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Forensic Psychology

The Anatomy of Public Humiliation at Work

The fuel that can spark a quest for revenge.

Key points

  • Few experiences are as damaging to the human psyche as public humiliation.
  • It is uniquely hurtful because it involves an intentional act that threatens our identity or social status.
  • Certain individuals are particularly susceptible to the devastating effects of public humiliation.
used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

The 16th-century poet Thomas Wyatt once wrote, "Men punish with shame. It is the greatest punishment on earth, yea! greater than death." As a forensic psychologist and workplace investigator, I have witnessed the profound and lasting impact that public humiliation can have on an individual's mental health and well-being. It is a deeply painful emotion that strikes at the core of a person's identity and sense of self-worth. It goes far beyond mere embarrassment or shame, as it involves a public rejection or invalidation of one's social status or desired identity.

The Anatomy of Humiliation

In 2010, psychiatrists Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner identified four key ingredients that constitute the uniquely devastating experience of humiliation:

  1. A belief in, or assignment to, a certain social status: We all hold certain beliefs about our social status or identity. For example, you may see yourself as a competent and valued employee, a loving parent, or a trusted mentor to your students.
  2. The public rejection or invalidation of this status claim: Humiliation occurs when this status claim is publicly rejected or invalidated in the presence of others. Your boss belittles you in front of your work colleagues. You finally get up the nerve to report sexual harassment, and your complaint is met with anger or skepticism. A supervisor ambushes an unsuspecting employee by firing him, and security tops it off by "perp walking" him in front of his team.
  3. The perceived authority or credibility of the person(s) rejecting the status claim: For the rejection to be truly humiliating, it must come from someone who has the perceived authority or credibility to do so. Insults from a random stranger may be hurtful, but they lack the weight to truly humiliate. The judgment and treatment of those who matter - peers, superiors, or respected figures - carry the power to degrade and shame.
  4. The rejection of the individual's right to claim the desired status: The final blow of humiliation is not just the failure to live up to one's self-image but the rejection of the individual's right to ever hold that position or identity. The disgraced teacher is branded as fundamentally unfit to work with children, while the humiliated employee is made to feel like a useless imposter who never belonged in the first place.

When these four elements combine, they create a toxic alchemy that can leave an individual feeling completely obliterated and, in some cases, thirsty for revenge.

The Damaging Consequences of Humiliation

The experience of humiliation can have severe and lasting consequences for mental health, particularly for individuals with pre-existing vulnerabilities. While not everyone who suffers a humiliating experience will develop a diagnosable mental health condition, certain psychological conditions or personality traits can make individuals more susceptible to the devastating effects of humiliation.

One such vulnerability is depression. Individuals prone to depression often struggle with low self-esteem and a tendency to blame themselves for adverse events. They may attribute setbacks to personal flaws that they believe are permanent and pervasive, a cognitive style that leaves them ill-equipped to counter the degrading messages of humiliation. When faced with public shaming, they are more likely to internalize the experience as confirmation of their perceived worthlessness, plunging them into despair and helplessness.

Social anxiety disorder and avoidant personality disorder also create a heightened sensitivity to humiliation. These individuals constantly fear exposure and criticism, scanning their environment for any sign that they might be considered inadequate or unacceptable. They are primed to interpret even minor or unintended slights as crushing rejections. For someone already grappling with such painful self-consciousness, a severe public humiliation can be exceptionally agonizing, validating their worst fears about themselves.

Narcissists, too, can be particularly vulnerable to the effects of humiliation. While they may project an image of grandiosity and entitlement, there is evidence that, for many, this persona masks a deep-seated sense of inferiority and shame. Their inflated self-presentation is a desperate attempt to ward off these painful feelings and win the admiration they crave. When this facade is punctured by criticism or failure, narcissists often react with intense shame and rage. They may lash out at their perceived attackers or retreat into bitter rumination.

Across these conditions, the common thread is a fundamental lack of healthy self-esteem. Without a stable, internalized sense of worth, individuals have little psychological buffer against the shaming messages of humiliation. They are primed to accept their degradation as deserved and struggle to mount an effective defense of their dignity and value.

Humiliation in the Workplace: A Dangerous Catalyst

Recent research by the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) has shed light on the troubling role that public humiliation may play in motivating active shooters, particularly those targeting their current or former workplaces. The study found that active shooters were four times more likely than other persons of concern to have experienced a publicly humiliating event, often within the two years preceding their attack. These humiliations frequently involved job-related stressors such as disciplinary actions, poor performance reviews, or termination of employment.

For individuals whose sense of self-worth is deeply tied to their professional status, such events can be psychologically devastating, shattering their identity and leaving them feeling exposed and worthless. An employee who experiences public humiliation at work may become hypersensitive to any further criticism, perceiving even mild feedback as a harsh indictment of their value. They may become withdrawn, resentful, or openly hostile, nursing a growing grievance against those they blame for their degradation.

In the age of social media, the potential for a humiliating event to spread far beyond the workplace has only amplified the risk. A moment of embarrassment can quickly become a viral sensation, exposing the individual to mockery and shame on a global scale. For someone already grappling with feelings of inadequacy and anger, this level of exposure can be an intolerable blow to their sense of self.

To mitigate these risks, employers must proactively create a workplace culture that prioritizes fairness, respect, and emotional safety. Disciplinary conversations should be conducted privately, focusing on constructive feedback rather than public shaming. Supervisors and HR professionals should be trained in de-escalation techniques and active listening, allowing employees to feel heard and validated even in challenging situations. When a termination or other high-stakes event is unavoidable, preserving the individual's dignity as much as possible should be a priority. An employee should never be surprised by a termination, i.e., firing someone should be the last step in a transparent and clearly

used with permission from iclipart
Source: used with permission from iclipart

communicated process. While nothing can eliminate the risk of violence from a deeply aggrieved individual, by understanding the role of humiliation in the pathway to violence, these teams can develop targeted strategies to address grievances and provide support to struggling employees.

The Bottom Line

Humiliation is a devastating experience that can leave deep and lasting scars on the human psyche. As a society, we must grapple with the destructive power of intentional and unintentional humiliation. By understanding its mechanisms and casualties, we can work to prevent the toxic disintegration of self that it so often leaves in its wake.

The workplace, where so much of our identity and self-worth is invested, is a crucial frontline in this battle. By cultivating cultures of dignity and respect and responding to crises with compassion and care, we can begin to defuse the ticking time bombs of unresolved humiliation.

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