When is Contempt a Legitimate Response?

This morning while on the elliptical trainer at the gym, I noticed a program on the monitor above me featuring several young women with long dark hair, driving a Range Rover around parts of Los Angeles that I happened to recognize. On the crawl, I read the name Kardashian, along with many first names that began with the letter ‘K’. I am not so entirely out of touch with popular culture that I haven’t heard of the Kardashian family, but I’d never actually seen one of them on TV. I’m under the impression that Kim Kardashian is famous for no other reason than that she is famous. At first, I removed my glasses and focused more intently on my iPod music; eventually, I put the glasses back on when I thought I saw Bruce Jenner through my blurred vision; I recalled that he’d won a gold medal for something or other a long time ago, during my 20s. I hadn’t seen him in years.

With the aid of my corrective lenses, I saw right away that Mr. Jenner has had way too much plastic surgery. Frankly, I thought he looked bizarre and somehow pathetic. As the episode unfolded, the girls, all moderately attractive without being truly beautiful, spent a lot of time talking on their iPhones, snapping pictures of one another and emailing them, and driving around in their big expensive car. One of these girls, it turns out, has a fear of spiders; walking through the arid Calabasas hills, Mr. Jenner torments her with a spider he has found. Later in their kitchen, he shows her a jarred spider he has captured, then pretends to throw it at her. She appears to be traumatized and runs away.

Another one of the K girls decides that she needs to have a therapy session. Erica, her therapist, actually comes to their home and conducts the session on camera, making such brilliant remarks as, “It’s okay for you to feel that way.” The K2 girl is talking about her mother, who long ago had an affair (presumably while married to the actual father) and K2, now a mother herself, is processing some anger about it after all these years. “I could, like, never do anything to hurt my own children,” she tells Erica, “the way Mom hurt us.” (The K girls all use the work “like” a lot.) She wipes away her tears and Erica says, “That’s a hard one.” They both agree that the mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty and that often, even if you don’t mean it, there can be some, like, competition going on between you and your mom.

All of this fills me with contempt. I am scornful of this vapid type of celebrity — celebrity for its own sake, not because you’re a gifted actor, musician, writer or singer, but simply because you have money and a TV show. I am deeply scornful of a therapist who would utter empty platitudes on national television just to have her 15 minutes of fame. Given that one of my recent posts was about contempt as a defense, I began to wonder if my contempt for the Kardashians and Erica the therapist were also defensive, or whether there might be some things that truly are contemptible. Are there people who deserve contempt for the things they do and the choices they make?

Several weeks ago, I was at a dinner party where one of the other guests found a way to make every single conversation center around herself. This Jessica talked non-stop about (1) her recent Caribbean vacation, during which she seemed to have been drunk most of the time and ate way too much; (2) her scintillating career selling real estate; (3) the size of her enormous house; (4) her son living in Paris who writes music no one has ever heard of; (5) her passion for spending far too much money on ostentious jewelry; and (6) her self-complacent opinions on such wide-ranging subjects as her husband’s wardrobe and how to “stage” your house when putting it up for sale. She monopolized the entire evening and said not one single thing of interest.

Do you find this sort of narcissistic person contemptible? I certainly do. I understand better than most people the insecurity and shame that lie behind such behavior, but that doesn’t make me feel sympathetic toward it at a dinner party. If Jessica had been a client during session, I could have said something about her behavior and tried to help her understand the need constantly to put herself in the limelight. As it was, I could only listen in utter boredom and be as polite as I could, out of respect for my friends who hosted the dinner. But another guest at that party may have permanently alienated the hostess when he told her, in the privacy of her kitchen, that Jessica was the biggest bore he’d ever met.

At the airport yesterday, before our flight home, a woman in the waiting area was talking so loudly on her cell phone, for so long, that we finally had to move seats. Self-absorbed people with no respect for others, who conduct idiotic conversations in a public space, oblivious to everyone around them — such people fill me with contempt. If he or she were my client and wanted help, I wouldn’t feel that way; but I have no respect for the person who always chooses the narcissistic defense and doesn’t look inward or try to grow, who has no real ability to understand or respect the feelings of others.

In the end, I think my contempt actually is a kind of defense: it “pushes” these people away from me, it puts them at a remote distance because I find it such a lonely and painful experience to be in contact with them. Jessica must be an extremely unhappy person, but I don’t really want to feel her pain; she has virtually no interest or ability to understand me as a separate person who is more than just a member of her audience. The Kardashians obviously lead lives of staggering emptiness and are totally adrift in a world where celebrity is the only value, but I don’t care to know anything more about the void at the heart of their lives. I find it alienating that such people hold “important” positions in our culture and that other individuals actually admire and look up to them. It makes me feel so alone.

Which is yet another reason why I’m a therapist.

What makes you feel contemptuous and do you think your reaction is legitimate?

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. For me, when I feel contempt for people like that, I think that’s it’s because, well, it makes me feel better to put myself above them; I’m putting the below me by judging them as less . . . interesting, as having a less . . . productive life (altho being mentally ill, I’m not all that productive, but in my contempt for them I think, at least I have a reason. But they’re people, they have a reason too; it may just not be one that we like, or agree with, or approve of.) As being shallower than I, of being more materialistic than I, etc. In your third paragraph, you are missing “of” within the first couple of words of the paragraph.
    I used to be a secretary/proofreader! Not that I’m perfect, and if I post from the other puter my keyboard’s going.
    Enjoyed the post.

    They don’t need my approval. Of course, they don’t know of my DISapproval, but I feel I’m a more positive (as opposed to not them, but me being disapproving), healthier person or having a healthier perspective (compared to myself when disapproving, not compared to anyone else’s reactions to them) than if I accepted and embraced these feelings of superiority, disapproval, and judgment.

    Not that I’m the spelling or grammar police, but I figure you’d like to know: the word “featuring” in the second line of the post is missing the “f”; also,

    1. Thanks for pointing out the corrections — I hope I’ve fixed them all now. I don’t mind when people let me know I’ve made mistakes.

      The contempt you’re describing makes sense to me and would be an understandable kind of defense.

  2. A very thought-provoking article. I like your interpretation of “contempt as a defense” in this context. I think it’s spot-on. I also feel contempt when interacting with such narcissistic people; not because I want to feel I am better or above them, but to find a mental “way out” so that I don’t have to take their contempt and disdain directed at me. (especially with those who do everything in order to elevate their own importance and status –in their own mind anyway– and everything to diminish all others around them.)

    This is my first time leaving a comment but I have been following your blogs for a while now (the one over Psych Central as well). I like that you are discussing these psychological phenomena in everyday language and in the contexts of everyday life. It brings psychology and psychotherapy closer to “ordinary people”. Reading your descriptions of your own responses to certain encounters makes me reflect on myself more with a different perspective.


    p.s. the numbering in the paragraph of the “boring guest” is wrong (goes up to (5) and ends with (4))
    p.p.s this was what prompted me to leave a comment (which I never do) in the first place — says something about me, doesn’t it? : )

    1. You’re description of the mental “way out” makes sense to me. With the dinner guest I described, I wasn’t conscious of her disdain but where there is so much self-importance, it has to be lurking there somewhere. Maybe that’s what I respond to. And thanks for the correction — I fixed it. I hope you won’t wait for me to make another such mistake before you comment again!

  3. I have to agree. There is more than one person in the room with something to say, more than one person at the airport who does not want to listen to another’s conversation and another huge annoyance is driving in the car and being forced to listen to another’s music when I am stopped at a stop light because it is blaring so loudly. Does it come down to a lack of respect for other people? Doesn’t that seem to be one of the biggest problems of our society? Where are the days of Leave It To Beaver? There were consequences in those days for being disrespectful of other people. Now it seems that there are more people than not that think “me, me, me”. “I come first and if you don’t like it then you know where you can go.” That kind of attitude just eerks me.
    We live in a society where no one has to take responsibility for themselves, they can say and do as they please without thought.
    Have you ever held a door open for someone and they walk through without saying Thank you? Sometimes, depending on my mood – but usually under my breath I say – your welcome. It doesn’t happen all the time – but I am flabergasted when the lack of acknowledgement comes from someone who should know better.

    1. You’re onto something there. It is the lack of awareness in some people, the total self-absorption and failure to consider others I find contemptible.

  4. People who can’t even number points correctly?

    Seriously. People who claim expertise but who I know are talking crap in an area I’m not an expert in. You think competence is my issue? Got it in one!

    1. It seems like it’s the falseness or pretense that bothers us. That kind of behavior fills me with scorn, too.

      I didn’t realize until reading some other comments pending approval that you were referring to ME when you talked about feeling scorn for people who can’t count up the points they make. Oops. Well, I’ve fixed it now. I’ll try to be less contemptible in future!

  5. Thought provoking post in a time when we are told to respect everyone’s choices, no matter how apparently dumb.
    I feel contemptuous of religious people, especially those who try to convince me of the rightness of their views. I feel particularly contemptuous of the choices of women who dress in ways which would have made sense in a desert 200 years ago, but make no sense in an urban environment. I feel angry and I feel contemptuous of women I see dressed in headgear and top to toe clothing when I see them following their much more scantily clad husbands around the city.
    I don’t know whether my reaction is legitimate. It bothers me to feel this way, because we are all fashion victims to some extent. Women in our western societies cover their breasts in public for the same reasons religious women cover their hair. It’s an ongoing dilemna for me.

    Thanks for letting me get this off my chest!

    1. I find your response understandable, and I relate to the dilemma. My guess is that there are also some other very painful feelings behind your contempt … maybe the utter helplessness of seeing women subjugated in this way? But I think some kind of anger is appropriate.

    2. Jane,

      why don`t you re-direct your contempt to the scantily clad husbands walking a few feet ahead of their veiled wives? They are mostlikely the ones responsible for this sad situation.

      1. Yes, it’s possible that it is the men who are responsible for requiring the women under their control to dress and behave in a certain way. I also think it the religious and cultural system to which the man and woman subscribe. Really, on this issue my contempt knows no bounds! I think women (and men) who behave like this are just as empty headed as the Kardashians, and the woman who irritated Joe at the dinner. Their lack of thought is disguised by a cloak of piety.

  6. If we’re talking about developing a healthier society then it probably is beneficial to single out the type of behavior you’re talking about, and shun it.

    But for myself personally that is a dangerous path because of my reliance on narcissistic contempt like you described in your article on that topic. I can’t be trusted to apply contempt judiciously.

  7. Hi Joe,
    I love E! and almost any show they put on, including Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I don’t seek it out per se, but if I want to unwind a bit in front of the TV, and there is nothing better on, E! is always my fallback.

    I totally understand the contempt felt towards the Ks… they are definitely vain and shallow and self-absorbed, no one can argue with that. And I know plenty of people who ‘look down’ on them and the show in general, either because it makes them feel better or because dealing with a narcisist can be a very lonely experience (as you mentioned above). In real life, I would probably never become really good friends with the Ks. But I like watching them because they are fun. Their drama is fun and ridiculous and ultimately harmless. Also, I don’t think they’re particularly “bad” people – they have alot of love for each other, despite being dysfunctional, and alot of loyalty as a family.

    That said, if I had seen that therapist on TV, I would have felt contempt for her rather than the Ks for going, because it makes a mockery of therapy, and feeds into people’s negative stereotypes about psychology (ie, it being self-serving, narcissistic, etc)-especially for the viewers who watch the show to judge it. On the other hand, the viewers who watch the show out of admiration for celebrities might take it as a message that therapy isn’t such a terrible idea…. which might be a good thing.

    1. It’s always interesting to hear such different perspectives. I can see how the Ks might be entertaining; and if somebody who had never considered therapy before had a different perspective after watching that episode, it wouldn’t be such a contemptible thing.

    1. If only! Every time anyone tried to change the subject, she very aggressively reasserted control.

  8. Sometimes, if particular people are gregarious and dominant in social situations, I can be quite passive and prefer to listen and just promote their flow/dialogue…I don’t need to talk necessarily, or be heard…- maybe that’s if they’re talking about something vaguely interesting and I’m trying to get to know them… hmm… – But if people take themselves so seriously, and in the monumentally oblivious way you describe, then I’ll provoke them, or try to connect with them by teasing them and being a bit cheeky and silly – interjecting and giving them a jolt in some way, and getting a different type of conversation going…diverting them somehow. I do think we have to take responsibility for how we behave here. And I don’t think I’d care particularly whether I’m a bit rude, or what the host thought of me. To me, hiding behind the hosts’ potential feelings – that sounds like a bit of an excuse. But of course I wasn’t there, and maybe it was just too awkward a situation to deal with in any way at all.
    ( btw, I don’t think I really know what contempt means… how to detect it when I’m feeling or behaving this way),
    Many hanks for the all your posts Joseph.. I’ve never commented before, but always read them,

    1. Your comment jogged my memory and made me recall something I said. This woman was going on and on about her experience of one of the earthquakes in California during the time I used to live there. A lot of detail about having her hair rolled up with big tin cans and how concerned she was about what her neighbors would think of her when she ran out of her apartment. I said (in my deadpan funny way that got the whole table laughing): “You should be careful telling that story — it makes you sound really shallow.” Now we all laughed heartily but I actually meant exactly what I said. And that was my funny-hostile way of not being quite so passive and just submitting to her narcissism.

  9. I find myself feeling contemptuous…and just like you I often catch myself thinking ” if this was my client, I’d probably be helpful and kinder” but for now I’m irritated…
    I allow myself the contempt and irritation almost as a part of being compassionate towards myself.
    However although I can allow that contempt, I can never truly justify it… Because just as you, I too know that their behavior has deeper unconscious motivation that is more or less beyond them. Thinking of this, I can’t help but feel some compassion for people who bother me. I’m often pendulating between compassion for myself and compassion for them… Not a great place to be in, but then I’m unable to just write them off as irritating too.
    Thanks for the post…Its honest 🙂

    1. I think it takes an effort of introspection and understanding, to transform that contempt into compassion. I guess when it’s someone like Jessica, I don’t want to make the effort. With a client, or someone more visibly suffering, I surely would.

  10. In my experience the annoyance of conversation hoarders isn’t just about other people forced to being bored to death, it is also about ruining other’s stories or conversations. Especially as soon as these “threathen” to become really interesting the blabber addict cuts them off by any means necessary. Their rudeness never ceases to amaze me, even after having been “raised” by narcissistic parents. Funny that in situations where I uttered and actually managed to finish two sentences my mother was always quick to point out what a blabber mouth I was. At these points my contempt kicked in because of the maddening hypocrisy.

    Speaking of the shame that lies behind the behaviour of the narcissists, I still feel ashamed myself when having been cut off rudely by someone whom I’ve been listening to for a long time first. Usually not even a few complete but short sentences are allowed. It feels like an unexpected slap in the face.
    Because the narcissist projects their shame away the result for them is shamelessness. I despise that, partly because of my own resentment.

    I doubt that the self-absorbed are oblivious to their environment. They are like balloons that inflate themselves by means of noise at the expense of others who have to deflate because of the limited space (like a dining room or airport) or are forced to make room. Other’s personal space is violated as well. The narcissist needs attention all the time to fill the bottomless pit of their emptiness. They ruin the peacefullness of a lot of situations, so at least a tiny bit of contempt isn’t unreasonable to put it mildly. I bet that they don’t yell endlessly about nothing into a cell phone when nobody is there to witness it.

    Likewise, the emptiness of Kardashians and the like never seases to amaze me as well. This is because I’m just not able to imagine being this shallow and empty. Maybe this is where the title ‘The unbearable lightness of being’ (Milan Kundera) applies to. Is must be mindnumbingly boring. It makes me wonder if they have really nothing better to do with their time and wealth.
    The fame of people like this are symptomatic of the values of Western societies where vices have become virtues and vice versa (e.g. greed is good and altruism is despicable). My contempt about all this serves indeed as some defense against these tendencies that I experience as threathening to all that is good in this world. How can I not be judgemental about them when the evidence is overwhelming? I wish I was wrong and had reason to feel hope instead of contempt and fear.

    Dr Burgo, thank you very much for your insightful writings. Especially the topic of shame has been very helpful in gaining profound understanding of the many questions surrounding narcissists.

    1. And thank you for your very insightful observations. I think you’re right, that the ultimate problem is something larger — the absence of other sources of meaning in modern Western civilization. All we’re left with is celebrity.

  11. Goodness me!

    I wonder what it means that there have been several references to typoes in the comments on this post about contempt.

    Joseph, I am also wondering about your description of contempt as a defence. Defences, I think, are sometimes a good thing and sometimes a problem. But in this case, I’m not sure what the defence is against. You asked “are there some people who deserve contempt”, but to me, the word “deserve” doesn’t make any sense unless you DO something to them — and in the case of the people on television, you can’t. And in the case of Jessica, as I read it, you didn’t.

    If you’re asking “is it appropriate for me to have this feeling?” then my answer is “you don’t get a choice about what you feel — you are always entitled to feel what you feel”. It sounds as if Jessica wasn’t doing anything wrong, exactly, but is a kind of person whose company you don’t enjoy. And then there seemed to be some projection going on: you said that Jessica “must be” very unhappy — I wonder? — and someone commented that these people feel disdain or contempt for us, and again I’m wondering if that’s really so, or is it the other way around?

    I think the telling part is your words near the end that it makes you feel so alone, and that’s the bit that, if we were doing therapy, I’d want to hear more about.


    1. But I don’t feel contempt for my clients. Ever. And the experience of working closely with people in my practice is just the opposite of feeling alone.

      I disagree with what you said about Jessica not doing anything wrong. The other people at this dinner were friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while and I wanted to catch up with them, find out more about their recent lives. Every time any of us tried to make contact, Jessica made that impossible, by interrupting and placing herself at the center of every conversation.

      1. I hadn’t realised, from your original piece, that she not only talked only about herself, but also made it impossible for others to have separate conversations that didn’t involve her. That is certainly very rude.

        Your remark “it makes me feel so alone” was the one I picked up on, because it evoked the following for me. One person commented on typoes. Another on feelings about religious garb appropriate for a desert in a different age. Another about saying thank you when someone holds a door. And you mentioned the Kardashians and how they behave, and Jessica’s rudeness at a party. What they all seemed to have in common is a feeling that these people don’t know the rules, or aren’t observing the same rules as me. That can be a very lonely feeling: am I the only one who still “gets” the rules?

        I think television can give us the false impression that everyone looks up to empty “celebrities” like the Kardashians. In fact those of us who don’t, are far from alone. Maybe even a majority.

        1. I think those rules you mention — good manners and etiquette, in a way — are the rules that society has codified and passed down for helping us be sensitive to and aware of other people. Those rules seem to be vanishing.

  12. Hi, Thanks for sharing this fascinating post from the POV of a therapist. I let go of “contempt” as a response some time ago, and I’m not quite sure how that happened, but I’m glad it did. I find the people you describe here, well, interesting if I happen to run into them. And pretty. And successfull in the way they seem to want to be successful. As a disclosure, I don’t watch TV so I’ve never seen the K’s except for one W magazine article Kim did – very interesting shocking photos in that one!

    The real question for me in being around people who have different values than I do, and appear successful in their own eyes, is this: What am I doing to be successful in the way I define it? And if they are really unbearably loud and repetitive I ask: What can I say, in the way of a joke, observation, or story, that will enhance or redirect the conversation so more of us can enjoy ourselves? That kind of exercise can be quite fun at a party.

    I’m a scientist and an author, and own view of success is understanding a problem that had confused me, or finishing a story. In my past, I did get angry at the “beautiful people” at times, but I’m very sure this was plain and simple jealousy, because I wasn’t yet “beautiful” in my own eyes, inside of me. Great post, thanks!

    1. Jessica was hardly beautiful or even successful! But she had so much to say about so little! I’m generally pretty interested in learning about other people, and prefer to inquire about someone else to talking about myself. A good conversation, in my view, is one where ideas are exchanged and I feel as if I’ve learned something, or thought about a familiar subject in a new way.

  13. I think contempt is a natural response. Hard to imagine, though, what actual good it does for anyone–unless it wards off a worse response, like violence. My own contempt has never felt good to me. On the other hand, I love to keep up with celebrity gossip — and it’s not out of admiration. But I think my interest is more salacious.

    1. When I was writing this post, I was thinking about disgust — a natural response that all humans feel — and wondering whether contempt were related. Disgust as a reaction keeps us away from substances that might be damaging to us. Maybe normal contempt is a related emotion that pushes away toxic emotional experiences.

      1. I’ve seen this in couples I work with, that contempt as a form of disgust might appear when we don’t want to “take in” (disgust) what the other is dishing out, which in some cases is the annihilation of the other’s personhood. This happens in particular with narcisistic dynamics when one partner cannot “see” the other, or in Martin Buber’s conceptualization, treats the other as an “it” instead of a “thou.”

        I also wondered if the contempt you were experiencing with the woman at the dinner was not some form of projective identification?

        1. That’s a great observation from your work with couples, something I’ve also seen in my personal life. I think that there was a great deal of projective identification going on: narcissists typically project all their shame into the other person in order to get rid of it, and then the other person becomes identified as the “loser”. My contempt, I expect, was a defensive response to that projection — like, I’m not going to take that on, thank you very much. Maybe my contempt was just a reversal of her projection — you’re the loser, not me. Interesting.

  14. I feel contempt for people far too often! Sometimes I wonder if I tend to lump too many people in the narcissistic category, but then again, I think I’m usually a pretty good judge of character. It’s so depressing to think that a broad swath of people are so totally self absorbed and uninteresting that you’d be better off bonding with an animal. These thoughts I have tend to get me down. I know that I am not good at feigning interest and friendship with these types of people. I think my expressions can give me away far too often (which causes further alienation in my life). The question for me is “why”? Why have we devolved into this kind of society? Is it the media mindlessly shaping our attitudes and morals? I also fault my baby boomer contingent. How did they lose the lessons of their parents generation? Don’t be boastful, look people in the eye, don’t interrupt, be pleasant, be helpful. What are they teaching their children? Or are they so lazy they don’t even try to counteract the pollution of mass media? You really got me going.

    1. I like that I got you going! I have a close friend, an extremely gregarious and charming guy, who basically feels he’s better off bonding with his animals than with people. I guess we all try to find those few people we can really communicate with and minimize contact with all the others.

  15. “Affect Theory” originator Tomkins identified the affects of “dissmell” (reaction to a bad smell) and disgust as being present from birth and speculated those inborn reactions exist to help prevent ingestion of toxic substances. Other Affect Theory thinkers have linked dissmell and disgust with the more complex affect/emotion of contempt. I thought you hit the nail on the head in one of your posts (which I can’t find now) when you said that contempt may at times be a legitimate reaction to somebody having violated your values. Putting your ideas together with Affect Theory, contempt is at times a valid form of repudiation which says “I refuse to ingest this because it poisons me and violates my values.” Contempt puts up a mental barrier and is an attempt to spit out a mental “toxin.” So much crap-culture is in our faces all the time, we need some kind of barrier against it because we’re probably all vulnerable to buying into it on at least some level.

    1. Your comment came in just after I had written my response to Peggy above, where I was linking contempt to disgust. Now I have Tomkins to back it up. Thanks for the added scientific perspective.

  16. Interesting conversation. I’ve never really understood contempt. I’ve had very strong feelings of anger toward people for terrible actions they’ve taken but I don’t think I’ve ever felt contempt for people who are just who they are (deemed good or bad or selfish or narcissistic…whatever). I feel more sympathy for them because they just don’t know any better. I do have a sister, though, who often says, “He’s disgusting…” Maybe she’s feeling contempt.

  17. I read your article and agree totally, though I have not yet read all the comments following the article. I’m out of time for now, but I wanted to say that I agree!! Celebrity because the person has a talent or gift and has done productive work is understandable and merited, IMO. The “celebrity as a business gimmick” is idiotic, and I find it sad that so many young women tune in to watch these empty-headed bimbos. BUT the truth is that it (the “K” brand) would not be selling if it were not for people are interested in buying, so I actually fault society more for instilling zero values and intelligence into our young people than I do the “Ks.” They have found a gimmick to make a buck, and they’re milking it before it dries up. You can’t really blame them for jumping on a gravy train. The vapid, reality-show, video game addicted society is the center of the problem, where people don’t bother to raise their children with values, intelligence, and curiosity but rather plop them in front of the TV to babysit them. THAT is the real culprit.

    1. You must be right. Of course it’s very depressing; as I’ve written before, the only things that seem to provide meaning for people these days are celebrity and falling in love.

  18. Thanks for this post! I laughed out loud, that made my day. I have a suggestion: All of us that have posted here should go out for a beer and further this discussion!

    1. For those of you who don’t know the reference, here’s the parable:

      The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

      9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

      13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

      14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

  19. I work in law and I do have contempt for the odd client who is excessively demanding (expecting me to get things done without providing me the information I need to prepare, or wanting me to meet a literally impossible deadline) or won’t accept any of what I have to say. The contempt is a reaction to what feels like an attack on my professional competence — something that, as a new lawyer, I am sensitive about. I hate telling clients I can’t do things because at some level I always feel as if it’s my fault and get internally defensive, throwing a whole lot of energy into convincing myself that it’s not my fault.

    I find the contempt usually dissipates when I can meet with the client in person and see their confusion or intimidation about not “getting it” or getting what they want, and that it’s not about me.

    We have a case in which the other side is a batterer who has done some truly vicious things to our client and other women — I am not just speaking of physical violence, but harassment, humiliation, stalking, death threats, and terrible verbal abuse, over a period of years. I am so terrified of him that I cannot look him in the eye or sit in the same courtroom without my heart pounding. I have access to a lot of material he’s written, and much of it is ugly, degrading, pornographic and threatening — but what really triggers my contempt is aesthetic. I sneer at his spelling errors, his artistic pretensions, the stories he makes up about all the money he has and all the nubile women he’s sleeping with in exotic locations when really he’s a schlubby middle-aged failed artist who can’t pay his rent.

    But every time he mentions a “highfalutin” book I’ve read, or an arty movie I’ve enjoyed, I feel implicated in the culturally snobbish tastes I was raised with, as if, by sharing his fondness for the local bistro or his distaste for car-oriented suburbs, I also share in the unbelievable cruelty he’s shown to our reality-TV-watching, suburb-dwelling client. So I sneer when I notice that he misspelled that French word, or that this thing he likes is really pedestrian, or that the picture of the woman he claims to be sleeping with is actually a Miss Universe candidate from Uruguay. My contempt protects me from my fears of being implicated.

    1. Those are truly fascinating and clearly accurate observations. In both cases, contempt is protecting you from some other painful experience. Not such a bad thing, maybe?

      1. In the case of the abuser, I think the contempt is useful. When I started on this file, I cried when reading the vicious and sexually degrading things he wrote to our client. Regarding him as pathetic helps me control my fear of him and continue to work on the case, even though I still cannot bear the thought of being in the same room with such a toxic person.

        I feel a bizarre sense of shame, and rage, when dealing with his writing, which — I wonder if it is empathy, as you’ve described it on this blog. Certainly it’s not a stretch to think that someone who tells grandiose lies and takes revenge when called on them must have a lot of shame and rage. But I don’t know what use it is to have those feelings, in my role.

        1. That’s an interesting idea and it’s hard to say whether it’s empathy or not. As I’ve thought about the interactions we’ve all had over this issue of contempt, it feels increasingly to me that it is a “pushing away” of something else we can’t or don’t want to feel. As you say, feeling that he’s pathetic is more bearable than wading into the horror of what he has done and feeling helpless and in pain about it. Not clear what’s going on with the writing.

          1. Maybe the simplest explanation for what I feel dealing with this situation is not empathy with him, but with her. Shame, rage and helplessness are pretty understandable responses when someone deliberately humiliates and hurts you again and again in the worst ways he can think of, and nobody you call and nothing you do seems to stop it.

            Anyway, sorry to go on. Just muddling it through.

  20. I’ve read this post several times, trying to figure out what I think about it. Always appreciate your posts, you know that. The comments have helped me crystallize my thoughts a bit, and I go back to the title. When is contempt a legit response in your own head? As someone’s said, always. When justifiable to communicate your contempt, or act upon it? Well, sometimes. Societally we have agreed to feel contempt for, and punish perpetrators, of child abuse. That’s one of those formally agreed upon instances. We’re “justiafiably” offended at public intoxication, urination, and worse or other. But then it get so fuzzy. Some days I’ve been offended by everything everyone does. The way they walk, in front of me, cutting me off. Somedays, everyone does this to me. Somedays, it happens less – or bothers me less. So that’s the third consideration: when does ones contempt say more about the other person than it does about them? I.e., is my contempt justified because they really are so egregiously awful? But the answer to that is that my contempt always means more about me than whomever I’ve directed it towards. You know? My tolerance levels, my insecurities. I’m definitely not saying all heinous acts or even attitudes are permissible, ok. I’m just interested in the question of trying to justify contempt. Like some comments above have suggested, that’s perhaps YOUR real issue. Obviously the Kardashians and Jessica have their own.

    1. Very interesting, very interesting. Yes, I agree that contempt often says more about the person feeling it. I guess I was trying to explore the idea that maybe contempt isn’t always defensive in the unhealthy way. As SusanT pointed out, contempt can be a means to push away something that feels toxic, an innate response akin to visceral disgust.

  21. One thing I’ve learnt is the opposite choice to contempt in situations such as you describe, is curiosity. I feel most contempt for people who are cruel or lacking in respect for humans, but I still have a level of curiosity about them which I can sometimes use instead. However, it’s NOT the kind of curiosity that makes you want to know a person more, it’s more that they are ‘an object of curiosity’ because they are so different to my ideas of what a human can/should be, so it’s still a distancing technique.

  22. I just returned from lunch where a co-worker and I walked to a restaurant in the downtown of the little city where I work. As we crossed the busy town square, there was a brief traffic back-up at a stop light. One car had two young people; a young man and young woman, who looked to be in their early twenties. Behind them was a middle-aged man. The man became enraged because the young woman wasn’t moving as fast as he wanted, so he laid on his horn, stuck his head out his window and shouted, “move, you stupid f*&%ing c*&t!” Everyone within 100 feet could hear this, including children.

    For me this triggers intense anger and contempt, but also a kind of “justice fantasy.” I often feel that people who engage in this kind of cruelty deserve to be punished in a way that shames and humbles them. It’s a kind of bully revenge fantasy where the bully is put in his place and the victim has been defended.

    As I read your post – especially about the cell phone yacker – it seems like it’s often both defensive as well as “legitimate” contempt for me. But there’s also this justice aspect, which I think this is a marker of my own rage that has little to do with the stranger in the car or the thoughtless person on the cellphone and has more to do with some very old reaction to having been bullied at home and at school.

    1. I wonder if the rage/contempt response which you say has to do with having been bullied as a child is a kind of defense against the feelings of helplessness. Hatred and outrage are such BIG feelings; I always feel large and powerful when I become indignant, and it’s just the opposite of feeling small and helpless.

      1. I think you’re right. If I stay with that indignation for a bit, I can sometimes glimpse that helplessness and smallness behind it.

        Thanks for another excellent topic.

  23. Several thoughts: First, contempt may be natural, but some people rely on it far too often, in areas in which it really shouldn’t apply. That alone indicates its defensive nature. Second, much contempt we feel for others may actually be others’ self-contempt in which we have been assigned a role–we often are assigned roles to perform in others’ internal conflicts. Third, it’s easy not to feel contemptuous of private pay clients, because by definition they want to change and are motivated enough to pay their hard-earned money to try to get that result. Boorish people at restaurants, airports, or dinner parties (or on TV) generally don’t. They don’t want my help and don’t care about my opinions. A select few are contemptible, but most are merely pathetic.

    1. Good points all around, especially about the private pay clients wanting to change. I have a lot of respect for everyone who comes to me for help, for that reason alone. People who know there are other options but continually seek the “easy” answer or short-term solution — drugs, celebrity, etc. — often make me feel alone, puzzled as to why some people reach out for help and others don’t, and sometimes they make me feel contemptuous.

    2. “Second, much contempt we feel for others may actually be others’ self-contempt in which we have been assigned a role–we often are assigned roles to perform in others’ internal conflicts.”

      Could you expand upon this, or give an example? Is this similar to the idea of feeling contempt for others because we recognize and hate those same qualities or behavior in ourselves (perhaps without realizing it)?

      1. What you mention is even a different possibility I had neglected to mention. Thanks for doing so.

        It’s not what I was writing about. I guess the easiest way to describe what I was saying is that some people have unconscious self-contempt that leads them to act in a contemptuous manner. If I strongly dislike myself or believe I should be punished but can’t admit it to myself, I can arrange for others to dislike or punish me. That way, I can feel scorned and disapproved while still being able to defend myself as being the innocent victim of others’ rude behavior. I never have to acknowledge my part in the process.

        If you watch couples who don’t get along for very long, you’ll often see similar processes, where one of them is assigned to argue for one side of the other’s ambivalence. The ambivalent one can then have protracted arguments that go nowhere because essentially they are arguing with themselves and refusing to move either way.

        1. Thanks so much for your reply, Steven. Your comment is very helpful. I wonder if unconscious self-hatred stays that way because to experience those feelings would be far more awful and terrifying than having someone else, externally, doing it for us.

          Thanks again.

  24. You’re a therapist because you feel so alone?

    I have anger and contempt for self-absorbed people, too. I think it’s because I had two narcissistic “parents” who were dangerous to their children.
    On one end of the spectrum, narcissists are annoying because they are inconsiderate, on the other end of the spectrum they enrage me because their disregard for others can have lethal or traumatizing effects on innocent people.
    My mind lumps all narcissists in the same boat, so I can become angry out of proportion to the “crime”, like wanting to verbally “lay into” the woman with the obnoxiously loud voice.
    It’s probably because I wish I had been able to tell off my “parents”, but I wasn’t.
    I’m kind of pent up.

    1. Being a therapist makes me feel less alone. I think your explanation for the anger you feel toward narcissists is spot on.

  25. Contempt is a very sensitive subject with me having been the unlucky recipient of it. I experienced it as discriminatory, pejorative, and belittling.

    It feels like such a futile emotion to me. What is to be gained by having such an emotional investment in someone else when disengagement would do?

    It has also made me sensitive to respect …. Both of myself and others …. My peace of mind has come from learning to treat the toxic people around me with respect whilst keeping a respectful distance!

    That respect comes from seeing their struggles as different but no less painful than mine. Do you think that as a therapist you find it hard when people do not get help?

    I am. Not sure that any of this is healthy but it is sort of where I am in that contempt is not defensible.

    I do have one cheeky question though. Did the woman at the dinner party know you were a therapist. My psychiatrist tells me that when people don’t know him he can clear a room when people ask him what he does for a living…..but then again if someone likes to talk about themselves and thinks their perfect then I guess that would not work!

    1. I don’t think she was aware of any identifying details about anyone in the room; we were all simply a part of the audience.

  26. In some cases I wonder if our contempt “levels” are a greater reflection of our personal satisfaction with our own lives and our ability to find meaning and satisfaction from day to day. It seems that those who are struggling with their own issues, big or small, are much more likely to express contempt with others because compared to them, we are superior in contrast. Those who are highly content, in contrast, are more concerned with lifting others up and improving themselves and are less concerned with the actions and behaviors of those they might find contemptible.

    Personally, I would have to say the area of contempt I notice myself experiencing is for those who reach out with love and concern to another as a springboard to seek support for themselves. Genuine care and selfless love for each other is lacking in a world where we too often hide our true feelings to avoid being offensive, or to be seen as being “needy” and a burden to others. Facebook and other social media outlets have become virtual pity parties and reduced friendship to anyone who is available to be used for personal gain it seems. Just my opinion.

    1. Like you, I also notice myself feeling contempt for people who reach out with apparent love and concern that feels insincere. Emotional correctness (analogous to political correctness) easily makes me scornful.

  27. The typos thing wasn’t me expressing contempt, it was trying to be helpful! While keyboards on both my PC and laptop are not keeping up w/my 90wpm anymore and insert typos often, I recognized the irony of that after reading my comment. No contempt was felt, just helpfulness and irony, esp. since Dr. Burgo had told me before that he appreciates knowing about errors so he can fix them.

  28. I almost forgot… I find hypocrisy to be contemptible. So I make efforts to not engage in hypocrisy myself!

  29. I would make a distinction between contempt and scorn. Contempt means disrespect and implies a moral judgement i.e. I disrespect x, y, z etc (and I am right to do so because of moral argument a, b, c etc). Whether contempt is justified depends on the validity of the moral arguments. In the UK we have a legal term ‘contempt of court’ which is to disrespect a court and the justice administered by the courts. Historically, great reformers have been in contempt of court when they have wanted to challenge the moral validity of laws or legal process – we have tended to accept their justifications and celebrate such reformers. At other times people have disrespected the courts for what seem invalid reasons e.g. surfing the internet on a smartphone and posting comments on social network sites when doing jury duty instead of attending to the case. Here there is either no effort to excuse the contempt or the justification offered (e.g. I was bored) is rejected.

    Scorn has the meaning of ‘putting away from oneself’ (maybe this relates to visceral disgust i.e. literally pushing something away but not necessarily – disgust is an aesthetic judgement so another topic). The English Christian mystic Julian of Norwich wrote that Christ “scorns evil” by which she means He does not judge it, despise it or condemn it but that He recognises that evil is set apart and powerless to harm Him, it is delusional or unreal. Julian, like many spiritual teachers of many religious traditions, recommends that those who seek the serenity of Christ (or seek enlightenment and release from samsara) learn to scorn evil rather than have contempt for it. To fight evil is to become evil. To scorn evil is to render it powerless and defeated without the ned to fight.

    Are contempt and scorn defences? I would rephrase the question: Are they helpful strategies? If you have contempt for evil you are saying it has power over you and you are disrespecting that evil as a way to break free. When resisting real power, as in civil disobedience to defy unjust laws, contempt is effective as a political strategy. Ghandi recommending nonviolent resistance was recomending contempt as a political strategy for societal change. It gives leverage. But when the confict is intra-psychic rather than societal it can backfire as a strategy because contempt attributes power and authority to the other. The greater the power imputed, the greater the contempt, the harder it is to break free from engagement with the intra-psychic struggle. Contempt implies being stuck in an inescapable unwinable conflict with an internalised other which gets more powerful every time you experience contempt for it. When it comes to dealing with intra-psychic conflict, scorn is a more effective strategy since it reaffirms boundaries – this obnoxious other cannot really affect me, I put it aside from me, I have power, it does not. Reacting to annoying dinner party guests with contempt is to attribute power to others and disempower oneself. It misuses contempt and makes it a strategy for passivity instead of polal action. Scorn would be a more appropriate strategy for dealing with the reaction inside ones own psyche to others (i.e. this bore cannot affect my enjoyment and I will act accordingly). Scorn as defined by Julian and other religious teachers is not judgemental but it is liberating and therapeutic. I try to develop scorn and I recommend it to my clients.

    Keep contempt for the political arena, for dealing with genuinely powerful opponents like corrupt states. Keep scorn for dealing with the conflicts in the psyche. Contempt in psychic situations tends to retraumatise. Scorn in the political arena is like believing bullets will not harm me because my cause it just. Horses for courses: people often conflate concepts e.g. contempt and scorn but the English language has developed over centuries and provides very precise tools for making sense of things. Of course this is a simplification.

    My twopennothh There will be typos because I am posting this on my tablet and touchscreen keyboard and I make many typos this way. Hope this is useful to you.

    1. This is very helpful. While I’m not sure that contempt and scorn are as distinct as you portray them, you make the crucial distinction between the type of scorn/contempt that locks you into relation with the other, and the scorn/contempt that puts distance between you. They are both defensive strategies, but the latter is “healthier” than the other. I think the first type of scorn/contempt arises because the other person taps into our own issues (probably our shame) and we can’t easily dispose of the difficult feelings that arise in us. As you point out, the latter strategy is healthier and simply involves putting distance between us and the other. Thanks so much for clarifying the issue.

  30. The odd relationship between contempt (or contemptuous sympathy) and true empathy, the sort of seesaw that goes back and forth between both, has come to light inside me after reading your post and comments, and after a post I just did on my mother. The thoughts and feelings are still coalescing inside me, but I thought it interesting enough to post that at least for me, there seems to be this dichotamous (sp?) relationship going on.

    1. You’re right to highlight the contempt that often hides behind expressions of sympathy, as if the sympathizer were tacitly saying, “I’m so glad I’m not you.”

  31. It ‘s jarring. When you have not watched mainstream TV for a while and you get an eyeful of something like the K’s. My feelings around reality TV range from a sense that my privacy has been violated by the mere fact that the minutiae of other peoples lives are in my face, a triggered feeling of aloneness that I just don’t find this enjoyable like the majority of my contemporaries and deep despair that so many people do find this enjoyable; also rage and contempt at witnessing Nero fiddle while Rome burns. I can really come away feeling quite doomed from even a small accidental exposure to reality tv and tv in general. Needless to say I exercise my free will and use the off button otherwise I’d stick pins in my eyes. Perhaps discussions like this are the counterweight to it. Did the guy who invented television ever imagine that his brain child would be used to bring programs into the home like the K’s? Free will and abundance. Just because I can doesn’t necessarily mean I should. I ask myself that more and more.

    How old is Jessica? She sounds like my daughter who is three and a half. “Look at me Mummy. Watch me mummy”. How disappointing for you. I mean egocentric behaviour from a toddler is understandable as one hopes for the most part its transient No doubt you were looking forward to catching up with your old buddies and s h a r i n g news about your recent lives and you have to endure this overgrown child with her: me, me, my, my, I, I, diatribe. This night did not sound like it met with your expectations, but a head on collision with the sad reality that some people never grow up, and in order for you to tolerate such rude and boring behaviour you have to put on the professional hat rather than the recreational cap. It takes every ounce of my finite maturity to enable myself to feel compassion for the likes of Jessica instead of contempt. My idealised self would like to think I succeed more times than not but my unguarded response is probably disgust. Keep writing Dr Jo there is no substitute for honesty.

    1. For me, this type of discussion IS the antidote to the shallowness of pop culture. Writing and thinking about an issue like this, followed by interactions with readers who also think and response in such interesting ways, makes me feel as if there are people out there who continue to think while Rome burns. I’m sure many people my age have felt this way throughout history, that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket, but reality TV sure feels an awful lot like bread and circuses to me.

      Jessica is 60-something going on 3, as you point out. I know what you mean about your idealized self wanting to feel more compassion than contempt; at the same time, I abhor the idea of everyone becoming self-actualized and accepting of others, so that the goal is for all of us to become the same tolerant person. Scorn for shallowness and insensitivity makes me who I am and I’d be sad to let go of it entirely.

  32. Good post.

    My takeaway has been to try to titrate my negative emotional responses to people and situations. Contempt is a very strong emotion. Better to dial it down in some situations where mere annoyance or irritation will do.


    1. I think just noticing that one is feeling contempt and wondering about it can do what you say, rather than just running with it.

  33. What used to evoke contempt in me is now jujst a neutral response of me knowing their irrelevance. What I hate is their effect on the impressionable people in society. My step daughter and her friends do nothing but stand in front of mirrors grooming themselves and taking pictures and e-mailing them to their friends.
    Like Sara, my mother is a malignant narcissist. I have had a life of her trampling over me and every one else. To think that this is no longer an abomination but is now accepted behavior in civilized society is infuriating.

    1. Narcissism is increasingly the norm, as you say. As a society, we seem to have little else to offer as a source of meaning in one’s life. Getting attention and admiration from others — that’s what it’s all about.

      1. I find it interesting that many folks who complain about this – a lack of meaning – either participated in or applaud after the fact the project of systematic *dismantling* of meaning.

        Why *would* there be any meaning left, after religion, (relatively) irony-and-sarcasm-free culture, and other such things, have all been systematically dismantled? What did we *expect* to happen?

        1. It’s a challenge in the modern world, to develop sources of meaning that aren’t supplied by religion or social convention. In many ways, you have to develop your own internal sense of meaning, and many people find that a daunting task.

          There’s some heat in your response, Greg … or am I mis-reading it?

          1. I’m not sure it’s heat so much as perplexity.

            Modernity (and it’s pseudo-rebellious child, post-modernity) systematically attacks and dismantles anything with meaning, then finds itself with … a lack of meaning. (And a consequent *hunger* for meaning – a tendency to latch onto political movements, fads, anything, in search of meaning.)

            Or to put it another way, if we are but complex animals, then of course we would only find meaning in animal activities – rutting, displays, power struggles, etc. (a la the Kardashians).

            1. This is so interesting and really demands an entire post as a response. Just for starters, it raises the question of what we mean by the word “meaning”. Modernity has certainly rebelled against the traditional arbiters of meaning (and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing) — the authorities that tell us what is meaningful “just because I said so”). But post-rebellion, it’s very difficult to find some alternative source of meaning. For most people, creating a personal sense of meaning “whole cloth” is more than they can manage.

  34. I think anger in these situations is pretty natural. I think contempt comes from anger with a sense of powerlessness. There’s an inability to change anything.

    At times, even at a dinner table, I know that speaking from an honest place about what upsets me in situations such as you described will set me up as an “enemy” from the clique involved. This can generate a feeling of contempt, likely as a defense, but by sitting with it I can isolate the mixture of anger and powerlessness and doing so makes it not fester. There are many things I cannot change, and if I don’t know what will help, there is power in just sitting and being at least ok with my own internal reactions. My experience is that when I’m ok with myself, I don’t have contempt for others, because I don’t feel as powerless looking for others to give a space for me to feel ok through them. Not fully there yet though!

  35. “…anger with a sense of powerlessness.” Thanks Matthew-good one, IMO.
    Recently I was in the grocery store at “Quittin’ Time” so it was very busy. I stood in the “20 Items Or Less” line like a good sheep with a couple items and who wheels in behind me speaking loudly on her cell phone but “The Real Housewife of…” with a cart filled to overflowing. I put my items on the belt and The Real Housewife slaps down the bar to separate orders and starts unloading her grocery cart from hell. Backing up behind her is a tired looking young mommy with a child on one hip and a huge package of diapers on the other; an elderly woman with a pained expression holding a container of juice in one hand and a bag of something else in the other, behind her a construction worker with a sub sandwich, a 12 pack and an eye-popping look at Real Housewife’s cart and then I lost sight of the rest of the line. I caught Real Housewife’s eye, raised my eyebrows, looked down at her stuff and back at her. She looked away still loudly carrying on with the phone, continued to unload more stuff and in the process KNOCKED THE METAL SIGN that says, “20 Items Or Less” OFF the end of the belt. As I knelt down to pick it up, she snapped, “I GOT it!” I very evenly replied, “No, you don’t.” (Light-bulb moment here.) When the customer in front of me finished checking out I called to the young mommy, “Would you like to go ahead of me?” and I held my stuff back. Then to the elderly lady, “Mame? Please, go ahead-oh sir-yes, you! Please go ahead of me, you’ve only a few items” and so it continued. Real Housewife realized I’d stand there all evening if necessary to make the point and made a huffy production of taking her stuff off the belt and returning it to her basket (which STILL hadn’t been completely emptied by any means) still loudly discussing on her phone what to do with the remaining $1500. of her “gift money” while everyone else was giggling. When she left the line I finished checking out. In the parking lot as I was putting my bag of stuff in the trunk a pick-up truck pulled up behind me and the driver called, “Hey lady?” I turned and there was the construction guy from the line. He turned away and was fiddling with something on his front seat. He turned back, handed me a beer out the window and with a “Thanks a lot!” drove off.
    The contempt (and there was a GREAT deal of it) I felt towards The Real Housewife melted as soon as I took action. Sometimes you really ARE powerless and sometimes the best course of action is that which makes a point without saying another word to the obnoxious. The only “cost” to me was a little extra time but the feeling was priceless.

    1. Great story! I think you’e right, that the contempt that comes with feeling powerless disappears when (if) you take action.

  36. Having suffered the unpleasant experiences of dealing with over-the-top-narcissists, in personal and business relationships, one thing comes becomes clear instantly. It wasn’t always instant in my recognition, but my body told me the “truth” of people before I really began to investigate why being with a full-on-narcissist was so exhausting. Friendship does not really exist for narcissists. Everyone is seen, by the narcissist as “narcisstic supply”. Something liken to an inanimate object, placed on a shelf, awaiting the narcissist “need” for a “hit”, or what a druggie would call “a hit of heroin”. And, when the narcissist is done with you, they’re done with you! Until, and of course, IF they deem that you can be used again.
    And, their skills at manipulation are astounding, until of course, they encounter someone who is onto them. Ah, then they have an enemy.
    Just watch the amazing “dog and pony” show that senator John Edwards performed for all the nation to witness. Edwards being the current and easily spotted “full blown narcissist” to grace our television screens. Just one more speech on the steps of the courthouse John. Please show us that well-rehearsed, crocodile- tears- speech, and how you really want to “serve” in some capacity. News flash for you John. You did serve us. You served us by showing us what a malignant narcissist is, and how it operates, and how it destroys others, ( oh that nasty little distraction called your dying wife thing )….
    Smile John, you’re on Candid Camera. Short of a heart transplant, and a lobotomy, I would wager my last nickle that in truth former senator John Edwards will ever REALLY change. He will just re-adjust his skills, stand in front of the mirror ( the fable of Narcissis gazine at his reflection in the pool of water, of course) and practice his well-oiled lines. And, people will believe him. That’s the stunning part of it! People will believe him! Because it’s just easier to stay asleep, then wake up and face the harsh truths of the damage that is done daily by narcissists, and more-over probable sociopaths, who fly under the radar. It’s a skill that only a predator that would make a black panther on a pitch black night in the jungle appreciate as he stalks his prey. Stealth, skill, cunning, silent, stalker, cold, calculating, manipulative, ……….and wrap it in a nice smile, too. Except the panther has a legitimate excuse. It’s a panther. It’s an animal, and it only takes what it needs to eat, and stay alive.
    Humans beings. Conscience? Character? Moral ethics? Choice? Love? Devotion? Honor? No feeding on humans…….. spiritually, emotionally, or otherwise. Canabils in disguise, …. Narcissist.
    Waking up from the smoke and mirrors that are often handled with amazing slight of hand of the finest magician, to discover that “you’ve been dupped again”, is the challenge of good hearted people with a desire to believe that “everyone” plays fair, and “everyone” really doesn’t want to harm others. Not so. Good people are fresh meat to “malignant narcissts”. Because “good people” do not think like malignant narcissists, it actually can set up a good-hearted person for falling into the lair-trap of a skilled magician.
    Is narcissism on the rise? I would say a definte “YES” to that question.

    Having had too many experiences of narcissists in my circle, the only solution is to weed them out, like an invasive weed, that left to it’s own devices will smother, and over-come any outcome that would bring a bounty of beautiful flowers to another, and even to the narcissist. The narcissist will pee in it’s own quarters, failing to recognize that in the long term it soils it’s own nest, eventually, and eventually it really begins “to stink” of something foul smelling.

    A narcissstic person is more easily understood as a “psychic vampire”. If you have been in the company of one, and been in their presence multiple times, one comes away literallyfeeling “drained”, as though they had sucked the life force out of you.
    So, skill is acquired by experience with such individual, and it is very easy to spot them now.
    And, the Kim Kardashians of the world are but the “poster child” of a movement that seems to gathering a tsunami force behind it.
    Case in point. Fukushima, Japan. Tsunami. Tragedy unfolding on live television. Did we see narcissism unfolding live on our tv? No, we saw humility, humbleness, sacrifice to help a fellow human being. We didn’t see whining, screaming, demanding, brattish behaviors.
    The American culture is being given to “it’s all about ME”. Turn on the boob-tube, aka: what we call “everyday television! Want to see a festering nest of malignant narcissism unfolding live before our eyes? Like watching some sci-fi flick we actually get to see an explosion of little monsters break out of a giant egg and multiply at lightening speed, exponentially.

    Will Fukishima happen to the USA. I surely hope not. However, given our shallow culture that is worsening like a melting core reactor, where Narcissism is the poison that can easily kill this nation. Albeit, a slow poison, but one that now is quite visible, and if you aren’tcertain, turn on your television, or log onto Facebook. It’s all about “ME”. How about “ME”. I want you to pay attention to me NOW, because it’s all about “ME”.

    Yes, the tide is rising,… the wave is very close now. As it rolls over us, and flattens our cultural values with the new “modern” version of “awsome”, and “cool”………..
    Sorry, gotta go check my face book………. to see who is paying attention to “ME”……
    Oh, my…………. ( sigh )…………

  37. Contempt is a trait I try to resist indulging in, but often fail at. But with spoiled brats and boundary-violating narcissists, I not only feel fine indulging in contempt, but I tend to going full force with it. As someone trying to embrace Buddhism, I know I’m supposed to feel compassion for everyone even narcissists, but I find it incredibly difficult.

    1. I’m more in favor of noticing what actually is, rather than trying to feel the way you’re supposed to feel. That only leads to a false kind of enlightenment and a sympathy that feels phony, at least to me.

  38. I think contempt, in the situtations you’ve described is our way of dealing with our own frustration and fear about confronting and being honest about our feelings. We don’t feel polite or entitled to say: Excuse me, but you are monopolizing the conversation and showing a lack of interest or care in your fellow human beings. We are scared to say these things and face the social consequence of being outspoken. Instead we transfer it to feelings of contempt which is easy to hide, but still gives us some sense of satisfaction. So I agree, it’s absolutely a defense against our own sense of powerlessness to assert ourselves.

    1. Wow. Great observation! I feel convicted, and liberated at the same time! Great post! I really enjoy this Blog, outstanding , and insightful! I feel the need to go dig deeper every time I read. My sincere hope is that I’m growing, in spite of contemptuous circumstances as they arise.

  39. Great posts, the initial one had me in stitches with laughter, especially the reference to the K girls using the word ‘like’ alot………………..and the lady at the dinner party talking about her son who ‘lives in Paris and writes music no one has ever heard of’……I can’t add anything more that others haven’t touched on in their posts apart from this; I find that the process of therapy itself can at times involve humour and genuine laughter shared between client and therapist. When I want a ‘scorn fix’ I tend to watch Judge Judy………..she is the queen of contempt ha ha ha ha.

    1. I agree about laughter in therapy. I’ve been thinking about how much I laugh and smile in session, and that my warmth is a big part of the therapeutic process.

  40. I’ve just found your blog, it’s wonderful.
    I kept thinking about jealousy reading your post. I use contempt as a defence a lot, less than I did, but it’s a big old issue for me. I feel jealous of the thoughtless girls in their fancy cars. I envy the blabbermouth woman at dinner. How easy it all seems for them to take up so much space. I hate them, I’m jealous of them. They’re vile, I want to be them.
    Contempt is like sandpaper mentally for me. It makes me so uncomfortable. I usually feel it around people who have something I want that is very split off. It seems as if usually I want what they have, even if what they have seems awful. I’m thinking on my feet here though. There’s probably a lot more going on other than jealousy.

    1. Sounds like you’re right on the money. I find that the kind of envy you mention focuses on people who seem to have an easy self-confidence about them; we envy what seems to be high self-esteem when we’re instead afflicted with core shame, then defend against it with contempt, one of the primary defenses against shame.

  41. I don’t think at this stage I can really judge whether contempt is ever legitimate for me. When I feel it there’s invariably something stirring underneath that needs expressing. Maybe in time I’ll claim it legitimately and just feel it for its own sake. For now it’s a way I feel false power over the person I have it for.

    1. I think you may be right, but it’s hard for me to make myself believe that those Kardashians don’t deserve my contempt.

  42. I’m kind of taken aback that you seem so at ease with expressing contempt. I used to be but that was when I expressed it and didn’t think to understand it as a defence. You do know and I guess you’ve done years of work on shame etc, and here you are seemingly pretty relaxed with saying you feel it. So it does make me wonder if I can reclaim it one day.

    There’s so much of the sneer and the lip curl about contempt though and it’s so smug. It’s a bit like defending myself from something vile by using something equally vile. And if I use contempt I don’t have to think. I can numb myself with it. Mind you, this is in light of me using it narcissistically. Just feeling it authentically may be a whole other thing.

    1. I think my contempt is still a defense but it’s not about shame. It’s more about loneliness and alienation: I often feel like an outsider in this culture, because my values are not widely shared. Contempt wards off the loneliness.

  43. Hello,
    I’ve just come across this site and found it enlightening and amusing in one. ” It certainly has the kick needed when describing the insincere. I certainly recognise the quacker in the story. Yes, I found myself contemptuous back. I really tried to empathise, and can see she is very lonely and lost, but I find the post of support worker, exhausting and not dinner table appropriate. Equally though, I find the silent judge who smirkingly throws in the odd verbal bomb just as offensive and narscissitic.
    I love that phrase ” emotionally P.C.” it certainly has the right kind of kick to direct attention towards the emotionally insincere and their manipulations. I’ll use it if you don’t mind. I’m currently dealing with a high ranking health professional who resorts to these tactics constantly to avoid being caught out and pinned down, and much to my amazement as she’s so obviously false, astoundingly successfully. Pointing out she’s clearly being insincere and manipulative just doesn’t seem to get through.
    Me? I’m happy with myself. I don’t expect everyone to be the same. That would make life not only very boring, but impossible.

  44. Emotions serve a purpose for humans, or they wouldn’t exist following natural selection. Anger gives us the energy to fight something that feels like a threat, sadness makes us retreat and gather resources to deal with a setback, happiness gives us the incentive to pursue something that is advantageous to us, confusion makes us realize that we need more information.

    Contempt is probably a gut feeling that something is beneath us. Perhaps biologically, when a member of the group becomes sick or weak, it may be advantageous for the survival of the remaining members to shun that individual, remove support, and leave it to die of its own devices/from the harshness of the environment. Compassion may have emerged when it becomes impossible to exercise contempt consistently (we know that the human brain likes consistency). For example, if know that all individuals fall sick at some point in their lives, including ourselves, then we would wish that there is a system in place to help us when we become ill. It would thus be inappropriate to feel contempt for sick people.
    If we accept this argument, then compassion evolves from empathy, and is a higher level of emotion than contempt. Also following from this argument is that it will be easier for us to feel compassionate towards the weak when we can identify with their plight. Thus if your grandmother has been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel more compelled to help all people with cancer. A 3rd possible conclusion is that we will tend to feel more contemptuous towards people whose problems are ‘self-inflicted’. This may be because of two reasons – one, because we feel that now we know why they contracted the disease we can avoid having the same fate, and two, it may be advantageous that the behaviour associated with the disease is negatively selected in society, as it would be more advantageous for the society in stopping the disease.

    I think life always comes down to biology, and it is part of being human to not be a slave to biological drives even when to oppose the drive would be disadvantageous to us. People that we feel contempt towards definitely deserve help. And if I can make one final conclusion from the above argument, it is that people who are in a completely secure position in life will never need to feel contempt towards another person because they will not feel that helping the weak will put themselves at risk.

    (disclaimer? I am not an evolutionary psychologist and I have never studied psychology before, but these are my thoughts on the matter. I have very much enjoyed your article).

    1. And I enjoyed your thoughts as well. I’ll be curious to see how other readers respond to them.

      BTW, Nathanson believes that contempt is an expression of one of two innate affects, disgust and dis-smell, which both serve to push us away from noxious influences when we might otherwise be attracted to them.

  45. Just discovered your blog yesterday, and my mind is a-whirl with questions and ideas! But I’ll start here:

    At what age does contempt first show up developmentally? I have a very distinct memory from early in kindergarten of feeling something that today I would label ‘contempt’ (although it seems unlikely I would have had that word available to me then). The situation certainly caused me anger and a sense of utter helplessness and perhaps despair. While I certainly don’t think they were perfect, my parents were not chaotic or neglectful in the ways you describe as laying the foundation for shame. But I do have that shame, have been fighting a deadly battle with the depression it’s caused since I was 13. Is it possible to develop this sort of shame as a reaction to experiences after the age of 2?

    It’s probably no surprise that as an adult, contempt is a favorite reaction/defense. As a Gen-Xer it sort of feels like a default setting!

    1. I think contempt is an outgrowth of disgust, which shows up very early and is a built-in affect. An early form of contempt could definitely show up as early as kindergarten. As for shame, in addition to the kind of early core shame I write about, there’s also Bradshaw’s toxic shame which can influence us throughout childhood. That kind of shame can result from many different sources.

  46. Hi,

    I have begun to treat people who disrespect me with utter contempt. People who are rude to me, abuse me and lie behind my back I strongly dislike.

    I am normal for cutting people out of my life who bully me, are rude to me and treat my ‘less than’ ?

    1. I don’t think there’s anything abnormal about your reactions, but I bet that contempt is also protecting you from more painful feelings like hurt and disappointment.

  47. I m married to a “hard empathy shy ” husband for five years now. I never could give a word to the feelings growing under the hood for him. But i think contemp might be just that. Looking back at all that has happened i think that contemp definitely was born as a self defence mechanism. During the last year contemp just started shouting out to the lack of empathy, lack of emotional support, manipulation, control and lastly emotional abuse. We lived with his parents for four months ( the time our house was build) and during that time I started understanding where all of his behaviour come from. It is the way he was brought up… he does’nt know any better and is not capable of having a loving relationship with a woman as he never had any attachment to his mother and his father was very much present but absent. So in my mind i see emotional neglect… I sincerely wish I could have seen it before we got married and had kids. I am at a point where i feel contemp for his parents also, and have a stong desire to just protect myself and my children againts them.

  48. I just found your blog while looking up articles about contempt. I love the comment that contempt is an emotional way of “spitting out” something that directly opposes kne’s values. Right now, I’m struggling with contempt for my mother, who never leaves her bed. Whenever I come home from college, I’m the only one in the house to do anything. I prep meals, I get a job, I weed the garden, etc. My dad left 3 years back, and I feel like I’ve been forced to take his place or nothing in the house will ever get done. I do think that contempt can be helpful, but I don’t know how to convert it into helpful action in my situation. I’ve gotten my siblings to a therapist, and am hoping to help my sister get her drivers license and a job before I leave for Grad school, but I always worry that any impact I have will just leave when I do.

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