On Being Humiliated

Among the lessons to be learned from the Senate hearings on Judge Kavanaugh, one that should not be missed is the psychological power of humiliation. It wasn’t the sexual assault or the fear for her life that made the strongest impression on Dr. Blasey- Ford. It was the humiliating experience of hearing Kavanaugh and his pal laughing as they walked down the stairs.

Dr. Blasey-Ford’s painful recollection of being laughed at and Judge Kavanaugh’s outrage at being held up to our national mirror are conspicuous demonstrations of the what happens when we’re made to feel small by others. Psychoanalysts refer to this as a “narcissistic injury,” meaning to convey that when our self esteem is wounded in this manner it penetrates to the core of who we are.

Narcissistic injuries are felt injuries. They can accompany traumatic experiences, as with Dr. Blasey-Ford. Or they can accompany seemingly minor slights in individuals who, for reasons of temperament or upbringing, are particularly sensitive. Like the current occupant of the oval office, or (apparently) the fellow applying for the job of Supreme Court Justice. And, in the course of our lives, they occur to just about all of us.

Such wounding experiences are impossible to forget. So the problem is, what do we do with them? Judge Kavanaugh gave us an example of one pathway, and Dr. Ford gave us another.

Kavanaugh’s very public display of righteous indignation is an illustration of the very common response to humiliation that we analysts call “Narcisisstic Rage.” It’s not just garden variety anger. It’s the anger of someone whose psychological survival is at stake. Narcissistic rage all too often is the fuel for revenge. When mental health professionals are called on the explain the eruption of senseless violence, we often think about narcissistic rage in an aggrieved, humiliated individual as one piece of the puzzle.

By contrast, Dr. Ford shows us a more complex psychological adaptation. It seems likely that she channelled her hurt into her life work in a way that have led to many accomplishments, not the least of which was her courageous presentation to the Senate committee last week. By telling her story to the Senate and to the rest of us, and in the way she told it, she transformed her experience of being helpless and mocked into something very positive. By telling us her painful truth, she reminded us of the importance of truth.

While I have no doubt that, the wish for revenge is not alien to Dr. Ford. She is a human being. But by recognizing the importance of speaking out at this American moment, and by rising to this potentially humiliating occasion (we call this “sublimation”), she transformed her private pain into a public service. What a great example of making something good out of something bad.

It dawns on me that Dr. Ford is a teacher, and that we could view her testimony as a master class. It appears from Judge Kavanaugh’s reaction that, despite his academic accomplishments, he still has a lot to learn. It would be great if he could learn it from her.

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