black and white photo of street toilet

Two humiliating lessons

When I was in high school, my brother’s irresistibly charming girlfriend was in charge of drumming up support for the blood drive, one element of which was convincing me to wear a costume that was supposed to make me look like a blood drop.

It is difficult to properly describe the blood drop costume.  Think of it like a nylon tent with a hoop at the bottom to make the fat bit, tapering up to your neck, then a little red nylon cap.  If you were lucky, the bottom of the drop was long enough to cover your boxers, but even then, you’re still showing rather a lot of scrawny leg.  This is the closest approximation I can find online and it was bad enough to spawn a meme.  And I didn’t have the fancy shirt or socks either.

blooddrop

But of course I did it; how can you say no to a good cause (and your brother’s attractive girlfriend)?  And as I left every shred of my dignity somewhere in that blood drop, I learned something important: there is power in a certain kind of shamelessness.  Plenty of kids laughed at me and it absolutely felt bad while I was doing it, but nobody remembered a day later and it didn’t really matter in even the short run – my embarrassment faded more quickly than I could have possibly estimated.

There are, I think, two lessons in there.  The first is that in most cases, humiliation fades.  Unless it is repeated, prolonged, or from someone who has a lasting importance in your life, embarrassment fades much more quickly than we would ever estimate ahead of time (for some social psych on this, read about the spotlight effect).

The second, and more important, is that even as bad as something feels in the moment, sometimes it is worth it.  Leaving aside the tolerance we build up, the problem with shame and embarrassment is that we mostly let them rule us automatically.  Rather than think about what we stand to gain, we become hyper-focused on the loss.  And that prevents us from engaging in some activities where the juice is actually worth the squeeze.

That last bit is key.  In the movie As Good As It Gets, Greg Kinnear’s character (in a moment of trying to inspire Jack Nicholson’s misanthropic recluse to pursue love) says of impressing the lovely Helen Hunt, “the best thing you have going for you is your willingness to humiliate yourself.”  He’s not suggesting that Jack Nicholson streak at a football game; he’s saying that if he really loves this woman, the most important thing he can risk is himself.

I used to stand in the Philly train station for ten hours a day, trying to get people to fill out a psych survey for an experiment I was running.  And it was desperately humiliating to hear “no” so often, to have so many people who couldn’t even take a second to say “no”.  But I cared about the science and about the results.  And so even as bad as it felt at the time, the outcome was worth it.

These days, it takes a lot to embarrass me: I’ve had enough practice to not feel humiliated about many things that bother others.  I am the ultimate wingman, because I will talk to any girl, in any bar, any time you want and I will give a cold speech to a crowd of my peers without too many butterflies.

But even when I do feel embarrassed, when I go on national and recognize just how bald I actually am (or badly I misjudged the beard-to-bald ratio), I can honestly say it was worth it.  And those are the gifts that we can give to other people, particularly young people: the lessons that embarrassment fades with practice and that the things we are willing to humiliate ourselves for last on.

    an N of 1: in statistics, a sample size of 1 has almost no validity. in life, this is less true.