In last week’s Tip you learned about the lasting emotional consequences of humiliating experiences. Today I will share with you a story of someone who sought treatment as a result of repeated childhood humiliations, and how they affected his adult relationships.
An example of how one may overcome deep-seated feelings of humiliation can be found in the psychotherapy of Ken, who first presented at age 40 with anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Ken had begun his career as a patent attorney following achieving a Master’s Degree in Electrical Engineering. He specialized in prosecuting software patents, and later became a top attorney representing household name companies like IBM and Apple. Despite his professional success, he felt empty and dissatisfied with much of his life. He frequently traveled for his job, and had once loved the prestige of representing such prominent companies, who chose him over many of his colleagues. His clients appreciated his intellectual skills, gregarious personality, attention to detail, and his integrity – Ken would always bill them an amount that they considered fair. He was at the pinnacle of his profession, making an exceptional living, and was able to take his family on annual vacations to Europe. When we first met, he was in a life crisis, thinking that he wanted to leave his wife Judy and his career, to find “passion and meaning,” as he described feelings of emptiness inside that scared him. The couple had four children, two of whom were still living at home.
In thinking about all of the possible issues that might relate to Ken’s wanting to leave his wife and profession, I counseled, “Ken, you have expressed deep longings to find passion and meaning in your life. We will work hard to help you figure out how to find both of these important aspects of being alive. At the same time it may be helpful if you put off your decision to leave your wife for the time being. You are in a highly emotional state, and it is important not to act impulsively on such a major decision that will have serious repercussions for you, your family, and your finances.” Ken agreed to postpone any major decisions until we developed a deeper understanding of what was going on with him.
Ken’s childhood was dominated by his cold and distant mother, who criticized him repeatedly, and often humiliated him in front of others, including his friends, by pointing out his inadequacies, despite his being a warm, endearing, bright and earnest young boy. As he was speaking I imagined him as a sweet little child, longing for love and acceptance, picturing his tiny face filled with sadness, hurt, rejection, and possibly anger. I began to feel sad for him. Then I recalled some funny moments from years ago when my older daughter would feign different feeling states by demonstrating them on her face, as a way of “practicing” feelings and learning how to identify them; and how my wife and I would mirror her delight with our own; and how Ken’s mother was never able to provide these sorts of experiences for him. Then I thought of my sister’s and my struggles with our own highly self-absorbed mother.
These fantasies and memories activated an empathic connection with Ken, and I paused my stream of consciousness to say to him, “Ken, every child longs for a warm and loving mother with whom there is an ‘emotional safe base,’[xi] where they feel secure in bringing their feelings, and being protected. You never had this with your mother, who harshly criticized you in front of others, which was terribly humiliating for you; and yet as much as you complain about Judy, you have described her as generally warm and loving. Is it possible that you keep an emotional distance from her as a result of how your mother treated you, throwing yourself into your work in part to avoid emotional closeness and a deeper attachment to her?”[xii] This question led Ken to talk about how alone he felt when he was with his mother, and how sad and angry that made him feel. He went on to remember more.
The “ice woman” would treat his father the same way, openly criticizing him in front of Ken and other family members, which drove his father into an emotionally isolated state, and led to a twenty year secret love affair with a coworker. All of this left Ken with the feeling that he was emotionally isolated from both his mother and father. To make matters worse, both parents relentlessly pushed Ken to pursue a career in engineering to provide him job security, whereby he could avoid the cyclical ups and downs and financial anxieties that characterized his father’s career as a “slumlord.” Ken’s uncle Harry was an engineer, and his parents would often point out that Harry had never been unemployed, and owned a vacation home at the beach. Ken’s mother would often berate his father as an inadequate financial provider, and compare him unfavorably to Harry. Ken angrily recalled how his parents would “brainwash him” into reading books on computer science in high school, and then strongly urge him to take courses in math, computer science, and engineering in college.
He wanted to please them so desperately, to eke out what little love he could find, and so Ken complied with their wishes and planned for a career as a software engineer, later enrolling in law school to become a patent attorney. Secretly inside, however, he had an unspoken desire to pursue a career in medicine, which was never explored. As he spoke about these longings, at times he would be filled with sadness, at other times with anger toward his parents, and toward himself, for not pursuing his dreams.
In one of our sessions, Ken remembered a highly distressing experience at age six, when he joined his father and two employees as they made their collections rounds in the tenements, seeking rental payment from tenants who were in arrears. Watching his father’s men strong-arm and physically threaten the tenants furthered Ken’s humiliation, and portrayed his father as an even more frightening figure. When Ken was physically disciplined, not only was he humiliated by being struck in the face and spanked with his pants pulled down, at times Ken feared for his life, as he recalled the beatings given to the tenants. He felt so small and powerless to stop his father, which only added to his feelings of humiliation.
To make matters worse, when he was about eight years old, a neighbor invited Ken and his best friend, Doug, into a vacant house in the neighborhood, luring them with the promise of candy, soda and other treats. The man then proceeded to ask Ken and Doug to take off their clothes, and attempted to touch their genitals. Ken recalled, with deep feelings of shame, horror, guilt, and humiliation, that he ran away from the man, and left Doug behind. Over a period of months we worked through these feelings, and why he was frightened to tell his parents, for fear that they would somehow blame him for what had happened. During these sessions Ken needed additional comfort and support.
On one such occasion I offered, “Ken, what you describe is sad and horrifying. I am so sorry that this happened to you. No child should ever have to live through such an experience, and to live through it while feeling so alone at home may have made it feel even more unbearable. Here you were already feeling isolated, with parents that didn’t care to understand you, and then to be sexually abused on top of that, and be unable to tell anyone until now. This must have been a terrible burden for you to carry all these years.” He sobbed uncontrollably, and I provided some additional words of comfort, recalling how comforting my own psychoanalyst had been when I revealed some of the traumas in my childhood.
Some positive memories came back to Ken as well. Solace was found with an uncle who was warm and caring (the engineer), who would take Ken on fishing trips and make him feel accepted for who he was. And there was a young girl in the neighborhood, Tessa, who became his best friend. Ken and Tessa would explore the woods and creeks nearby, attend Saturday matinees at the local cinema, and walk to school together. Ken recalled her with great fondness, in retrospect feeling that Tessa in some way had saved his life, and that without her he wouldn’t have survived.
Ken hated his job and was unsure whether he loved Judy. A daughter suffered from severe autism, and her special needs created further marital strain. Ken had begun to seek affection from a younger woman paralegal at work with whom he felt special, powerful, and desirable – feelings he had never felt as a boy- and had rarely felt with Judy. He was on the verge of becoming sexually involved with this woman, and we learned that part of the attraction came from an unconscious fantasy that sexual relations with her would somehow make up for the humiliation he felt when he was sexually abused, and the many times he had felt so helpless and powerless as a boy.
We worked together for several years and Ken brought his characteristic drivenness to our work together, willing to do “whatever it takes” to get to the bottom of what was tangling him up inside. As the memories came back Ken would regress to his boyhood. There were sessions where he would sob over how cruelly his mother would treat him, and would express longings to be rescued by his father, who had emotionally tuned-out. He spoke of how small and insignificant he felt as a boy, and that he believed he was unlovable, unworthy, and a tiny speck at the mercy of awesome frightening and powerful parents; with whom he generally felt unwanted or humiliated.
While listening to Ken I recalled regressing during my own psychoanalysis, and certain experiences that resonated with what Ken was describing from his childhood. I recalled how I had felt at those moments, and said to him, “Ken, perhaps part of your belief that you are unlovable comes from how emotionally abandoned you felt as a boy, in that your parents were so self-involved, and disinterested in what you were thinking and feeling. This belief may also come from your having been sexually abused, and the guilt that you feel in having run from that house without your friend Doug. You feel ashamed that you didn’t stay behind and protect him, yet what other choice did you have? You were a little boy, and felt so frightened, and had no idea what to do, and certainly weren’t powerful enough to attack that man and drive him away.
“In addition you were afraid to tell your parents, who might have done something to help if they had been less foreboding. I have come to know you well through our work together, and you are such a fine person. If I had been your father I would have loved you dearly, as I see inside of you that bright, kind, and loving little boy who deserved to be loved. And I would have ensured that the man who perpetrated that abuse upon you and your friend would be sent to prison, and that you would be safe.” Ken listened thoughtfully to these words, realized that as a little boy he couldn’t possibly know what to do, and began to feel a little bit lighter. He thanked me for these words of kindness, and over time, in his heart, he began to believe them.
Through our work together Ken also began to understand how troubled his parents were in their own lives and in their marriage, and we explored the origins of his parents’ conflicts and damaged self-esteem. This helped Ken to learn that, contrary to his beliefs, it was not his very existence that drove their behavior toward him, but rather the forces, factors and relationships under which they themselves were raised. This also helped him to realize that it was not his unlovability, but rather their inability to love him, one another, or anyone for that matter; which was the cause of how alone he came to feel while growing up in their home. In time he was able to extricate himself from them emotionally – separating out and identifying his true self from the one he had come to develop through having internalized all of those negative experiences.This helped Ken to simultaneously accept, and then leave behind the damaging relations with his parents and with that sexual predator, that he had unconsciously internalized and interpreted as negative reflections of himself.[xiii] [xiv]
We also helped him learn to tolerate and then accept his hatred toward them, which had been a source of great guilt, and had led him to believe that “God was punishing me” through the birth of his autistic child. As Ken was able to emotionally separate and leave his parents behind we explored potential new career paths that might bring more satisfaction. “Ken, as a child did you ever dream of who you might become in the future? Were there any heroes from television or in real life who inspired you? As you think about what would bring you meaning and purpose in your life, what comes to mind?” Surprisingly, and to my embarrassment, he blurted out that the only hero in his life so far was me. He felt so grateful for the help I had provided him that he really wanted to be a doctor. Given his age and the years of training involved this was not feasible; however another option emerged that would become equally satisfying.
Ken embarked on a new career in healthcare as an emergency room technician, where becoming part of a team that improved the lives of critically ill patients brought him a newfound passion that he had never felt before. Despite the huge cut in income, he felt happier than at any previous time in his life. He had discovered his “calling” and became more resilient and less prone to feeling humiliated.
Ken became more satisfied in his marriage as well. Without the extensive travel demands of his prior career he had more free time, and began to enjoy weekend getaways with Judy. They purchased a modest summer home which brought them even closer together as they shared idyllic days and evenings in Rehoboth Beach.
This is the end of our second installment on Humiliation, but it is not the end of Ken’s story. Next week you will learn about that surprising and inspirational ending.
If you would like to read more about trauma, humiliation, and PTSD, I encourage you to check out my book, Becoming Whole: A Healing Companion to Ease Emotional Pain and Find Self-Love; and Session 4: Help Your Child Following an Emotionally Disturbing Experience, or Session 10: Trauma and Intimate Relationships, or Session 11: Transcending Sexual Abuse.