The 4 Toxins That Will Make Your Life Hard – Contempt
Contempt is the most toxic of the four communication forms. Understanding what makes a family or another group of people thrive makes a big difference to your wellbeing and to how you maintain your energy. Enhancing your knowledge of what makes interactions truly constructive will provide you with an incredibly powerful and useful tool, both at work and in your life.
In my previous articles about the team toxins, I wrote about Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D., and his findings and focused on criticism and defense. Continuing from these we will look at contempt – the one few of us easily admit to using.
Toxin 3: Contempt
Contempt, in whatever shape or form, is a serious problem in any relationship. It includes sarcasm, belittling, cynicism, mocking, name-calling, hostile humor, belligerence, and all forms of condescending behavior. Coming from a place of superiority it is labeling a person with negative traits. It can be both verbal and non-verbal and shown through body languages such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body movement. Gestures and actions like turning away, “talk to the hand”, rolling of eyes, sneering and disgust are all signs of contempt.
Being on the receiving end of contempt has a direct, negative impact on our immune system. It is damaging to our psychological, emotional, and physical health and over time it will erode our self-esteem. When contempt is present it is impossible to reach reconciliation.
Fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts contempt comes from a place of, often unconscious, entitlement or from a sense that you are better than the other person. It can also come from feeling insecure and thus trying to assert oneself, although it has the opposite effect. When we are contemptuous, we objectify the other person and put their humanity to the side. When differences are not resolved, when repair bids and apologies are not accepted, when there is a lack of trust or when there is a sense of false righteousness, contempt will have fertile grounds to grow.
When working with relationships, families or teams, I advocate for a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to contempt and for the partners to build structures for how to handle it when it shows up. The antidote to contempt is to foster a culture of appreciation and acknowledgment.
If you have teenagers in your house, you might have heard how contempt shows up in a tone of voice, behavior, lack of interaction, unwillingness to look at you, etc. If you have been on the receiving end of contempt you know how small you this can make you feel and how it can physically hit you in the gut. Children do not understand contempt, but they are severely negatively impacted by it. It erodes their self-image and belief in themselves. Over time, with a steady dose of contempt, something happens to our self-esteem as well as to our immune system. In workplaces where contempt goes unchecked, turnover is high. Where contempt is present in our private lives, our relationships are poor or do not last.
Contempt comes with a heavy price, so we best nip it in the bud and prevent it from taking hold. I can still feel throughout my whole being what it was like to be in a relationship where contempt was served daily. I broke out of it years ago, but to this day I still have a “red flag alert” that comes up at the mere hint of condescending behavior or hostile humor.
If you are the one communicating with contempt, ask yourself:
When do I act with contempt? What am I avoiding when I default to contempt? How might it change if I choose to look at what I appreciate about this person?
When you are the on the receiving end of contempt, set boundaries. Stand tall and tell the other person what impact it has and that it needs to stop. Keep it short, to the point and without blame.
Ask for help
This is not easy and it can feel almost impossible to fight contemptuous behavior. You will need to assess the situation and find the time and place that is best. It is also ok to ask for help!
You can also initiate a conversation about communication in general and help build awareness of what kind of behavior and styles of communication that will help you thrive as a family, build stronger friendships and relationships or be more productive at work.
Check out my article on stonewalling – the last of the four toxins. I will also share a tool you can use to create a framework for healthy ways to communicate.