The Psychology Behind Humiliation 

The Psychology Behind Humiliation 


Humiliation is considered to be a powerful emotion that can affect an individual’s sense of self-esteem and social standing. Let’s consider the case of Jimmy Savile who was a famous television personality. He exploited his fame wherein he considered himself untouchable while he was exploiting and abusing children. Being in power and abusing that power leaves the victims feeling devalued, humiliated, embarrassed and degraded. Another example is when the implementation of the Nuremberg laws in 1935 deprived the Jews of their rights and status in Germany. These examples highlight the humiliating experiences that often involve an imbalance in power. 

Victims feel powerlessness and shame as a result of being humiliated. Let’s understand this from the view of victims of sexual abuse. These victims often feel intense rejection and exclusion from society. One of the victims, Michael Clemenger, has described undergoing sexual abuse in his memoir and his experience of isolation and trauma by an abusive institution. The perpetrator’s unpredictable humiliating acts cause the victims to feel fearful and traumatized to the extent that hearing about others being humiliated triggers them.

According to Clinical Psychologist Poorva Mathur, The human experience is largely influenced by mental perspective. An individual’s ability to cope with humiliation is directly tied to their mental framework and ability to reframe adverse experiences as opportunities for personal growth. By cultivating a positive mindset, one can develop resilience and maintain a strong sense of self-esteem. This can be achieved through strategies such as reframing humiliating experiences, adopting a growth mindset, and practising self-compassion. These techniques enable individuals to build resilience and preserve a positive self-image, even in the face of humiliation. As per Statistics, 70% of people experience humiliation at some point in their lives. Humiliation can psychologically lead to depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem Self-compassion and social support can significantly reduce the negative impact of humiliation on self-esteem.

Nature of Humiliation 

Humiliation is defined as an emotion that one feels when they are being made to feel lower in their social standing or unworthy. Researchers have shown that when one is put down by others through bullying or teasing or when one cheats or makes mistakes, this feeling develops. It can happen in any situation, for example when someone steals, cheats or makes a mistake. Studies show that it can happen when an individual is being devalued, it could be either by breaking the rules of the society or by being bullied. 


Another characteristic of it is that there is always an audience present when it happens. According to research, the intensity of humiliation increases when there is an audience. As the number of people increases, the feeling intensifies. When the audience laughs or mocks the victim, the intensity of humiliation tends to worsen. 

The third characteristic of humiliation is that the perpetrator humiliates to make another person feel devalued. Most of the actions of humiliation such as mocking, bullying, and torture are performed intentionally. Research has found that punishment that is publicly given feels more humiliating when it seems intentional. Intentional harm isn’t always the case with humiliation, however, it is a common occurrence in most cases. 

The final characteristic is that humiliation is known to be a very intense emotion. Researchers have shown that participants rate humiliation as a high-intensity emotion. Research used brain scans to see humiliation in the biological aspect which showed that humiliation is more intense and even demanding than other emotions of shame or anger. The higher intensity suggests that the devaluation of the self is greater for humiliation than it is for embarrassment. 

The Cognitive-Emotional Aspect

Research on humiliation states that there are 2 cognitive evaluations that an individual assumes after having experienced the emotion of humiliation. The first evaluation is a cognitive bias wherein an individual internalizes the feeling of humiliation when the self is devalued by the oppressor. This has proven to be particularly damaging to the victim’s self-esteem. The victim internalizes the humiliation since it is based on what one is rather than what one does. This acceptance of devaluation leads to feelings of shame and embarrassment which threatens the self. 

According to Assitant Professor, Dr Arpita Kackar, Humiliation can significantly affect your self-esteem. When your self-esteem suffers, you may undervalue yourself and perceive yourself more negatively. This decline in self-esteem can automatically undermine your self-confidence. As a result, the overall personality of an individual who faces humiliation in any context or dimension of life is affected. The negative impact of humiliation can influence various attributes of a person’s self-perception and behaviour.

The second evaluation of humiliation is the possibility of the devaluation being assessed as unjust. Anger becomes the emotion on the forefront if the humiliation is assessed to be unfair but not internalized. However, shame seems to be the dominant emotion if the devaluation is internalized and is not seen as unfair but rather is accepted.


Two other variables that are involved in the experience of humiliation are: 1. Public exposure and 2. The status of the oppressor. Being demeaned while exposed in public is an important antecedent to the emotion of humiliation. Also, the status of the oppressor is that of an authority or the victim has some personal connection with him. Only these kinds of people can impose humiliation on others. 

Humiliation as a Social Emotion 

There has been much debate about the conceptualization of emotions such as shame, embarrassment, humiliation and other related emotions. Some researchers consider these to be self-conscious emotions since people tend to internalize these emotions rather than separate them from themselves. Whereas, other researchers propose that these emotions be called other-oriented emotions. The rationale behind it is that the judgements from others determine how one feels about themselves. 

L.M. Hartling (2009) contends that humiliation should be described as a relationally conscious emotion because of the two characteristics it encompasses; one being the presence of an audience whereas the other being a perpetrator. The perception that people hold when they are humiliated is that they are seen as something less or perhaps they are devalued which alters their perception of themselves. 


The relational dynamics here maintain that several others are present when one is being humiliated. The perpetrator intentionally causes pain and harm to the victim when in the presence of others. This is done to reduce the victim’s status or esteem in front of the audience.

This is usually done by the perpetrator to make sure that others see them as superior and increase their social rank. These dynamics make humiliation a social or relational experience. 

How to protect your Self-Esteem from Humiliation

It is not uncommon to feel humiliated when there is a perpetrator high in authority imposing such acts. However, research has found that it is possible to protect one’s self-esteem and self-concept from humiliation. Research suggests that having attributes such as being self-confident, efficient, and decisive are important as they define how we see ourselves. Also, attributes that are social such as being caring and nice to others are important since they tell us how we see others and how other people perceive us. 

When we look at it from an evolutionary point of view, our attributes have been necessary to attain our goals and deal with the challenges in the environment. Whereas, our social attributes define how others treat us, which has been crucial to survive in the challenging environment. Therefore, both of these attributes pose a necessity for us to define our self-esteem and self-concept, both in the individual and interpersonal domains. 

Therefore, when you see yourself as a passive victim of the perpetrator’s humiliation it makes you devalue yourselves and see yourself as less of a human. When you find it incapable of responding to the humiliating act of another, that is when you experience humiliation. Thus, by just responding to the humiliating acts with your strong, personal attributes, you may be able to down-regulate the humiliation. This response would make it less likely for you to internalize the devaluation that is made by the perpetrator. When the internalization will not occur, the emotional experience of humiliation will also not be felt. 

Humiliation and Resistance 

Having discussed the factor of self-esteem as protection from humiliation, it becomes necessary to understand whether resistance can be used to challenge the debilitating emotion. It may seem impossible to escape humiliation from an oppressor of high social standing, additionally, the ability of individuals to resist humiliation appears slim. However, history has shown instances of resistance where this assumption was challenged. During Nazi Germany, communists rebelled and resisted the humiliation inflicted upon them while risking their lives. In a similar sense, Jehova’s witnesses showed resilience despite being imprisoned which showed their resistance against humiliation. 

When there is resistance from the side of the victims, perpetrators often resort to torture or severe punishment. This can lead to severe psychological conditions such as PTSD and complex PTSD. While these experiences may prove to be traumatic, successful resistance can negate some of the psychological effects.


Research has shown that prisoners from the German Democratic Republic did experience mental distress and alienation post-release, however, those who showed great resistance and autonomy had better long-term mental health and well-being. 

Resistance can be full of challenges for vulnerable individuals such as children or those who are under authoritarian rule since a huge disparity exists in terms of power imbalances. These victims are often unable to resist the humiliation since they are physically and emotionally coerced which leads to powerlessness.

There exists a complex relationship between resistance and humiliation due to factors such as power, autonomy and trauma. Although resistance seems to be a protective factor against humiliation wherein it develops our resilience, it becomes challenging to maintain in environments where there are power dynamics due to which the victim never wins. Steps must be taken to offer support and empower the individuals who are under the rule of an oppressor to negate the negative effects of humiliation on mental and psychological well-being. 

Outcomes of Humiliation 

Research has shown that humiliation leads to approach and avoidance tendencies. Approach tendency in the form of aggression and a desire for revenge. The tendency to direct rage at someone else becomes higher. Avoidance tendencies in the form of helplessness, powerlessness and withdrawal or inaction. Since there is an involvement of both, rage and powerlessness, researchers have termed this as the inertia effect. 

Inertia is defined as a form of quiet rage since humiliation leads to a feeling of hopelessness, suicide and helplessness along with rage and extreme aggression. In line with previous research, has shown that humiliation shares certain characteristics with shame, embarrassment and anger. Thus, when we say that humiliation leads to avoidance tendencies, we are primarily talking about shame filled with anger. 


Klein (1991) has researched the humiliation dynamic and states that humiliation is associated with academic failure, mental illness, racism, family conflicts, poverty, criminality, and organizational ineffectiveness.

Research has also shown the adverse impact of humiliation on self-esteem and marital relationships. It has also been linked with suicidal tendencies and homicidal behaviour.  It is not necessary to be humiliated directly by the perpetrator, research shows that just the act of witnessing humiliation can imbibe fear which can lead individuals to take extreme measures. Certain individuals, due to the fear of humiliation alone, may choose to die by suicide rather than face the humiliating experience. 

This fear can influence their lives to a greater extent wherein they may make decisions based on that including the interactions that they have to protect their dignity and social rank from perceived threats of humiliation. Whether an individual is actively involved or is a mere observer, humiliation is such a strong emotion that it has the power to shape an individual’s personal as well as social world. 


Although there exists limited research on the effect of humiliation on psychopathology, the relationship between the two is indisputable. It is quite clear that not everyone who is humiliated will develop a mental disorder. There are various factors, like intensity and duration, that need to be considered when establishing a relationship between humiliation and psychopathology. The level of resilience in an individual becomes a protective factor against humiliation that needs to be highlighted. 


In men as well as women, humiliation can become a source of depression. People can feel a loss of social role and can end up feeling punished when they are humiliated by people with a higher social standing. This feeling can lead to the development of depression. Breakup with a partner or humiliating actions by close family members can also lead to the development of depression. Bullying is another form of humiliation that can lead an individual to lose hope for the future and can increase suicidal ideation in the person. Individuals who have social phobia or social anxiety also live in the fear that they will be humiliated or feel embarrassed in social situations due to which they avoid social situations. 


In paranoid personality disorder as well as paranoid psychosis, humiliation can be considered as a defense mechanism. Paranoia develops in situations where an individual feels shame or responsibility for a negative action performed. Instead of feeling these emotions, the paranoid individual interprets the situation as dangerous for oneself. Feelings of inferiority and fear of humiliating criticism lead to the development of paranoia. A paranoid individual confuses the feeling of shame with the feeling of humiliation and thus reacts with anger towards other people. 

Paranoia is linked to previous emotional distress and negative interpersonal experiences. These can shape an individual’s beliefs about themselves as vulnerable, others as dangerous and the world as vicious. Due to this, the development of suspicious thoughts is seen in such individuals. A lack of trust in others leads to social isolation and fear of sharing their emotions. All of these combined can lead to the development of cognitive bias of jumping to conclusions wherein a person quickly formulates incorrect assumptions about their social situations. 


The relationship between psychosis and humiliation as explained above is seen in patients with schizophrenia. This disorder is often associated with a loss of social role as well as personal failures. When these patients are hospitalized, this experience is perceived as humiliating by them. This humiliation can lead to the development of depression in schizophrenic patients. Thus, paranoia and the perception of mental illness can create a cycle of negative emotions and cognitive biases. 

Narcissistic personality disorder

Individuals with narcissistic personality disorder especially involving feelings of grandiosity and vulnerability are highly sensitive to humiliation. Traits like exhibitionism, a sense of entitlement and arrogance are associated with grandiose narcissism. Feelings of inferiority, low self-esteem and submissiveness are associated with vulnerable narcissism. 

Individuals with grandiose narcissism have their self-esteem deeply tied to the admiration and respect of others. Because of this when negative events occur such as failure and social rejection, these individuals can feel threatened concerning their social prestige and self-worth

Narcissistic personality disorder

Thus, when they are faced with public humiliation, these people react violently to protect their self-esteem. In contrast, individuals with vulnerable narcissism feel high levels of humiliation from private events rather than public events. Humiliating experiences in a private setting, especially with close family members can damage their self-esteem. 

The fact is that what other people think of an individual and the treatment they receive derive from their sense of self-worth. Humiliation tends to hit where it hurts and injures the self-esteem of an individual through rejection, exclusion and devaluation. The vulnerability to humiliation stems from human needs and the urge for social recognition and inclusion. Because this urge and need have evolutionary advantages, it cannot be regarded as irrational.

Researchers have tried to establish a strong rationale for feeling humiliated which lies with the intention and intensity of the perpetrator to humiliate its victim. When the victim misunderstands the humiliation or when there is no intention to humiliate, the reason is much weaker or does not exist

References +
  • Elison, J. (2016). Humiliation. In Springer eBooks (pp. 1–8).
  • Fernández, S., Gaviria, E., Halperin, E., Agudo, R., González-Puerto, J. A., Chas-Villar, A., & Saguy, T. (2022). The protective effect of agency on victims of humiliation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 102, 104375.
  • Collazzoni, A., 1, Capanna, C., Marucci, C., Bustini, M., Riccardi, I., Stratta, P., Dipartimento di Scienze Cliniche Applicate e Biotecnologie (DISCAB), Università de L’Aquila, & Dipartimento di Salute Mentale, ASL 1, L’Aquila. (2014). Humiliation: an excluded emotion. In Journal of Psychopathology (Vol. 20, pp. 252–257).
  • _and_self-respect/links/56419c6008aec448fa60ed65/Humiliation-dignity-and-self-respect.pdf

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