Humiliation or Rejection — What’s Holding You Back?
Is it humiliation or rejection that’s holding you back, keeping you from achieving all that you want to be, or do? Here’s a process for finding out and overcoming the negative emotions of the past.
Right now, the memory of it is dim, near forgotten, and yet it tenaciously lingers deep inside and cripples your success.
Before I continue, I’d like to give a shout out to Fabienne Fredrickson of Client Attraction fame, whose article, It’s Not Procrastination, It’s Fear of Rejection, inspired this post. Thanks Fabienne.
Fabienne’s article focuses on the fear of rejection as the underlying reason people don’t make their dreams true, or achieving the success they desire.
The idea is that something happened to us, perhaps in childhood, which made us feel rejected. These rejections have become an inner voice that declares you’re not good enough or smart enough or have what it takes to succeed.
In order to achieve your desires, you must dig into your past, find and acknowledge these moments of rejection, root them out and be free of the old, stinking albatross that has been rotting around your neck all these years
This all makes sense to me. But I think there may be another emotion, which like rejection, happened long ago and set us up for feeling inadequate.
I’m referring to humiliation.
It so happens that soon after reading Fabienne’s article, I dived into this realm with an old friend who is stuck in life.
Let’s call him Jim.
It is Jim that gave me the insight that for some people humiliation may trump rejection when it comes to blocking the actions necessary to achieve success.
From memory, here’s how my conversation with him unfolded one recent, tequila-sipping evening after Jim lamented about how stuck he felt…
“You’ve been in limbo now for a few years, Jim. What’s going on?”
“I get stuck, like a deer in the headlights. I tell myself that the reason I’m not progressing along a path to achieving what I want is that I haven’t figured out the best path to take, but there seems to be something else stopping me.”
“Yeah, you know I’m also the “analysis paralysis” type. My sense is that when you’re stuck in the analysis loop, no answer will ever be the right one to act on. There’s something emotional holding us back. “
Jim turns to look at me and nods his head affirmatively, and I continued…
“I’ve spent way too much time in the past, trying to figure out root causes for anything unpleasant happening today, and I think at some point you have to start being present and leave the past behind. But first, it’s a good idea to go back and get some idea about what may be persistently messing with you.”
“Yeah, well, I’ve done plenty of that.”
“So, what did you discover?”
“Like for everyone else, shit happened.”
“I remember when we met in college. You really wanted to try out for the soccer team. You had done well with it in high school, but you seemed unwilling to try to make the college team. I just thought you had a fear of rejection.”
“Yeah, I remember that too. Maybe I was feeling that I’d be rejected if I tried out for the team, but looking back I think it had more to do with humiliation.”
“In high school I began playing soccer for the first time as a sophomore. Everyone else had been playing for years. I made the team but sat on the bench. Never played in a single game. I felt so humiliated. Even though I eventually became a good player, the feeling of humiliation overwhelmed everything else”
Humiliation or Rejection – Which Is It For You?
In Fabienne’s article, she delineates the steps to take to uncover these past transgressions and how to examine and excise them so that they no longer keep you from achieving the success you want.
With me goading him on, Jim and I dug deep into everything he could think of that happened in his past that might be messing with him now. As I said earlier, most of this felt like humiliation to him, not rejection.
What’s the difference?
I had to dwell on this a bit. Some hypothetical examples help me conceptualize it.
Girlfriend Break-up Example:
- You and your girlfriend are alone in the living room. She breaks up with you. That, I think, is rejection. She rejected you, and this act is independent on whether or not you care about her.
- Your girlfriend and you are in a crowded restaurant. She stands up and shouts, “I never want to see you again!” This is an example of rejection as well, but the overriding emotion felt in the moment is humiliation, whether you cared for her or not. The presence of other people in the restaurant bearing witness to this outburst is humiliating.
- When Jim was playing soccer, if his coach spoke to him privately and said that he entered the sport too late in life to be competitive with his teammates, and thus would have to sit on the bench during games, that’s rejection.
- If Jim’s coach pulls him from a game, yells that he stinks and sits him on the bench for the rest of the season, that’s humiliation.
Some definitions will be helpful.
Rejection: To refuse to recognize or give affection to (a person).
Humiliation: To lower or hurt one’s dignity or pride.
Note the difference?
With rejection there’s a refusal by something or someone, but the definition excludes any reaction by the person rejected. A chipmunk could reject your offer of a peanut, but it would be surprising if this rejection encumbered your ability to succeed in the future.
With humiliation, it’s all about the reaction – something negative happens to “one’s dignity or pride.” You have to be emotionally invested in the outcome.
Comparing the two, I wager that it’s humiliation that has the greater potential to dig down deep into your bones and linger there for a lifetime of unconscious sabotage.
Seek and Destroy Repressed Emotions
Fabienne’s process for clearing out whatever repressed emotions may be holding you back whittles down to this:
1. Determine and name the root fear or limiting belief that keeps you from achieving your desires.
2. Look back and discover the first and every subsequent instance that this negative emotion dug in. Write it all down: what it was, the situation and the impact on you. At this point, you’ve constructed a story about it, a way of interpreting it. Write down the story.
3. Next, write down how these events may have held you back.
4. Finally, look at each of these past events and ask yourself if you could reinterpret why they happened and how they affected you.
Returning to the conversation with Jim, here’s what we uncovered, given the lubricating genius of tequila…
Jim’s Humiliation Events
In each of these “humiliation events”, note that Jim’s dignity and/or pride issue took a beating in public.
In the 7th grade, Jim’s teacher was reviewing test results with the class. Jim realized that the teacher had incorrectly marked one his answers as wrong. He raised his hand and said so. The teacher walked over, picked up the test paper, turned, presented it to a girl sitting next to Jim that he had a crush on, pointed to a different question that was appropriately marked wrong – not the one in question – and asked her if it was properly marked or not. She meekly nodded that is was marked correctly. In a triumphant flourish the teacher plops the test paper back on Jim’s desk and strides back to the head of the class.
Jim’s take away: I’m dumb and a wimp for letting him get away with it.
Corrective action: Understanding that a child should not be expected to twice challenge an adult authority figure, and that the person with the problem was the teacher, not me.
As a high school junior, Jim was asked to go to the blackboard during math class and solve a math problem in front of the class. He hadn’t studied and couldn’t do more than the first part of a multistage solution. The math teacher heckled him, and his classmates giggled.
Jim’s take away: I’m dumb.
Corrective action: Recognizing that insufficient intelligence wasn’t the issue, but my bad habit of not consistently studying math. I was able to successfully hit the books before being tested on most subjects, but not math. I should have adjusted my study habits accordingly.
As a high school senior, Jim was a member of a select group of high achieving students. They were all smart and studied hard; Jim shared but one of these attributes. As the time approached for taking the SAT’s, Jim’s peers studied diligently and took practice tests. Jim did neither. His friends all scored in the top 5%. Jim scored in the top 50%. Everyone knew each other’s scores.
Jim’s take away: I’m dumb and an imposter, as I don’t belong in this elite group.
Corrective action: Seeing it for what it really was – not an issue of my capacity (smart vs dumb), but a behavioral issue (study vs not).
Jim’s Rejection Events
Despite his feeling that humiliation played a more detrimental role in his life than rejection doesn’t mean that rejection didn’t happen in Jim’s life. But rejection simply felt differently than humiliation for Jim, and though noteworthy, he does not perceive the same negative charge from rejection than from humiliation.
Note that the negative emotion that resulted in each of the following examples did not happen publicly in a way that could naturally wound one’s dignity or pride, which is why Jim perceives them as examples of rejection, not humiliation.
Mid way through high school, Jim’s mother, divorced from his father, married for the second time. Her new husband was a high school football coach who had been drafted by the NFL. (Got injured, never played pro ball.) Jim admired him and was hopeful that he’d take the interest in his athletic endeavors, given that Jim’s father did not. Never happened.
Jim’s take away: He cares about his players and he knows how to perceive and develop talent. Given that he never got involved in my athletic endeavors must mean that I don’t have what it takes, that I’m unworthy.
Corrective action: Realize that my stepfather already had two children of his own and a whole football team of boys for which he was responsible. By the time he got home, he needed a break, not another kid to mentor.
Fairly early in his career, Jim joined a few co-workers and started his own company. They poured all their savings into it, developed a product and then scurried all over the country seeking to sign up channel partners to sell the thing. Prospective partners were interested and took time to evaluate it, but all said no.
Jim’s take away: I’m not good enough to be an entrepreneur and couldn’t make my company succeed.
Corrective action: Understand that nearly everyone that succeeds first fails. It was OK to fail at this first endeavor, as long as I keep trying.
Later in his career, Jim won a hard-earned, plump consulting contract that he thought, and was assured by management, would turn into full time employment with lots of money, benefits and prestige. After a few months of consulting work, his contract was not renewed.
Jim’s take away: I’ve lost my business mojo and am no longer competitive.
Corrective action: That company was a start-up, was insufficiently funded, and did not have the infrastructure and resources in place that someone in my position required to make a fast, positive impact.
Can you see yourself in any of the stories above?
Some Concluding Thoughts
No one goes through life without falling down. We get scrapped and bruised physically and emotional. Healing will happen, if we allow it.
Fortunately for us, our bodies do not require our conscious minds to heal physical injuries. (Well, other than chronic diseases that could often use the adoption of beneficial habits – something very much a conscious act.) But when it comes to emotional injury, we need the salve of some brainpower. Emotional intelligence, perhaps.
Spend some time examining your own life. See if there’s something you can name that’s keeping you from achieving what you want. Then apply the process cited above and discover if you can rewrite your narrative.
Name it, find it, reinterpret what happened, let it go, and reapply yourself to getting what you want, unencumbered by that old rotting albatross.