Being told you’re wrong when you’re wrong may make you a more knowledgeable person, but not necessarily a happier one. Even if you’re not the kind of person who needs to have the last word in a debate, you may still feel a little hurt when someone else points out your errors. The pain can be particularly sharp if you’ve got an audience, reminding you perhaps of school days, stumbling over a new word while reading aloud to your fellow third graders and being shown to be incorrect. Those in earshot can make you feel embarrassed and humiliated.
Even some of our closest friends or loved ones can be brutal and insensitive when faced with our errors. They gleefully point out your mistake in pronouncing a difficult word (bringing back those childhood memories or shout, “I told you so!” to anyone within earshot). Depending on the thickness of your skin, you may dismiss the entire episode, but it’s more likely you’ll retreat sulking into the corner, wishing you could just disappear altogether. Culture also plays a role in determining people’s responses to humiliation: In some societies, saving face is valued above all else, and to be proven wrong constitutes a significant violation.
Being told you’re wrong doesn’t have to involve humiliation. Your kinder and gentler friends and family will point out a mistake tactfully, perhaps in a private moment when no one else is nearby. If you’ve put the forks on the right instead of the left of the plate while setting the table, a genteel older relative may take you aside and correct you quietly or may just make the swap for you when you’re out of the room. If the mistake is one that could create problems for you down the road, this person might instruct you on the right way to handle the situation to prevent you from subsequent embarrassment.
Being corrected doesn’t always have to mean you’ve been humiliated. However, if you’re being corrected in a way that causes you to feel shame, it’s unlikely that you’ll feel that good about yourself, regardless of your cultural background. Taken to the extreme, instilling humiliation in a victim is a basic tactic of torturers, prison guards, and certain kinds of domestic abusers.
Humiliation is defined as the emotion you feel when your status is lowered in front of others. You may feel annoyed with yourself when you make a mistake or fail to know an answer, but unless others are around to witness it, that’s all you’ll feel. You generally need someone else on hand in order to feel humiliated by mistakes.
As you may recognize from your own experience then, humiliation is a highly negative emotional state. Surprisingly, it’s one that is studied relatively infrequently in the field of psychology. Other negative emotions; anger, anxiety, jealousy, and fear are more likely to be the subject of lab investigations, perhaps because addressing them has such obvious practical implications: Anger is bad for your health; anxiety can impair your performance; jealousy can lead to relationship conflict; fear can set the stage for developing a phobia. Humiliation is unpleasant, but at least on the surface, may not seem to have as many consequences
In either case, if you feel justifiably aggrieved, there are ways you can seek recourse: If it’s an innocent misunderstanding between friends, take a page from the kinder-and-gentler playbook and speak to the person privately, with just the two of you present. If your rights are truly being violated, though, you may need to take the problem to others who can help rectify the situation.
Humiliation comes in a variety of forms, from being rejected to being publicly shamed for a mistake you made. By understanding its connection to your brain’s reactions, you can better cope with, and perhaps avoid, this negative emotion’s intense pain.