Research says that shaming is a power play.
How can you find your own power? How to respond when someone shames says you?
Arthur* is a smart, thoughtful, and generally well-liked graduate student, so he was stunned when one of his professors responded to a question he asked in a seminar by telling him he was a complete idiot.
“I turned bright red,” he said. “And for what was maybe the first time in my life, I couldn’t say a word or even think a coherent thought. It was like my brain completely shut down.”
Theresa*, a nurse, had a similar reaction when the head nurse at her agency yelled at her for a minor mistake on her timesheet. “I wasn’t denying that I was at fault,” Theresa said, “but it was about my time, not about a patient.
I hadn’t hurt anyone but myself, but the way she acted, it was like I was the most horrible, stupid, idiotic person, alive. And I couldn’t respond. All I could do was stand there. I kept telling myself I wasn’t going to cry. That was all I could think about. But of course, I did cry, and then I was furious with myself.”
Research shows that shame and guilt, while sometimes connected, are very different emotions. In the best of circumstances, guilt, or an acknowledgment of wrongdoing, can lead to positive change in a person’s behavior. Shame is a way of closing a person down; research shows that shame, humiliation, and emotional and physical abuse are often closely connected.
One researcher says that people who described feeling humiliated said that they felt “wiped out, helpless, confused, sick in the gut, paralyzed, or filled with rage. It was as if they were made small, stabbed in the heart, or hit in the solar plexus. Usually, they felt themselves flushing and wished they could disappear. No matter how many years have passed, the experience remains vivid and fresh in their minds” (Klein, 1991).
Humiliated patients in a study of doctor-patient relationships felt exposed or stigmatized, diminished, deficient, and degraded. A common response to being humiliated is to want to hide, to sink into the ground, or to disappear. And often, when we’re humiliated, we lose all ability to take action.
If this has ever happened to you, you know about these feelings. And you might even still sometimes think about what you could have done at the time, or after, to protect yourself.
It’s hard to go back to an old injury and make it right, but sometimes it does happen. But it’s not a bad idea to think about what you might do to protect yourself if it ever happens again, since, in the moment that you are being humiliated, you probably aren’t able to think about much except how to get away.
Here are seven ways to respond when someone shames you
These suggestions are based on my work as a therapist and current research on the topic.
1. Take your time to respond.
This isn’t so easy when your brain is frozen in horror and you just want to disappear. But if you can get your brain to start working again, you can often discover a way to respond.
You don’t have to apologize, take the blame, or counterattack, all of which can backfire at the moment.
Bella DePaulo has written a terrific post about this issue in which she describes the dangers of standing up to someone who humiliates you: she says, “Victims can easily become re-victimized in the nastiest ways—even when they are totally right about their complaints.”