Nemo congressu, nemo aditu, nemo suffragio, nemo civitate, nemo luce dignum putet. —Cicero, In Vatinium

(No one thinks you’re worth his attention, his time, a vote, a place in society, or even the light of day.)

Embarrassment, shame, guilt, and humiliation all imply the existence of value systems, which are to some extent culture- and context dependent. Whereas shame and guilt are primarily the outcome of self-appraisal, embarrassment and humiliation are primarily the outcome of the appraisal of one or several others, even if only in thought or imagination (see my previous article on embarrassment, shame, and guilt).

One respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that, whereas we bring embarrassment upon ourselves, humiliation is something that is brought upon us by others. A pupil confides to his teacher that he has not done his homework. He feels embarrassment. Later, the teacher publicly denounces the pupil and makes him sit facing into a corner, which provokes the laughter of his classmates. Now he feels humiliation.

If, instead, the teacher had quietly given the pupil an F grade, he would have felt more offended than humiliated. Offense is cognitive, to do with clashing beliefs and values, whereas humiliation is visceral and existential.

Another respect in which humiliation differs from embarrassment is that it cuts deeper. Humiliation is traumatic and often repressed and unspoken, whereas, given enough time, embarrassment becomes source material for an entertaining story. More fundamentally, humiliation involves the abasement of pride and dignity, and therefore the loss of status and standing. The Latin root of ‘humiliation’ is ‘humus’, which translates as ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’.

Everyone in society makes certain status claims, however modest these may be: “I am a good secretary”, “I am a good mother”, “I am a loyal friend”, “I am an upstanding citizen”, and so on. When we are merely embarrassed, our status claims are not undermined, or, if they are undermined, they are easily recovered. However, when we are humiliated, our status claims cannot easily be recovered because, in this case, our very authority to make status claims has been called into question. Thus, a person who is in the process of being humiliated is usually left stunned and speechless. Voiceless, in fact.

When criticizing people, especially people with low self-esteem, we must take care to preserve and protect their authority to make the status claims that they make, which can be especially challenging if their status claims are excessively excessive!

In short, humiliation is the public failure of one’s status claims. Their private failure amounts not to humiliation but to painful self-realization. This is why, when something is potentially humiliating to someone, it is very important to keep it as private as possible. Being rejected by a secret love interest may be painful, but it is not humiliating. On the other hand, being cheated upon by one’s spouse and this becoming public knowledge, as happened to Anne Sinclair with Dominique Strauss-Kahn, is highly humiliating.

Humiliation often entails shame, but it is possible to be humiliated without feeling shame. For instance, Jesus may have been crucified and thereby humiliated, but he surely did not feel any shame. Highly secure or self-confident people who are in the right rarely feel shame at their humiliation.

Just as Jesus’ crucifixion left stigmata, so humiliation is stigmatizing. A humiliated person carries the mark of his humiliation, becomes his humiliation, and is thought of and remembered in terms of his humiliation. After all, who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn today? Not so much the former Director of the International Monetary Fund or potential President of France as a common adulterer.

To humiliate someone is to assert power over him by denying and destroying his status claims. Historically, humiliation has been a common form of punishment, abuse, and oppression, and, of course, it remains so to this day. Conversely, the fear of humiliation is a strong deterrent and powerful motivator.

There are many forms of humiliating mob punishments. The last recorded use in England of the pillory dates back to 1830, and of stocks to 1872. Pillories and stocks were commonly used to immobilize victims in an uncomfortable and degrading position, while people gathered excitedly to taunt, tease, and abuse them. Tarring and feathering, used in feudal Europe and its colonies in the early modern period, involved covering victims with hot tar and feathers, before parading them on a cart or wooden rail.

Ritual humiliation can serve to enforce a particular social order, or, as with hazing rituals, to emphasize that the group is greater than any of its parts.

In hierarchical societies, the elites take great care to nurture and protect their honor, while the common orders suffer prescribed degrees of debasement. As a society becomes more egalitarian, such institutionalized humiliation is resented and resisted, which can lead to violent outbursts and even outright revolution. Many traditional, tribal societies feature complex initiation rites designed to defuse the threat posed by young men to the male gerontocracy. These rites often include painful and bloody circumcision, which is symbolic of castration.

Because elites live by their honor, and because they represent their people and culture, their humiliation can be especially poignant and emblematic. In early 260, after suffering defeat at the Battle of Edessa, the Roman Emperor Valerian arranged a meeting with Shapur I the Great, the shahanshah (‘king of kings’) of the Sasanid Empire. Shapur betrayed the truce and seized Valerian, holding him captive for the rest of his life. According to some accounts, Shapur used Valerian as a human footstool when mounting his horse. When Valerian offered Shapur a huge ransom for his release, he was killed either by being flayed alive or forced to swallow molten gold. After his death, Valerian was skinned and his skin stuffed with straw and preserved as a trophy.

In January 1077, Henry IV, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, travelled to Canossa Castle in Reggio Emilia, northern Italy, to obtain the revocation of his excommunication from Pope Gregory VII. Before granting Henry the revocation, Gregory made him wait outside the castle on his knees, exposed to the stormy elements, for three days and three nights. Several centuries later, the Chancellor of the German Empire Otto von Bismarck coined the expression ‘to go to Canossa’, which means ‘to submit willingly to humiliation’.

Humiliation need not involve violence or coercion. A person can readily be humiliated by being ignored or overlooked, taken for granted, or denied a certain right or privilege. She can also be humiliated by being rejected, abandoned, lied to, betrayed, or used as a means to an end rather than an end in herself.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that, by virtue of their free will, human beings are ends in themselves, and that ends in themselves, by virtue of being ends in themselves, are invested with dignity, that is, the right to be valued and to receive ethical treatment. To humiliate a person to beneath human dignity is therefore to deny her her very humanity.

Humiliation can befall most anyone at most any time. Chris Huhne, the British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 2010 to 2012, had long been touted as a potential leader of the Liberal Democrat Party. In February 2012, Huhne was charged with perverting the course of justice over a 2003 speeding case. His ex-wife, bent on extracting revenge for the extramarital relationship that had ended their marriage, had publically claimed that he had coerced her into accepting the license penalty points on his behalf. He promptly resigned from the Cabinet but steadfastly denied the charge. However, when the trial began in February 2013, he changed his plea to guilty, resigned as a member of parliament, and left the Privy Council. By the end of this sorry saga, he had traded a seat in Cabinet for a mattress in a prison cell. Every twist and turn of Huhne’s downfall had received headline coverage in the media, which, feeding in the Schadenfreude, went so far as to publish highly personal text messages between him and his then 18-year-old son that exposed their fractious relationship. In a video statement for the 2007 Liberal Democrat Party leadership election campaign, Huhne had stated: “Relationships, including particularly family relationships, are actually the most important things in making people happy and fulfilled.” Huhne’s humiliation could hardly have been more complete or severe.

When one is humiliated, one can almost feel one’s heart shrinking. A person who has been humiliated often becomes preoccupied or obsessed by his humiliation. He may react with rage, fantasies of revenge, sadism, delinquency, or terrorism. He may also internalize the pain, leading to anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, sleeplessness, suspicion and paranoia, social isolation, apathy, depression, and even suicidal ideation.

After all, does severe humiliation not amount to metaphorical death? Arguably, it amounts to more than death because it destroys the person’s life as well as his reputation, whereas death only destroys his life. For just this reason, inmates who have suffered severe humiliation are routinely placed on suicide watch.

Unfortunately, it is in the nature of humiliation that it leaves the victim powerless to react. In any case, anger, violence, and revenge are not effective responses to humiliation because they do nothing to repair the damage done. Either the victim has to find the strength and self-esteem to come to terms with the humiliation, or, if that proves impossible, abandon the life that he has built in the hope of starting another.

I notice that, throughout this article, I have subconsciously chosen to refer to the subject of humiliation as a ‘victim’. This might suggest that humiliating someone, even a criminal, is never a proportionate or justified response.

What do you think?

‘Embarrassment’ is often used interchangeably with ‘shame’. Although the dividing lines are not fully standardized, and there may be some overlap, embarrassment and shame are different constructs.

For me, embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort experienced when

1. Some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, witnessed by or otherwise revealed to others.

2. We think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image of ourselves that, for whatever reason or reasons, we seek to project to those others.

Embarrassment might form over a particular thought or opinion that is unwittingly revealed. Or it might be related to an action such as nose picking or farting, a condition or state such as a bodily blemish or an open fly, a possession such as our car or house, or a relation such as our unappealing partner, criminal uncle, lecherous aunt, or badly behaved child.

The potential causes of our embarrassment vary according to the circumstances in which we find ourselves, and, in particular, to the company that we are in.

These causes need not be beneath our projected image, but merely out of keeping with it. Thus, it is entirely possible to be embarrassed by our high social status or rarified education.

‘Embarrassment’ derives from the Italian imbarrare, which means ‘to block, bar’. As so often, the etymology speaks volumes.


Whereas embarrassment is a response to something that threatens our projected image but is otherwise morally neutral, shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or dishonorable.

Shame is usually aggravated if its cause is exposed, but, unlike embarrassment, shame can attach to a thought or action that remains undisclosed and undiscoverable to other persons.

Although embarrassment can be intense, shame is a more weighty feeling because it pertains to our moral character and not merely to our social character or image.

Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards, and finding that they fall short. If a person falls short of moral standards, and fails to notice, he or she can ‘be shamed’ or made to notice. If the person is made to notice but does not mind, then he or she is said to ‘have no shame’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle points out that shame also arises from lacking in honourable things shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault and therefore owes to our moral badness. So it seems that if embarrassment has a convincing moral dimension, then it is, in fact, shame.

In some cases, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in the shame of another person, or to feel shame on his behalf, particularly if he is close to us or associated with us. Thus, even virtuous people with no personal cause for it can experience shame, and so much is also true of embarrassment and other emotions. Jean-Paul Sartre was right in so many ways when he said that “Hell is other people”.

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and the feeling is often accompanied by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes. Other manifestations of shame include a downcast gaze and slack posture, a sense of warmth or heat, and mental confusion or paralysis.

These manifestations of shame can communicate remorse and contrition, and inspire the pity and pardon of others. Yet, shame can in itself be shameful, and many people prefer to make a secret of their shame.

People with low self-esteem are more prone to shame, because they already have a poor self-image and are harsher upon themselves. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person who caused or incited their shame. Ultimately, this is likely to lead to even deeper shame and, so, even lower self-esteem.

While shame can be destructive, it can also be a force for good, spurring us on to more ethical lives.


Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions, and to blame and remorse. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.”

More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Thus, it is quite possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most others approve, such as living in luxury or eating meat.

Shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is no doubt why they are often confused. When we injure another, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt), and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame).

Yet, guilt and shame are distinct emotions with distinct effects. Shame is egodystonic (that is, in conflict with our self-image and the needs and goals of our ego) and correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders are largely disorders of shame. And narcissism can be understood as a defence against shame. On the other hand, guilt is egosyntonic (that is, consistent with our self-image etc.) and either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning.

Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt rather than shame, and more prone to act redemptively.

‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, which means ‘non sight’. In Inferno, Dante had the envious laboring under cloaks of lead, their eyes sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy both arises from, and results in, a form of blindness or lack of perspective.

For envy to set in, three conditions have to be met. First, one must be confronted with a person (or persons) with a superior quality, achievement, or possession. Second, one must desire that quality for oneself, or wish that the other person lacked it. And third, one must be pained by that emotion.

In sum, envy is pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes the beginning of the pain of envy as ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air’.

In Envy, Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. Envy is mean, miserly, and petty, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins (the other six are lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, and pride). Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves. Envy is such a closely guarded secret that it can rankle to unravel it in an old friend, like discovering that your lifelong partner always had it in him or her to cheat on you.

Although the terms are often used interchangeably, envy is not the same as jealousy. Whereas envy is the desire for possessing, jealousy is the fear of losing. Thus, jealousy is for something that you already possess—often a person, but also reputation, beauty, virginity, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is a lesser sin, and so easier to confess.

Envy should also be distinguished from yearning. Whereas yearning is for the general, envy is for the particular: some particular thing that is in the possession of some particular person or people.

Envy is timeless and universal, and deeply ingrained in the human psyche. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods through their good luck or pride. According to the Book of Wisdom, it is ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. In Genesis, it is from envy that Cain murdered his brother Abel. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite’s beauty that sparked the Trojan War. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is out of envy that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas.

Father! The prosperity of the Pandavas is burning me deeply! I cannot eat, sleep or live in the knowledge that they are better off than me!

Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, such as our cousins and relatives. Beggars do not envy millionaires, but other beggars who are more successful. In our age of equal opportunities and mass media, it is hardly surprising that envy is so rife, particularly when our culture of empiricism and consumerism emphasizes the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible.

For the Ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, it is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered. The pain of envy is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration that this lack engenders.

Over time, our unhappiness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers, and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by our envy.

At the same time, the mental energy expended on envy, and the reluctance to arouse it in others, holds us back from achieving our full potential as human beings.

Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, undermines the closeness and satisfaction of our relationships. In some cases, it can even lead us to attack the interests of others, like an envious child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have.

Envy can also lead to some rather more subtle defensive reactions, such as ingratitude, irony, scorn, snobbery, and narcissism, which all have in common the use of contempt to minimize the existential threat posed by the advantages of others. Another common defense against envy is to incite it in others, reasoning that, if people are envious of me, I have no reason to be envious of them.

Bottled up envy can morph into ressentiment, which is, essentially, projected envy: the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat (such as Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, or modern politicians and bankers), which can then be blamed for our ills and, in some cases, even sacrificed.

Though carefully dissimulated, envy often surfaces in the form of Schadenfreude (‘Harm-Joy’), which is defined as pleasure in the misfortune of others—a pleasure that helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of disgraced politicians and fallen celebrities. While Schadenfreude is a relatively recent term, the emotion that it denotes dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle called it epikhairekakos, which has the merit of being even harder to pronounce than Schadenfreude. And the Hebrew Book of Proverbs explicitly warns against it.

Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.

The fundamental problem of envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. The envious are as the captain of a ship, who navigates the stormy seas not by the stars in the sky, but by the tinted and distorted lens of his magnifying glass. Envy pulls us in every direction and none at all. By holding us back, it makes us even more apt to envy, giving rise to a vicious cycle of envy. And so we plod through hell under our cloaks of lead.

But can envy not give rise to something positive? Does envy really not have any silver lining? It has variously been argued that envy, often under the more acceptable guises of compassion and brotherly love, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy culminates in communism, the ideal of which is to create a society that is free from envy. In practice, however, people living under the banner of the sickle and hammer become not less but hyper envious, grassing on neighbors for the slightest of perceived advantages. As their lives become ever more dreary and monotonous, their human nature reasserts itself with a vengeance. A small number rise to become more equal than others, and these dear leaders then oppress their brethren, sometimes to the death, under the pretext of the greater good for all.

‘Socialism’ said Winston Churchill, ‘is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.’ Whereas envy is the sin of socialist societies, greed is the sin of capitalist ones. This greed is also driven by envy, but envy of a kind that seeks to level up rather than level down. And whereas you can opt out of a capitalist society, you cannot so easily opt out of a socialist one—or even leave, for that matter.

How to keep a lid on envy? So often when we envy, it is because we fail to see the bigger picture, to see all the efforts and sacrifices, and the flipsides. As Charles Bukowski wrote in a letter to Steven Richmond, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ It is easy to forget that the city banker has effectively sold his soul for his success, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy his money. If anything, he is to be pitied rather than envied. To avoid envy, one constantly has to reframe, and reframing requires perspective, which is just the thing that the envious lack.

In the Hindu tradition, ‘lucky’ people are merely enjoying the fruits of their past karmic actions, including the past karmic actions of their parents, who educated and helped them, and, by extension, the past karmic actions of all of their ancestors. Of course, in some cases, luck really is undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of true luck is that it tends to even out in the long term, and so there really is no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. Nature compensates: if we don’t have one thing, we have another, even if it is not one of those things advertised on a billboard. While we envy, we focus on what we lack, while forgetting all that we do have. That is why dispositions such as piety, humility, and gratitude can to a large extent protect us against envy.

Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Emulation almost shares a definition with envy, but without the pain and bitterness part. This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why are some people able to feel emulous, while others are only capable of envy? In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honorable or aristocratic disposition. In other words, while envy is the reaction of those with low self-esteem, emulation is the reaction of those with high self-esteem.

So look out for a future post on self-esteem.