in a situation is a must to keep fear and humiliation away.
Humiliation is a sinking feeling – a strong, physical feeling that leaves us with hot faces and rubber legs. Humiliation also makes us want to get away from the humiliating situation as fast as possible. And we do, sometimes leaving whomever we’re with wondering why we left. Humiliation isn’t contagious, like laughter; it’s more like a jail cell, the door clanging shut on us.
How to battle humiliation? I’m not particularly the one to answer that question, but I will say that being happy helps enormously. To be happy, I strive to keep my life manageable. I’m strict about taking my medications at the same time every day. I communicate with friends. I try to avoid stress (hahaha), and try to be good about exercise (hahahaha). Wearing armor, I think, is a good way to avoid the pitfalls associated with humiliation. Invisible armor protects us not only from self-bashing, but from those around us who have little or no sensitivity to mental illness. This sounds a bit corny, but what the heck: Our armor is love. Love of self, love of others in the same predicament as you, love of family. If your family is unsupportive, then love of friends who understand. When I know I’m supported, humiliation doesn’t get to me as much. When I feel good about myself, the pitfall of humiliation doesn’t hit as deeply as it can.
For those of us who live with mental illness, we need to forgive ourselves. And, forgiveness comes from love. With love and forgiveness, humiliation can take a back seat.