“Everything is bearable except contempt,” wrote Voltaire. And he was not wrong since it is one of the most difficult emotions to manage, especially when we become its target. Feeling contempt in your own flesh can be particularly painful, so it is not surprising that sometimes it generates a very intense emotional reaction.
We feel so hurt because contempt is a hostile emotion that combines disgust with disrespect. Contempt is usually perceived as a direct attack on our essence. However, losing your cool and getting carried away by those emotions is not the best path. Instead, it’s better to learn how to act around a person who despises you.
How to act with a person who despises you while staying calm
Contemptuous people roll their eyes when they don’t like something, use sarcasm as a weapon and are on the hunt for the slightest fault to point it out, adopting an air of superiority with which they intend to crush the self-esteem of the other.
However, the truth is that contempt occurs when a person is not able to express their needs and desires directly with words. Contempt is a passive-aggressive strategy to get what he wants. Instead of directly saying what bothers him, he opts for a dismissive attitude towards others.
In fact, a study carried out at the University of California revealed that these types of people tend to have a dispositional contempt linked to envy, anger and arrogance. That means that deep down, the person who continually puts others down may actually be more sensitive to social value and status. Therefore, contempt is a form of covert protection of a fragile ego.
Understanding the Psychology of that person will help us better deal with their contempt, since it will be less offensive to us and, therefore, we will be able to maintain control of the situation and decide how to respond.
1. Keep calm
Contempt makes us feel insecure, so it is understandable that we react by becoming defensive. However, if we respond aggressively we will end up receiving more of the same: feeding the hostility that is at the base of contempt.
That’s why, even if it’s extremely difficult, it’s important to try to stay calm and respond as kindly as possible. Only in this way can we break the cycle of contempt and aggressiveness. Ultimately, the best antidote to contempt is to foster a culture of appreciation and recognition.
2. Find out what causes contempt
Feelings and emotions do not usually come out of nowhere, so if we really care about that person, we should try to discover what is at the base of their contempt. In general, when someone despises another person, it is because they believe that they lack certain qualities that they value highly.
If a person sees himself as resilient and strong, he might look down on someone he perceives as “weak of character,” for example. In that case, it is possible that we are being excessively nice and giving in too much to the needs of others, which can be perceived as a sign of “weakness”.
That doesn’t mean we have to change to please others, but in some cases it might be worth doing some honest introspection to see if we really need to improve our social skills. We may discover that we must learn to defend our assertive rights and project a more confident image. We must remember that any emotion, no matter how negative it may seem to us, always carries a message that can be more or less useful.
3. Set limits firmly
Contempt can be very toxic, especially in close relationships. When someone treats us with disdain and ridicule, disrespecting or belittling us, they poison us and generate suffering. Therefore, although it is necessary to act with serenity, that does not mean giving carte blanche to contempt.
Keeping calm does not mean allowing contempt to run rampant. In fact, contempt is not usually an isolated act, but over time it can become entrenched, becoming a communicative pattern in the relationship, accompanied by disapproval and sarcasm. For that reason, it’s important to set clear and firm boundaries.
The first step is to let that person know how he makes us feel with his attitude or words. We must avoid recriminations, the accusatory tone or assume the role of victim, it is enough to say that we consider that their contempt is rude or aggressive and makes us feel bad.
The second step is to explain to him that we do not deserve or want to be treated in this way and that we are not willing to tolerate it. We can add that if there is something that bothers him, he can say it directly, but that we will not accept any more hints loaded with anger and belittling.
Finally, it is important to delimite the consequences, so that it is clear to that person how far we are willing to go. There are several options, from avoiding sensitive topics that trigger a sneering reaction to limiting encounters with that person or even cutting off the relationship altogether.
Zero tolerance policy with contempt
Knowing how to act with a person who despises us is essential to avoid establishing a pattern of contempt and hostility. In fact, contempt comes at a high price, so it’s best to nip it in the bud before it takes hold.
Ignoring contempt usually doesn’t make it go away. On the contrary, it often makes it grow. For this reason, it is best to act as soon as we notice the first alarm signal, applying a zero tolerance policy. We can be nice and keep our composure, but that doesn’t mean we’ll accept being looked down on.
Of course, escaping toxic relational patterns can be particularly difficult when we feel slighted or even disrespected, so it’s easier to let the contempt continue to grow as we grow smaller and smaller. However, we must be clear that overcoming the contempt of others is possible. We must not – nor should we – get stuck in that harmful relational pattern. With contempt, zero tolerance.
Schriber, RA. Et. Al. (2017) Dispositional Contempt: A First Look at the Contemptuous Person, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 113(2): 280-309.