Friday, January 21, 2011

Is there any emotion in the human experience more gut wrenching than humiliation?

I am reminded of that classic Christmas movie, It's a Wonderful Life, when George is first seeing the life of the town of Bedford without him. Among many things, he sees Mr. Gower, the druggist he worked for as a lad, whiskery and decrepit, staggering into Nicks tavern in a stupor of damaged brain cells from a likely life of alcohol abuse and hardship in prison. George watches in horror as Nick takes out a bottle of soda water and sprays the old man in the face, while the patrons of the tavern look on in uproarious laughter.

Another favourite movie of mine is Never been Kissed with Drew Barrymore. Scenes of humiliation are common fodder in this flick, the pinnacle being when she is waiting out front her house for her crush to pick her up for prom. As he pulls up in the stretch limo, he rises up out of the skylight with a stunning blond on his arm. He pelts Drews character with raw eggs, while him and the chick snicker crassly. She crumples to the steps, horrified and bawling, and scurries out of sight when her mother opens the door, wondering about the sounds.

I always found it interesting that they wrote the script that way; having her escape her mothers discovery. Was she so humiliated that even a mothers comfort wouldn't suffice?

Of course, a close cousin to humiliation is simple embarrassment. I shouldn't say simple, because embarrassment and the events leading up to it can sometimes be far from simple. For this emotion, I think of Meg Ryan, sitting in an airplane frantically shoving peanuts into her mouth when the woman next to her says, "I just hate flying, don't you?". (Do I even need to say the movie this is from?). Meg, lost in her own tortured conscience responds, "Oh yes, I do, and I just told the worst one to the man I'm about to marry. Do you feel any lie is a betrayal?". To which the now befuddled seatmate says awkwardly, "I said....flying". "Ahhh, ohhhh", says Meg, nodding her head and acting for all the world like this embarrassment rolled right off her back.

And why is it that we are so drawn to other peoples embarrassments or humiliations? Why is it a common staple of teen mags to have a column about "My most embarrassing moment". Is there something cathartic about confessing our most shameful bloopers for the world to read? Or likewise to read about the mortifications of others?

Humiliation and embarrassment are such 'shut down' emotions. That's what they do; they just shut you right down. I don't know if I'm more sensitive to either of these than others, or it's just that we don't commonly talk about them, so I'm only left with the little world of my brain to consider if I overreact.

I was once told as a child that I was sensitive. I'm not sure now if that meant that I felt criticism, judgement and other negative emotions aimed at me quite deeply, or if I was sensitive towards the feelings and situations of others. The latter would be preferable, I suppose. Although inwardly I cringe that that: feeling things deeply is not a handicap, not to be scoffed at or belittled. I suppose alot of guys would feel that it is. Perhaps in macho circles, but in the world of families--wives and children, which most men wish to be a part of, it's definitely fodder for marriage counselling.
Perhaps somewhere along the line I learned that mythological lesson though. I fell for the rhetoric--subconsciously of course. And I stopped putting myself out there. A few people have noticed over the years. My voice teacher was one. When I chose a Cindy Morgan song for one of my recitals she once told me that I wasn't making myself as transparent as her--when I sang the song, she wasn't feeling the same depth of feeling as when Cindy sang it. I was a little offended at the time--of course I thought I was giving it all I had. Maybe not.

I joke about this little idiosyncrasy, but I pretty much refuse to ask a pregnant lady how far she is. The reason of course, is that I may be wrong. She may not be pregnant. And that would be horribly embarrassing.
Another source of painful embarrassment for me is what I call the "TMI attack". Perhaps there's already a label for this argument like those I remember learning about in philosophy--the ad hominem argument, the straw man argument. The TMI attack is used alot these days, and I despise it. You've seen it too, I know you have: two people are talking, joking, when all of a sudden one of them describes something they've recently gone through--perhaps an illness or something. They talk about the details of this illness and how it affected them and suddenly the other person is feeling uncomfortable, maybe grossed out. So what do they do? They chuckle awkwardly and say, "Hey man, that's TMI". Too much information. And what does that accomplish? It embarrasses the other person to death, that's what. They'll think twice about sharing such details again, that's for sure.

And that leads me to one of the worst and most common forms of embarrassment and humiliation to my mind. Think of that above example. Why did the first person feel it was ok to share the details of their illness? Because he had made assumptions about the relationship.
He had made the assumption that the relationship was strong enough, or close enough, or just generally able to withstand the sharing of a somewhat personal account.
It's part of our social conditioning to read the cues, non verbal and otherwise, to determine what level of friendship or relationship we are functioning at with those around us. This is a huge part of lives and I doubt any of us really consider it happening. It just happens. But we certainly do get knocked back off our foundations when we are slapped with the stunning realization that we made a vastly inaccurate read of anothers' cues.

And the shut down begins. The embarrassment and humiliation are the cornerstones of the wall that is quickly built. You determine that you will never go to that place of pain again. You will never put yourself out there. You will never make that assumption of relationship again and take the chance of further humiliation. Maybe that's cowardice. Maybe it's self-preservation.

To me, it's just reality.