This is the third of three installments on the lasting emotional consequences of Humiliation, including a summary of the lessons to be learned. And last week I promised you a surprise ending to the story of Ken. Here it is…
Late in her life Ken’s mother sustained a stroke, became depressed, and agreed to take Prozac. Miraculously, as a result of the antidepressant, she became loving and began treating him with kindness. Their tangled relationship began to untangle.
When Ken first reported this to me I could barely restrain my amazement. I felt envious, as I had never had such an opportunity with my own mother, and was careful not to let my feelings interfere with what I said to him next. “Ken, who could have predicted that the Ice Woman would ever be capable of loving you after a lifetime of cold rejection? What a shock! You may feel unsettled for some time to come. Hopefully this turn of events will develop into a sustainable new beginning, bringing the relationship with your mother that you have longed for all of your life. It is understandable if you feel wary of her overtures, and wonder if her affection is real and durable. Only time will tell.”
Ken nodded that this was exactly how he was feeling, and noted that both he and his wife doubted his mother’s sincerity after decades of withering criticism. His wife in particular was quite suspicious and somewhat fearful that he was being set up for a huge disappointment. I added, “It is understandable that you feel on guard, bewildered, and a bit confused. Sometimes antidepressant medication can effectively treat a longstanding depression characterized by negative thinking, joylessness, irritability, and devaluation of others; and it would appear that your mother was suffering from a lifelong depression. I really hope that this works out for you, such that finally, after all of these years, you can begin to feel emotionally safe, loved, and even a bit nurtured by her. Hopefully she will not betray you. You may want to proceed with a kind of cautious optimism.”
Much to our surprise and delight, in the remaining six months of her life Ken felt truly loved by her for the very first time. Upon completion of his therapy after four years of working together, we hugged each other and said goodbye, each of us expressing tears of joy over his positive transformation.
What are some of the lessons to be learned?
What are some of the lessons to be learned from the story of Ken? To begin with, childhood humiliation cannot be solved through life achievement alone. Some of the most driven executives and professionals that I treat experience their drive as a kind of self- lashing that relentlessly pushes them to achieve. Unresolved unconscious humiliation often lies at the root of this behavior. Coming to terms with these deeply held feelings is not something that you can do on your own. This form of trauma can be addressed through insight-oriented psychotherapy, where the traumatic experiences that first engendered the humiliation can be brought into conscious awareness, and the attendant emotions and effects on development of the Self can be explored, understood and resolved.
Sometimes there is also a role for medication. For example when humiliation leads to performance anxiety or stage fright, the use of a beta-blocker like propranolol can be helpful in blocking the symptoms that cause painful self-awareness such as excessive perspiration, rapid heartbeat, tremulous vocalizations, and flushed face.
CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) or DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) can also help you identify the triggers that elicit feelings of humiliation, desensitize you to their effects, and teach you new ways to manage your emotions more effectively. While these types of therapy can definitely help you feel more in control of your reactions and your life, they are not a substitute for getting to the bottom of the traumas that first caused you to feel humiliated. As illustrated in the story of Ken, coming to terms with the traumatic events that trigger deep-seated feelings of humiliation is possible through a longer-term psychotherapy. Repeated exposure to the traumatic triggers, in the context of an empathetic and emotionally supportive relationship, can enable you to recover from the traumatic experiences, and develop positive feelings of self-regard, self-respect, and self-esteem.
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.