Concepts Relating to Emotional Abuse in Narrative Power Dynamics

I recently read a very interesting (and sadly unlinkable) writing about Humiliation vs Shame vs Embarrassment vs Objectification vs Degradation in BDSM scening. This made me think about doing a similar study and organization of concepts as they apply to narrative power dynamics. Because certainly a lot of what principals can do to their constricts in not physical, and equally certainly, this non-physical element contains a great deal of variety. So, this is what I have.

Note: Each of these categories can come from either or both the principle’s side, or the constrict’s. On the principle’s side, each category is about idea and/or intent- what the principal thinks of the constrict, and/or what effect the principal want the constrict to experience, regardless of whether or not the constrict in fact experiences it. On the constrict’s side, it is about what the constrict does experience, regardless of whether or not this was the principal’s intent.
Thereby also, these categories are about intent and emotion, not action. The same actions- say, demanding that a constrict kneel, or addressing them with something other than their name, etc- can fit into any of the categories, depending on their emotion and/or intent.

  1. Reinforcing the power dynamic/situation
    This is exactly what it says- the intent or the effect here is simply to reinforce the dynamics of the situations. Making the constrict feel bad in some way is not part of it. Reinforcing the power dynamic means making the constrict more actively aware of their lesser position- “I’m more important than you, so you have to call me ‘Officer’, while I call you ‘servant’, so you have to stand up when I enter a room”, etc. Reinforcing the situation is about making the constrict aware of their specific position. “You’re about to be punished, so you have to stand over here”.
  2. Shaming
    Shaming means drawing attention to the constrict’s failures, with the intent or the effect being to invoke the feelings caused by them (including shame, hence the name). It is about the constrict’s actions or inactions that the constrict would identify as wrong or bad. The element that makes shaming is the idea of ‘you could have done better, and you didn’t’. “You could have saved them/completed that order/followed that rule if you tried harder, but you didn’t try hard enough”.
  3. Degradation
    Degradation means that the intent or the effect is to make the constrict feel or appear as less. Not of lesser position or importance, not less competent, but literally less in and of themselves, in terms of intrinsic worth or value. “You’re worthless”, “you’re stupid”, “you’re not good for anything”, etc.
    When invoked with respect to specific failures, degradation is, in some ways, an opposite to shaming, since shaming is about ‘you could have done better’, and degradation is about “no, you couldn’t have, because you’re just such a failure”. So saying “I ordered you to deliver that message in 5 minutes, and you took 7. You could have done it right, but you just didn’t run fast enough. Now our order won’t be done on time, and it’s your fault. You’re going to be transferred to the housekeeping division until you can prove you have the dedication for serious work” is shaming. Saying “You completely useless idiot! You were supposed to deliver that message in 5 minutes. But of course, you can never so anything right, so you took 7! Now our order won’t be out on time. Clearly, the only thing you’re good for is scrubbing floors, so go do that, if you can even manage it!” is degradation.
  4. Humiliation
    Humiliation-the-feeling is itself the intent or effect here. As a feeling, humiliation has to do with the situation as viewed from outside- so, either the constrict is thinking of people actually watching, or they’re thinking of their situation from an outside perspective- “I look ridiculous”, “Everyone would laugh at me and mock me”, etc. Humiliation can be involved in any of the previous three, but doesn’t have to be.
    (Note: I am not putting embarrassment on this list. This is because to me it is a much milder word/feeling that has its place in relatively light day-to-day situations. When it is more serious, it is humiliation, and a narrative power dynamic means that there is this level of seriousness).


A case study:

-Say the principal has made the constrict eat food off the floor. (Note: The first three are written from the principal’s perspective. Switching the first and second person pronouns gives the contrict’s. The third is from the contrict’s perspective already).

  • This could be reinforcing the power dynamic: “You’re lesser in status, so this is what you have to do”. “I have power over you, so I can make you do this.”
  • This could be shaming: “You’re acting cowardly. If you were braver, you’d refuse to do this. But look, here you are!”.
  • This could be degradation: “Look at you, you’re like an animal! This is how animals eat, and you’re no better, so of course this is how you ought to eat.”
  • This could be humiliation: “If someone saw me like this/knew I was doing this…”.

Note that in fact, any or all of these could be the case, as could none of them- perhaps the principal just likes seeing the constrict doing this, or needs them to do it for some ulterior reason, etc.