Anti-Contempt: Compassion, Kindness
Contempt is indifference or disdain for the hurt of others, due to a perception of lower moral standing, character defects, mental instability, inferiority, or general unworthiness.
The experience of contempt is powered by adrenaline, which makes us feel temporarily more confident and self-righteous but at the same time, less humane.
To the extent that it violates deeper values, contempt makes us vulnerable to unconscious guilt, shame, and anxiety. It’s impossible to like yourself as much as you deserve while you feel contempt. Although aimed at others, it’s filled with hidden self-anger, if not self-contempt.
The adrenaline of contempt often masks depression by temporarily increasing energy. The trouble is, you have to stay contemptuous most of the time to stave off the inevitable crash into depressed mood. Contempt almost always alternates with bouts of anxiety, worry, or depression.
In addition to psychological harm, contempt lowers immune system efficiency and often causes:
- Minor physical ailments, coughs, colds, aches, pains
- Severe physical symptoms
- Chronic exhaustion.
Contempt in Intimate Relationships. Contempt is the most potent predictor of divorce, because it makes an enemy of the beloved. Negotiations are not about behavior so much as the character or personality of the partner.
These are ways that researchers and clinicians measure the degree of contempt in a relationship:
- Refusal to consider any mitigating circumstances about the partner’s behavior
- Refusal to see the partner’s perspective
- Negative labeling (lazy, scatterbrained, a nag, a jerk)
- Attributing malevolent intent – he or she is out to get me
- Diagnosing the partner (with personality or emotional disorder)
- Inability to tolerate disagreement
- Non-verbal indicators such as tone of voice, facial grimace, gritting of teeth, rolling eyes, sighing when the other speaks, dismissive tone, mocking the other’s speech, gestures, or body posture
- Calculate the ratio of positive to negative expressions.
Failure of Compassion and Kindness Breeds Contempt
You cannot be happy in love without being compassionate and kind.
When we fail at compassion and kindness in love relationships, we automatically experience guilt, shame, and anxiety, usually masked by resentment or anger. The purpose of the guilt, shame, and anxiety is not to punish but to motivate behavior consistent with deeper values, which include protection of and care for loved ones. Relationships cannot survive without compassion, and they cannot flourish without kindness.
Compassion is sympathy for the hurt or distress of another. At heart it’s simple appreciation of the basic human frailty we all share. That’s why, when you feel compassion, you also feel more humane and less isolated.
Kindness is concern for the well-being and happiness of partners, with motivation to help them be well and happy.
What Compassion, Kindness, and Contempt Have In Common
They’re extremely contagious. If you’re around a compassionate and kind person, you’re likely to become more compassionate and kinder. If you’re around a contemptuous person, you’re likely to become more contemptuous.
Compassion, kindness, and contempt are highly influenced by projection. If you project onto people that they’re compassionate and kind, they’re likely to become more thoughtful of others. If you project contemptuous characterizations, such as, “loser, abuser, selfish, lazy, narcissistic, irrational, devious, etc.,” they’re likely to conform to the projection. (The general rule for social interaction is: Project qualities that you want more of, rather than those you don’t want at all. You’re likely to see an increase in whatever you project.)
Once contempt has become part of a defense system, change in the partner’s behavior will not alter it. Even if your partner does everything you want, you’re likely to resent that it didn’t happen sooner:
“All those years I wasted with you being a selfish jerk and now you decide to be nice!”
As long as contempt serves as a coping mechanism, any positive behavior change by one partner will seem like too little, too late.
It’s impossible to “let go” of contempt, once it’s burrowed into a defense system. Instead, it must be crowded out with compassion and kindness. We must outgrow it.
The Great Detoxifier of Contempt: Loving Kindness
Loving Kindness is an ancient form of meditation. If you have trouble meditating, as I do, you can achieve similar detoxifying effects. Simply take a minute or so, several times throughout the day, to wish happiness, health, well-being, harmony, love, appreciation, safety, and protection to others in general and to the object of contempt in particular.
Use the two scales below as a pre-test to gauge contempt in your relationship.
Write “yes” next to the things that you and your partner tend to do when you disagree or complain about each other’s behavior.
|Your Partner||You||What your partner would say about you|
|Make a sincere effort to understand and sympathize|
|Maintain an attitude or respect|
|Try to find some truth to what the other said|
|Moralize, preach, or lecture|
|Order, direct, demand|
|Give unsolicited advice, solutions, interpretation, analysis|
|Harsh, patronizing, demeaning, sarcastic, or dismissive tone|
|Grimace, grit teeth, roll eyes, sigh, seek distraction|
Circle the positive-to-negative ratio of your interactions with your partner on a typical day. Specifically, how many positive interactions are there for each one that is negative?
9:1 (positives for each negative)
1:x (more negatives than positives)
(Note: The threshold for a happy relationships is above 5.1 – five positives for each negative interaction, provided that the negative interactions are not abusive.)
After you practice Loving Kindness thoughts/meditation about six times per day for six weeks, fill out the same scales as a post-test to gauge improvement.