I doubt that anyone gets through life without ever feeling utterly humiliated. But what should you do when it happens to you? Humiliation can feel so intensely painful and debilitating that advice for dealing with it may seem futile. Maybe in those early moments, it is hard to do anything but wallow in your own distress, but there are some useful tips out there.
One of the most celebrated scholars in contemporary psychology, Robert J. Sternberg, recently experienced one of those humiliations (though he called it "a career crisis"). He wrote about it, and two previous crises, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, and shared the lessons he thinks we all can learn from some of our most painful life experiences. Here I’ll provide a brief version of Sternberg’s 10 lessons, then add some thoughts of my own.
Sternberg’s 10 Tips for Dealing with Humiliation
One of the fascinating aspects of reading about Sternberg’s crises is remembering that he is a professional who, in many ways, has been amazingly successful. Want to think about intelligence in a much broader way than many scholars had in the past? Sternberg’s your guy. What about love? Want to get beyond the gauzy sentimentality and really think about the different kinds of meaning love can have? That’s Sternberg, again. As is true for just about anyone who has gotten so much attention, he also has his critics. But he has also collected just about every major award the profession of psychology has to offer. He has a Stanford Ph.D., he has taught at Yale, and has served at various universities as dean, provost, president.
Most recently, he was hired to be president of the University of Wyoming. It seemed to be a very big deal for that university to land him. They spent tons of money recruiting him, and more to hire him. But it all came tumbling down in a matter of months, as Sternberg resigned amid a flurry of recriminations and bad feelings.
Sternberg’s first tip is to realize that all sorts of people have had experiences as bad as yours, or worse—maybe some of the people you least expect. . .
There’s a lot of wisdom in Sternberg’s words. Still, I think the road to recovery is probably different for different people. Some, for example, may really need time just to hide out and be by themselves, and not even talk to potential sources of support, before regrouping and moving on.
More important, sometimes the humiliating experience you have endured is not just about you—it is something many other people have experienced, too, maybe at the hands of the same people. But there can be a sort of “pluralistic ignorance,” whereby no one realizes that their own personal experiences are not just theirs alone, because no one is talking or sharing. Or maybe the person doing the humiliating is a powerful and threatening person, and no one dares to stand up to that person…until someone finally does, and then all sorts of people who had felt humiliated and intimidated come out from hiding and say, Yes, this has happened to me, too. (The Chris Christie situation may be a case in point.)
Sometimes humiliation is a by-product of institutional prejudices, as when racism, sexism, ageism, or singlism is built right into the structure of our laws, or is part of the unquestioned traditions of a workplace. (I don’t follow football much, but the Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin story seems to fit this narrative.)
I think a case can be made that those who feel threatened, insulted, and humiliated should stand up to the people who are treating them unfairly, not just for their own sake, but for the sake of all the others who have been similarly mistreated. Sternberg is right, though—that can be risky and costly, and not just financially. Victims can easily become re-victimized in the nastiest ways—even when they are totally right about their complaints.