Contempt can be considered one of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the source of many problems in interpersonal relationships and the cause of breakdowns and disappointments. Its long tentacles can cause a lot of damage, as Voltaire said: "everything is bearable, except contempt".
In fact, we should not forget that although contempt is directed towards others, it is also reflected inwards, like all negative emotions, so it ends up harming those who feel it.
What does it mean to despise?
Contempt is the opposite of empathy. Being empathetic means being able to put yourself in the place of others, feel their own emotions and understand their ideas, while despising them implies an attitude of arrogance and superiority that leads to judging them. Empathy fuels the bonds of the relationship while contempt breaks them.
Contempt is a negative feeling produced by the belief that someone is inferior to us. This means that it is not a simple emotion, but also implies an evaluation that in many cases can border on disrespect.
Often - but not always - contempt appears alongside other emotions, such as anger and disgust. In fact, it is considered part of the "triad of hostilities" - which is made up of contempt, anger and disgust.
In fact, researchers at the California Institute of Technology have confirmed that in some social situations, anger goes hand in hand with disgust and contempt, causing all of those emotions to be involved in the same social evaluation.
Therefore, contempt would be a complex emotion that is based on a negative evaluation of a person's worth, but which also arouses feelings of hostility. This was confirmed by a study conducted at the University of Bari, in which it was learned that contempt not only "thinks", but also causes a great activation of the amygdala, the brain structure par excellence in which the emotions.
How does anger turn into contempt?
Often, contempt and anger go hand in hand, so it's hard to determine where one ends and the other begins. Indeed, both emotions have a common origin: guilt.
We despise or get angry with a person because we blame them for what they have done. In the case of anger, we blame the other for intentionally doing something we consider wrong. In the case of contempt, we blame the person, but in terms of stupidity, incompetence or immorality. With anger there is an attribution of situational guilt, in contempt it is dispositional.
This is why, when we feel contempt, we may think that that person doesn't even deserve our attention. It is a different rating scheme because it implies that we have given up, we think that that person is not good enough, cannot change, and does not deserve our time and energy for them.
This judgment of inferiority linked to the absence of control also has several short and long term repercussions. Contempt is an emotion that gives way to indifference and leads to the exclusion of the person from one's social group or, in the worst case, to annihilate him directly, in a literal or metaphorical sense.
In fact, emotions have a social function because they generally promote bonds. Anger, for example, involves approaching the person to "attack" them. It is a kind of negative feedback with which we expect that person to change their behavior.
Contempt, on the other hand, is an exception because its function is not to create a bond, but to preserve or if possible increase the distance between people and prevent any possible intimacy.
It is worth clarifying that, in some cases, prolonged anger does not help change the person, but aggravates their behavior. So anger generates a sense of helplessness that gives way to contempt. It is usually a mechanism that works below the threshold of our consciousness.
In other cases we can choose contempt more or less consciously, because we know that anger is a disliked and often punished social response. In practice, the negative social implications related to anger can lead us to choose contempt and indifference, which are more socially accepted since their expression is more veiled, even if this does not mean that they cause less damage on a psychological level.
The causes of contempt
Contempt is usually a reaction to a specific situation, usually to the behavior of a person or group. We may feel contempt because they have hurt, insulted, or deeply humiliated us. We can also feel contempt for someone who has transgressed a moral code of conduct, such as in the case of mistreatment, betrayal, deceit or disrespect.
Indeed, contempt is a "moral emotion". In contrast to other emotions, contempt is usually a response to what we consider a violation of boundaries and norms, both social and personal.
In other cases, contempt does not arise automatically, but is the result of a series of recurring conflicts that have not been satisfactorily resolved and slowly degenerate into a negative attitude towards the other.
But contempt does not only depend on what happens to us, it is not a reactive emotion, but also on how we process the situation. It has been shown that empathic people tend to feel less contempt as they try to understand others instead of judging them. Conversely, more self-centered and narcissistic people tend to feel more contempt. In fact, the more the person considers himself superior, the more he will perceive others as inferior and will likely despise them.
Dispositional Contempt: Tell me how much you despise and I'll tell you how you are
Although contempt is a very powerful emotion, with enormous potential to affect our behavior, it has been little studied. Psychologists at the University of California analyzed more than 1.300 people and discovered what they called "dispositional contempt."
Dispositional contempt is the tendency of some people to despise, alienate, and avoid those who violate their standards, so it could be considered a personality trait. They are "professional scorners", experts in looking at others from top to bottom with a gesture of rejection and disgust, and then walk away with an air of superiority, without saying anything or uttering a vitriolic sentence that will put an end to the self-esteem of the 'other.
Interestingly, people who displayed dispositional contempt in their relationships were also more likely to be envious of others, react with anger, and show arrogant or exaggerated pride. Furthermore, they were colder in their interpersonal relationships, believed they were above average, and had narcissistic characteristics. They were also extremely perfectionists and in some cases had antisocial traits.
People with dispositional contempt were also emotionally fragile, had developed insecure attachment, and had low self-esteem. In fact, the researchers found that contempt was mainly activated when people were involved in situations where they perceived little power or competence.
This suggests that when contempt becomes a common reaction, it could hide deep insecurity, serving as a defense mechanism to protect a fragile ego.
The damage caused by contempt
Contempt is often present in daily life, varying its intensity. In the workplace, both with colleagues and superiors, it can be on the agenda, although it also manifests itself in relationships with family members and at a social level it expresses itself towards certain groups that we consider foreign and inferior to ours.
In fact, despising goes far beyond an offensive phrase. Contempt is also shown through small signals such as the negative and sarcastic tone of the voice, a slight movement of the eyes, slightly lifting the upper lip or relating in the deepest indifference, behaving as if the person does not exist.
Having contempt is not good for anyone, neither for those who are despised nor for those who despise. Honoré de Balzac said: “incurable wounds are those inflicted by the tongue, the eyes, derision and contempt”.
Contempt can cause profound damage to self-esteem. The despised person understands that nothing is expected of him. The glances or scornful comments aimed at showing that for us he is nobody, generate a decrease in self-confidence and a feeling of incompetence. If treated like someone of a lower level, you can start to feel lower and behave like one. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This pattern replicates on a social level, as demonstrated by research conducted at Florida State University. Psychologists saw that when a group of people were exposed to contempt and exclusion, its members experienced a decrease in self-esteem and a deterioration in the ability to control themselves. This means that people not only lose self-confidence, but they also lose the ability to control their emotions and behaviors, and this will generate new conflicts because they are more likely to break the rules. “In any case, if others don't care about me, they won't even care what I do,” is the thought that arises in their mind.
Contempt is a double-edged sword that ends up affecting anyone who tries it. This feeling feeds on negative thoughts about another person or group that burn slowly, and this not only produces dangerous and destructive conflicts but also prevents you from finding inner peace.
Although contempt is expressed coldly, inside it is a boiling feeling, so it is not strange that they have discovered that when one of the members of the couple despises the other and maintains derogatory attitudes, they are more prone to infectious diseases. Contempt is a poison that also destroys the emotional and physical health of those who feel it.
How to get rid of contempt?
- Examine your thoughts. The root of contempt is often found in our stereotypes and prejudices, which feed hostility and the belief that those who are not equal to us are inferior. Therefore, it is essential to examine our thoughts for the seeds of contempt towards certain groups or people. Being aware of these derogatory beliefs will limit their power over our behavior.
- Practice empathy. It is difficult to feel contempt when we are able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. If we try to "walk in his shoes" we will be able to better understand his attitudes and behaviors instead of harboring hostile feelings, because this usually arises from misunderstanding and fear of the different.
- Don't seek perfection. Perfection does not exist, but if we look for it in others and do not find it, we run the risk of considering them inferior and we begin to despise them. Therefore, to free ourselves from this feeling we must also free ourselves from the pursuit of perfection. We must assume that we all have virtues and defects and everyone has their own way of doing things and thinking, which is not always better or worse, but just different.
- Stop judging. When we stop judging we find inner peace. When we stop evaluating others according to our own yardstick, we take oxygen away from contempt, we prevent them from surviving. We must accept once and for all that others do not have to behave according to our expectations and norms and we have no right to judge and criticize them.
- Forgive more. Contempt usually simmers slowly, fueled by the flames of resentment. But if we forgive the person and give him a second or third chance, we will also get rid of the negative emotions that slowly consume us. We must remember that forgiving is, above all, liberating.