In life, sooner rather than later you will have to deal with despising people. They are true specialists in looking you up and down, generally with a slight gesture of rejection, disgust and superiority drawn on their faces. They are real experts in making you feel bad. Making you believe that you are inferior, that you are not worth enough or that your vocation is failure.
The contemptuous person has a clear intention: to humiliate and lower the other. He seeks to ridicule, belittle and even annul him, many times openly. He detects the perfect opportunity, just when you are most vulnerable, and launches his poisoned comment to open a wound in the mind and fracture self-esteem.
Obviously, this is not a pleasant experience. Ultimately, contempt hurts and demoralizes. In fact, few attitudes are as damaging to psychological integrity as being the object of systematic contempt. For that reason, it’s important to spot those derogatory personalities and know how to act around a person who despises you – preferably without losing your calm.
What is hidden behind that contempt?
Contempt is a universal emotion that appears in all cultures, so it can be as common as sadness or joy. In fact, we have all experienced it at some point. However, there are people who make contempt the leitmotiv of their lives, using it as a filter through which they see the world and interact with the others.
These people adopt a dispositional contempt; In other words, a tendency to belittle, humiliate, treat with coldness and superiority, or even distance anyone who deviates from their norms and values, according to a group of psychologists from the University of California. These researchers also discovered that dismissive people share two basic characteristics that are fairly stable over time:
1. Contempt for the rules of coexistence and respect. Contemptuous people are not usually guided by the usual socially shared standards of behavior that help us to respect the others and live peacefully. On the contrary, they are extremely sarcastic and critical in their interactions. For that reason, they do not hesitate to humiliate and invalidate anyone who gets in the way of their plans or is simply annoying.
2. Feeling of superiority. Contempt is closely linked to an arrogant and superior attitude with which others are judged and treated. For this reason, it is not surprising that contemptuous people harbor a strong feeling of superiority, which is expressed through an arrogant attitude. It tends to be, generally, a moral and intellectual contempt that is born from the idea that they are superior to others.
The contemptuous person, however, carries with him a huge load of negative emotions and feelings. Behind a contemptuous personality there is much more than simple disdain, the desire to offend or the attempt to belittle the achievements of the others. Deep down, these people experience deep feelings of shame and anger. Many times they also live with irritation and insecurity since they believe that in order to stand out they need to belittle the others.
This vision of the world and of relationships often leads them to live in a kind of permanent competition. In reality, dismissive people are always comparing themselves to others because they need to feel superior at all costs. This leads them to a state of constant anxiety and tension that ends up translating into a cutting, cold and contemptuous attitude towards the others, even the closest ones since everyone is considered competitors at some point.
Lowering the worth of the others and minimizing their achievements is the way that contemptuous people find to feel better. For this reason, they will not hesitate to criticize, belittle and highlight the negative above any virtue that the one they wish to humiliate has. Their objective is simply to block the one who annoys or shadows them. And many times they do it without questioning the damage their words can do.
There are a thousand ways to despise a person, but they are all negative
There are many ways to put a person down, from direct humiliation to sarcastic comments and dismissive gestures. The form that contempt takes will depend largely on the ties we have established and the character of the contemptuous persons, or even on their level of resentment and their need to feel better than the others.
When contempt comes from the people we live with on a daily basis, it is usually more subtle, although that does not mean that it is less painful or that it does less damage. On the contrary, the constant invalidation of the people who are supposed to support us becomes a fatal blow to our self-esteem.
Many contemptuous people turn to sarcasm and smiles that hide poison to point out what they consider our mistakes, failures and weaknesses. They use condescension to place themselves on a higher rung and make sharp value judgments, that leave no room for retort to deal a fatal blow to our self-image.
Obviously, systematic contempt leaves deep emotional wounds. A study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania found that it deeply damages self-esteem. All the people who had been victims of humiliation and contempt had developed a more negative image of themselves, feeling weaker and incapable, which is just what the contemptuous person wants.
Is there a healthy contempt?
Contempt, like all emotions, has an objective: it helps us distance ourselves by assuming a more active attitude towards what displeases or bothers us. In fact, we cannot forget that disgust is often found at the base of contempt, a basic emotion of rejection and revulsion.
Sometimes, displays of contempt serve to define what we are not willing to accept, either personally or as a society. Despising violence, mistreatment or lying is usually a natural reaction in many people and its expression is an indicator of the values we defend, as well as a call to attention for those who violate those implicit norms. Therefore, in a way, contempt also contributes to maintaining social cohesion by sending a clear message: we don’t like that behavior.
However, this “healthy” contempt has nothing to do with the daily humiliation of the others. When contempt becomes the norm, it ends up causing deep damage, poisoning the environment and intoxicating relationships.
In that case, it’s important to learn not to take rejection personally. This way we will prevent it from harming us. We can also confront the person with contemptuous attitudes through three questions: Why do you make that disgusting face? Are you trying to be unpleasant? or Do you want to tell me exactly what you didn’t like? This will not only give him a chance to explain himself, but by embarrassing him, he’ll likely retract or apologize, as well as show him that you’re not willing to submit to his crude attempt of humiliation and manipulation.
Schriber, R. A. et. Al. (2017) Dispositional contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. J Pers Soc Psychol; 113(2):280-309.
Zhou, T. (2011) Contempt and Self-Esteem: The Effect of the Contempt Expression on Self-Enhancing Behaviors. Wharton Research Scholars; 84.