yours, tiramisu

dealing with contempt

Do you ever grapple with feelings you know you shouldn't have? I'm thinking about feelings today, specifically contempt, an ugly one I feel more frequently than I'd like to.

All sorts of things can invoke my contempt: bad table manners, excessive chattiness, ignorant remarks, 'unrefined' tastes. It doesn't take much. I know this feeling is contempt because I can sense the implicit I'm better than you because x characteristic of contempt.

Contempt: The feeling when you look down on someone. You don’t want to have anything to do with a person like this. You feel contempt for someone who is inferior or unworthy in your eyes, because you believe they possess a negative personal characteristic.1

I don't like feeling contemptuous. Not only because I know these feelings are unwarranted, but also because I can feel them subtly influencing my actions even as my conscious mind tries to ignore and reject them.

I don't know exactly where this contempt comes from. It's not exactly fashionable to admit you think you're better than the people around you, so I'm not sure if I experience feelings like these more or less than the average person. You can see subtle examples around you if you pay attention, though. Think about when people gossip or complain about others, the gosh, they're so awful! and the contempt implicit in those remarks.

If I think long and hard about where my contempt comes from, I can trace the roots of this to my childhood (naturally). I grew up listening to my parents ascribe less favorable characteristics to any group they deemed inferior. They (still) believe that people are overweight because they're gluttonous, and that the poor remain poor because they don't work hard enough.2 I don't think the constant comparisons of growing up in a competitive environment helped either. All those oh so and so's kid went to Harvard Law / won a big award / makes $400k a year must have worked their way into my psyche somehow, enough for me to measure my worth on external factors and feel superior than peers I find to be less smart/talented/accomplished than me. I know using a yardstick of prestige and salary and achievement is a silly one, but when it's all you're measured against for the first however many years of your life, it's hard to unlearn. It's kind of like using imperial units your whole life and then trying to switch to metric. Like, yeah I know how far a kilometer is, but I can feel when I've walked a mile.

Of course, these days I know these opinions to be untruths (it feels blasphemous for me to even write those down), insidiously tempting because they shield me from the uncomfortable truth that what I have in life is largely the product of sheer good fortune. Even armed with this realization, it can be difficult for me to stop the flow of these poisonous thoughts, like judging someone who doesn't have good table manners. People who don't have the 'proper decorum' at the dinner table just haven't had the chance to learn or simply grew up with different cultural norms, and I always have to actively remind myself not to look down on people or judge their character for meaningless external actions like that. (I feel incredibly silly when I can sense my own contempt for similarly daft things, because anyone who's ever dined with me knows that I'm not some paragon of perfect etiquette either. And when has good taste or etiquette (whatever that means) had any bearing on true character, anyway?)

I wish I could speak to a therapist to help me get to the bottom of this ugly emotion and get rid of it. Do I feel contempt because it secretly feels good? Does it fuel my ego? I don't know, but I detest feeling like I'm better than anyone else when I know I'm not. Is it a pattern of thinking I've inherited? Is it something I can change with thought alone?

People we call humble typically do or say "humble" things. They talk down their own accomplishments and avoid boasting. I never understood why this mostly learned behavior was a virtue, though—my parents taught me how to appear humble and it's not something that's terribly hard to do either. But what good is simply knowing what is socially acceptable and unacceptable to say? Isn't humility of thought what matters above all?

thank you for reading; write to me at yourstiramisu 🐌 proton dot me

  1. The source for this definition is this beautiful website, an initiative of the Delft Institute of Positive Design. The link to the contempt page is here.

  2. Aside from the obvious confirmation bias that likely drives this belief, I always think about a quote that goes

    "Your personal experiences make up <0.0001% of what’s happened in the world but 80% of how you think the world works. When experiencing a fraction of what’s out there but using that to explain everything you expect to happen, you'll be disappointed & confused by others’ decisions."