I don't remember where I read these words—I vaguely recall a dingy red pamphlet, given to me by a well-meaning social worker—but I know exactly when. It was February 11, 1988, three months before my son, Adam, was born, one day after an amniocentesis revealed he had Down syndrome. I'd refused what would have been a very late-term therapeutic abortion but not because the diagnosis didn't bother me. I felt trapped in a bizarre nightmare. In 24 hours, I'd gone from daydreaming about my perfect baby to bracing myself for "stares and insensitive comments."
My first reaction to that pamphlet was to throw up. Things went downhill from there. I already loved my unborn son, but I had no idea how to "tolerate the humiliation" of being his mother. Avoiding humiliation was practically my religion. I was a slavish overachiever, desperate to succeed, to please, to fit in. Now, it seemed, I would be obviously and publicly shamed in the all-important role of mother.
I didn't realize that I'd just been handed the key to freedom from the humiliation—and the fear of humiliation—that had always governed me. I was about to learn that my level of shame was always under my own control, that I would endure exactly as much humiliation as I consented to feel, and that instead of tolerating this awful feeling, I could simply dispense with it. All of this is equally true for you.
Phobias, Paralysis, and Poison
In her book Fear and Other Uninvited Guests, psychologist Harriet Lerner points out that of all the forces that shape human behavior, fear of humiliation is among the most powerful. The most common fear is not of illness or accident, but public speaking; soldiers will march into certain doom rather than be branded cowards. Many clients tell me they prefer lives of quiet desperation to the possible embarrassment of trying and failing to realize their heart's desire.
Humiliation's power can keep people from violating basic social boundaries. But like tear gas, it has only one effect: incapacitation. Try this little experiment. Say out loud the words "I'm so ashamed of myself," and notice how your mind and body react. You'll probably feel enervated, paralyzed, as though you've donned a lead straitjacket. These sensations don't just stop you from doing anything wrong; they stop you from doing anything, period.
To see the effect of this, consider an area of your life in which you feel frustrated and stuck: relationships, work, personal goals, maybe all of the above. Are you doing absolutely everything possible to get what you want in these areas? If not, why not? Why not demand that promotion, resist your critical mother, write your novel? If fear of humiliation is your problem, your answer will probably be something like: "If I do that, people may gossip about me/hate me/laugh at me/judge me." Or "That's unheard-of in my family/neighborhood/religion/company." Or maybe, simply,?"That would make me look greedy/stupid/fat/selfish/wimpy/ wrong."
These phrases, and any other variation on the "what people might think" theme, are shame mantras. Obeying them prevents all kinds of experiences—but not, it turns out, humiliation. In fact, the more we obey our fear of shame, the more our frame of mind guarantees we'll feel humiliated.