Self-mortification: Why I just can’t stop embarrassing myself

February, 2024
Gene Case, Blog Correspondent
Gene Case (they/them) is a second year student at Trinity College, majoring in English and Literature & Critical Theory, with a minor in Linguistics. Their writing has appeared in The Trinity Review, Jelly Bucket Magazine, and Blank Spaces Magazine.

Whenever I get too sentimental about the innocence of childhood, I remind myself that for years, I maintained a mental catalogue of all my most embarrassing memories, with the express purpose of repressing them. 

Mortification is the defining emotion of my childhood. I don’t mean to say I was unhappy, but I think it’s true that the psychological impact of mortification (by which I mean a kind of lingering, self-inflicted embarrassment) is uniquely acute. It’s an incredibly potent experience. Just think of one of our society’s most prominent manifestations of pathos: cringe culture. Media that seeks to induce an emotional reaction in us by invoking mortification often produces a more intense response than those which draw on grief, fury, or ennui, though the reaction may range from empathetic to contemptuous.

I distinguish mortification from its supercategory, embarrassment, and its two sibling emotions, shame and humiliation. Shame is a moral phenomenon, an internal reaction against our own deliberate (perceived) wrongdoing. Humiliation is imposed by other people—sometimes as an act of outright cruelty, but frequently offhandedly, a simple reminder: other people don’t see us the same way we see ourselves. Mortification is active, self-imposed, and completely elective. Having an affair is shameful; being outed is humiliating; expressing unrequited feelings is mortifying. 

I experience mortification as a form of failure—something I’ve done wrong, regardless of the actual extent of my control over the situation. A couple weeks ago I had to give my ID to a student librarian, an event which felt profoundly violating (not least because the librarian in question has been the basis for a year-long hallway crush of mine). 

My photo is bad, atrociously so. What I find mortifying about it is not just my appearance, however, but the failure it communicates: they didn’t take my photo at the T-card office; I sent it in. At each point between posing, taking the picture, and uploading it, I failed to recognize just how unflattering it is. Anyone who sees it must think I think it’s a good photo, that my self-conception is totally delusional.

The failure at the heart of mortification is a gap, a great chasm between competing realities which we accidentally reveal and then fail to bridge. The gap may be perceptional (my ID photo), emotional (earnestness in place of irony, enthusiasm in place of indifference), aptitudinal (realizing you’re going the wrong direction on a crowded sidewalk and having to turn around), or inappropriate in any other way to a given social context. It is to display, suddenly and irrevocably, that our reality is somehow at odds with everyone else’s. 

Though my list of embarrassing memories has become less systematized than it was when I was a kid—largely because it’s become too long to file sequentially—I still have a loose collection of mortifications grouped together in my brain, moments that hurt so badly to think of that I have to pinch myself to turn my attention away from them. It wouldn’t surprise me if everyone does.

When I’m feeling bad about myself, every interaction becomes mortifying. But sometimes I feel good about myself (or better yet, indifferent), and yet, when I leave the party or say goodbye to my friends, having made people laugh, and without having said anything especially stupid or created any awkward moments, I feel a profound, lingering mortification, unattached to any one memory.

(I can’t help but wonder if the famous Kierkegaard quote,

“I have just now come from a party where I was its life and soul; witticisms streamed from my lips, everyone laughed and admired me, but I went away — yes, the dash should be as long as the radius of the earth’s orbit ——————————— and wanted to shoot myself”

describes an experience of mortification as much as existential angst.)

I wonder why this is. Am I embarrassed by having a good time? I don’t think so, but it certainly feels that way. That sense of a gap lingers, more nebulous than before. Did I enjoy myself too much—more than everyone else, maybe? Is this a premonition of future mortification—will I look back and feel anguish? So often, mortification is retrospective; how can I be sure I won’t realize I did something stupid last night, this morning, three minutes ago? At any moment, the other shoe could drop, and my reality could collapse inward, perception shattered.

This sense of ambiguous mortification is so persistent that it starts to feel inevitable. Is it? Maybe emotional intimacy requires something to counterbalance it, a kind of stinger, like erotic bittersweetness. 

I find desire and embarrassment closely linked in my emotional landscape, although their relationship seems antithetical. Mortification is difficult to romanticize (though damned if I’m not going to try!). If romance is a heightened sense of beauty, magic, and possibility, infusing the ordinary with the extraordinary, mortification is its polar opposite: a heightened sense of ugliness, banality, and impending doom, infusing the ordinary with the abnormal, the freakish. Beautiful things become ugly when we’re mortified, as anyone who has ever attended an event grotesquely overdressed can confirm. Perhaps that discomfort, in small quantities, allows us to truly appreciate pleasure—a dab of blue to make the oranges all the more vivid.  

But something else, beginning in the last few years, corroborates the necessity of mortification: I’ve started to crave it.

I think it must have started during Covid—an absolute certainty of the need to embarrass myself. I imagine mortification as medicine, or more devoutly, as a sacrament. Originally, it was a trade-off I would have made eagerly for social interaction, but I’ve come to see it as a prerequisite: not I’d put up with the resulting mortification for the chance at human connection, but mortification is the inciting incident for human connection.

After high school, I went through a period of complete creative block. I couldn’t write. It only got better when I started keeping a loose, infrequent diary, the contents of which were so intimate I took a perverse pleasure in recording them. To this day, I only really finish pieces if there’s something deeply embarrassing about them: the intrigue (and probably vanity) of confession is enough to keep me entertained through the whole creative process.

Is this impulse exhibitionist or self-destructive? I wonder if it’s either; clearly a large part of the appeal is self-expression, irrespective of the mortifying implications. Maybe the desire to embarrass myself is just a desire to express myself, to an obscenely intimate degree. In which case, we should ask: to what extent can self-expression and mortification be disentangled?

Anyone familiar with a Romance language will recognize the root of the word “mortification” as relating to death. When it was first introduced to English in the late fourteenth century, the verb “mortify” meant, predictably, to kill or to destroy, but later came to be associated with bodily sensation in two senses. The first is the death of a body part, as when flesh becomes necrotic with disease (a sense which is still around today, albeit rarely); the second is the suppression of bodily desires, especially in an ascetic context. The association with embarrassment is first attested in the seventeenth century.

I confess I’m fascinated by this leap in meaning. Embarrassment is often expressed in terms of death—I want to die, et cetera—but the link between physical decay and psychological devastation strikes me as distant. Maybe the current sense evolved from the similarly figurative religious one; but it’s hard to see mortification in its present usage as a suppression of anything.

Whatever the truth is, I can only see the etymology as deeply ironic. Maybe mortification has some commonalities with death—ego death, certainly—but I cannot conceptualize it as a deathlike experience. When I’m mortified, I inhabit my body in a way I never do otherwise. 

The summer before ninth grade, my mom signed me up for a musical theatre day camp (people are often surprised to learn I’m a recovered theatre kid, but maybe my penchant for publicly embarrassing myself helps that make sense). I was cast as Edna Turnblad, the mother from Hairspray—already a fairly mortifying role for an androgynous, wide-hipped fourteen-year-old. 

The camp had been pretty heavily dance-focused—certainly the biggest obstacle to my ever becoming a triple threat—but I liked to sing, and I’d played comic roles before, so learning the music was actually a welcome respite.

Our first lesson, the musical director had us rehearse “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” I had been practicing my chest voice on my own, trying to stretch out the bottom of my range. I sang my solo as low as my voice could go, thinking that if I was cast in a drag role, I would at least get the chance to sound like a boy. 

“So, that’s actually the wrong key,” said the musical director.

I can’t remember her face or name, but I can picture the top left corner of my music duotang with perfect clarity—the place I looked when I was trying not to look anyone in the eyes. I had the same thought I have every time I’m mortified, that acute sense of failure: Why did I just do that? I’m not tone-deaf; I could have just sung in my natural register. 

My perception contracted inward. Blood rushed in my ears; my heart beat against my sternum; heat rose in my face—I’ve always blushed easily, a bright, panicky red, and the hot August day, combined with the intensity of my mortification, was enough to make my glasses fog up.

Truthfully, I’m not sure if I’m describing the sensations I experienced in the moment, or what I feel when I remember it. Even now, the mortification has a profoundly invigorating effect on me: I feel crammed into my body, claustrophobically aware of my reddening skin, my racing pulse. I am forcibly reminded that I am human, and at any moment capable of inventing the new stupidest thing anyone’s ever done (If mortification isn’t proof of free will, I don’t know what is). It is not a kind of death. It is a brutal reaffirmation of life. 

Perhaps the most iconic observation about embarrassment—both for its poignancy and sheer quotability—belongs to the closing line of the essay “I Know What You Think of Me” by Tim Kreider, published on The New York Times opinion blog in 2013.

“If we want the rewards of being loved we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known,” Kreider writes.

The statement (especially the delightful phrase “the mortifying ordeal of being known”) has taken on a cult resonance online, especially on Tumblr. But it’s not only meaningful for awkward, obsessive young queer people: it taps into a universal truth, which is that there is something fundamentally embarrassing about being a person.

Mortification revives us, socially and physically. I said earlier that mortification and self-expression may be closely related, but self-expression implies an exercise in undiluted ego, indifferent to its audience. What takes place when we’re mortified is a social phenomenon: we become known, in ways that are accidental and against our will. To self-mortify, then, is to trade mortification for the chance to be known—and, we hope, to be loved.

Recently a friend showed me a video she’d taken while I was inebriated. I was in my pajamas in my bedroom, belting out—as I never would sober—the lyrics to Chappell Roan’s “Red Wine Supernova.”

It was excruciating to watch, and I only got about ten seconds in before I asked her to stop. But afterward I thought, what a miracle, for someone to have seen me in that state—to see me, and speak to me anyway.

Join our mailing list to receive the latest posts and updates from our Acta.

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This