Anger and Contempt
Anger is the emotional response to injustice. Anger is an important emotion. It alerts us to the fact that what we’re experiencing, or noticing others experiencing, may be unfair.
However, when our anger has the charge of contempt, it drives us to act nonrelationally, in ways that violate integrity, harm dignity, and create a sense of disconnection and insecurity. And nonrelational behaviors are a key driver of infighting.
Anger versus contempt
Just as it’s important to differentiate guilt, which is adaptive or functional, from shame, which is maladaptive or dysfunctional, we need to differentiate anger from contempt.
Anger is the emotion that arises when we sense injustice, that something unfair is happening. The injustice can be minor or major, from a shopper cutting in line to a politician creating racist policies. Feeling anger is a sign that our moral compass is working, and it can motivate us to take positive action to rectify an injustice.
When we relate to our anger in a healthy way, we recognize it for what it is: an emotion that suggests that we may be witnessing an injustice.
Sometimes what we perceive as an injustice actually isn’t, so it’s important that we think of our anger as a data point rather than a conclusive sign that we’re witnessing something unjust.
Consider the anger that an abusive man feels at the seeming injustice of his partner refusing to dress the way he’s ordering her to—although he feels anger, he isn’t actually experiencing an injustice.
When we relate to our anger in an unhealthy way, we become merged, or blended, with it: we look at the world through the lens of our anger. And it often has the charge of contempt.
Contempt and shame
Contempt is the flipside of shame. Shame is the feeling of being inferior to others and less worthy of being treated with respect, and contempt is the feeling of being superior to others and more worthy of being treated with respect.
Contempt and shame share a common cause: the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth. This is the belief that some individuals or groups are more worthy of moral consideration, of being treated with respect, than others. Believing in a hierarchy of moral worth essentially makes us feel justified in disrespecting and harming others.
Contempt is a key driver of shaming behaviors. When we feel contempt for someone, we can easily trigger shame in them. Our behaviors communicate that they are inferior.
Research shows that contempt is the one emotion most likely to destroy a sense of connection and wellbeing in a relationship.
Like shame, contempt is an extremely disconnecting emotion. When we look down on others, we feel less connected with them; and when they feel our contempt, they feel ashamed and disconnected from us.
Contempt also disconnects us from ourselves. When we compare ourselves to an idealized version of who we think we should be or how we think we should behave, we can feel contempt for ourselves, and then feel ashamed.
Contempt and moral outrage
Many people today tolerate and even celebrate contempt, especially when it’s expressed through moral outrage.
The norm in much of the world, including in some progressive circles, is one of toxic moral perfectionism. We hold others, and often ourselves, to impossible standards. Someone makes one unexamined or selfish choice or statement and they become the enemy, the morally inferior other.
We may rally around those who raise the battle cry of moral outrage and who wield power over others even as they call for justice and compassion, because we’ve learned to believe that abuse isn’t really abuse as long as someone holds the moral high ground. Moral outrage can be intoxicating, as it has an addictive pull, so we need to be vigilant in our efforts not to be seduced by its siren song. We need to develop the self-awareness and presence that will enable us to notice and resist its attraction.
Empathy: the antidote to contempt (and shame)
It’s normal to feel contempt at times, given how normalized this emotion is. Nevertheless, contempt is an emotion that typically creates outcomes that are the opposite of what we want.
Contempt is a red flag alerting us that we’ve lost our connection with our empathy. Empathy is the antidote to contempt, as well as to shame. It’s impossible to look down on or up at someone when we’re looking at the world through their eyes.