Humiliation and Dignity in Ukraine and Life


It is important to consider the lessons from history and psychology as the war in the Ukraine continues.

Humiliation and the war in Ukraine

Meysam Azarneshin/Adobestock


Today is United Nations’ World Refugee Day. Yesterday was Fathers’ Day in the United States. With that in mind, it is hard not to think about the refugee crisis and the separation of fathers from their families in Ukraine as precipitated by the Russian invasion. Worse yet is the plight of the refugee children of the fathers who have been killed in the fighting.

More than 2 weeks ago, there was a New York Times article that ran on June 4, 2022, titled “As Battles Rage, Ukraine Rejects Macron’s Pleas Not to Humiliate.” The plea from the French President Emmanuel Macron came after about 100 days of the war on Ukraine instigated by Russia. Macron was concerned that if Russia was humiliated, the chances of reaching a diplomatic solution would lessen.

Ukraine’s foreign minister angrily responded that peace could best be obtained by Russia being “put in its place.” Who is right?

Many historians talk about how Germany’s humiliation as a result of the World War I peace terms produced a desire for underlying revenge, contributing eventually to the rise of Hitler and World War II. The Marshall Plan after World War II took a different path of economically building the defeated countries, and Germany has since become a successful NATO partner.

In psychiatry, humiliation is a focus of the self-psychology developed by Heinz Kohut, MD. Narcissistic injuries could be caused by humiliation, with a possible outcome of narcissistic rage toward the humiliator. That can even happen inadvertently in psychotherapy with someone who has a narcissistic personality disorder.

Humiliation is generally defined as a feeling of being publicly ”put down” by another individual with more power. It can occur both in individuals and in groups, perhaps even for countries.

What are some of the antidotes to humiliation?

  • Enhancing public respect and dignity;
  • Seeking moderate and peaceful resolutions to conflicts;
  • Forgiving the humiliators; and
  • Breaking destructive cycles.

From this analysis of humiliation, it would psychologically appear that President Macron is right and Ukraine’s foreign minister is wrong. If victories in the war lead to Ukraine humiliating Russia more than is part and parcel of any war, it is likely to evoke a desire for revenge sooner or later. Perhaps that is already happening.

Certainly, the desire for revenge is understandable given the invasion and the ensuing refugees,atrocities, and war crimes that have and continue to occur. Hopefully, however, Ukraine’s response was in the heat of the moment and not part of an ongoing strategy.

Besides our clinical expertise in helping refugees in their resettlement, humiliation is another of the areas in which psychiatrists who have expertise in politics can be of help.

The bottom line: Humiliation in life and war should be avoided at all costs. Dignity is priceless.

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. To create a better world, he is an advocate for treating mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.

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