criticism

Shame and Contempt, Part 3: The Flipside

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

In an earlier blog, I explored Shame and Contempt as unhealthy and unproductive mutations of Guilt and Judgment, respectively, and how we live as though we believe them even though they are profoundly untrue.

Here, I would like to discuss the ground that Shame and Contempt grow from.

Self-Righteousness

The most obvious and familiar feeling that engenders shame or contempt is self-righteousness.  We are most often aware of self-righteousness in others, especially when it is directed at us.  It is identifiable by our reactions to it: “How dare you look down your nose at me!?”  “Little Miss (Mr.) Goody-Two-Shoes” (I know I’m dating myself here.)  “What a stuck-up jerk!”  “Think you’re better than everyone else, do you?”

It seems apparent to me that we would regard self-righteousness as a negative character trait or behavior when we see it or experience it from anyone.

However, most of us actually practice this at some point ourselves. We experience self-righteousness in ourselves when we say or think things like, “I would never…” or “How could you…”.  When we shake our heads and “cluck our tongues” to say “Tsk, tsk, for shame.”  When we say, “THAT person deserves to be…” . It is at its core an internal feeling of being better than the other person.

What makes self-righteousness distinct from contempt?  Self-Righteousness is the soil from which Contempt grows and flourishes.

Contempt is the external expression of the fundamental (and often unquestioned) internal belief in our own goodness (self-righteousness).

The trap of it is that we tend to highlight the things we are good at or things that we think make us look good, and exclude the things we are less good at or embarrass us.  When we operate from self-righteousness, we act as though we have the right to determine the worth of another person.

Other-Righteousness

Other-Righteousness is a term that I am pretty sure I made up.  I use it to describe the sensation that others are by nature better than oneself.  It functions in relationships when we “know” that our significant other is smarter, better, wiser, etc.  We put them on a pedestal that says, “You know more about XYZ than I do, so I will always yield to your opinion on this.” Socially, we experience the sensation that everyone who sees us is judging us or pitying us.  We feel that they are worth more than us.

Not only do we have this feeling, we believe it.  Not only are we judged, but we deserve to be judged.   We automatically believe that others have no real compassion when we make a mistake, that they are laughing at us or scorning us, and that we deserve it.  It is the core belief in our defectiveness and shame.  It is a wearisome way to live.

What makes “other-righteousness” distinct from shame?  The answer is the same as to the similar question above:  Other Righteousness is the soil from which our sense of defectiveness grows.

Shame is the external or surface expression of the core (often unquestioned) belief in others’ superiority.

Also similar is the trap.  When we believe in our own worthlessness, we highlight and expect all the screw ups and shortcomings and exclude examples of our genuine goodness.  When we operate from other-righteousness, we live as though everyone around us has the right to condemn us.

My next blog will look at how to counter these formidable foes.

Shame and Contempt, Part 1: What are they?

By Jonathan Hart, LPC

Shame and Contempt.  These are feelings we have a hard time making sense of.   Both are loaded words, powerful concepts to consider.  As internal feelings, they are more common than we realize, and often shape our worlds more than we know.

Shame (v. Guilt)  (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Shame is a feeling of being defective.  This is different than guilt.  Guilt is the knowledge of having done wrong.  Shame is the sense that “I am wrong,” or that “Something is wrong with me.”

The clue to distinguishing these two feelings from each other is the verb.  

Guilt uses action verbs: did/didn’t, acted, failed to act, etc.  Shame uses State-of-Being verbs: am, is, was, were, can/can’t, etc.  Guilt says “I did [a thing that was wrong].  I crossed a line, I lied, I acted in this way or that”.  Shame says, “What was I thinking?  What is the matter with me?  Why can’t I …?”.

Distinguishing between shame and guilt is important for two reasons:

  1. Guilt is a healthy emotion that leads us to learning to do better things and resist doing harmful things.  We appropriately don’t like how guilt feels, and because we don’t want to feel that way, we make different choices.
  2. Shame is always a lie.  Shame never results in real change or learning, it only self-reinforces.  “What did I expect?  This is what I get.  I am such a screw up.”  Most often when we evaluate ourselves in this way, we are evaluating our whole being on the basis of our bloopers reel.  It is to feel worthless, pointless, and without value to the world at large.

Contempt (vs. Judgment) (see this blog for a more long-winded examination of this distinction)

Contempt is at its core the shaming of another.  In similar fashion to Shame, Contempt uses being verbs, whereas (like Guilt) Judgment uses action verbs.

It is to measure the person or thing as inherently defective.

Judgment is objectively or subjectively describing something.  “I like/don’t like this thing/person”, or “You hurt me when you said…”, or “I like/don’t like how you talked to me.”    Contempt makes the evaluation about the being of the person or thing itself.  “You are such a fool.”, or, “What is wrong with you?”, or “What were you thinking?”

Again, this distinction is important for two reasons:

  1. Judgment itself is not a bad or hurtful thing.  Contempt is the sentiment most folks are referring to when they say “don’t judge”.  We all make judgments every day, and these are healthy and needful assessments of our world.
  2. Like shame, Contempt is always a lie.  It is to speak as though we are authorized or have the capacity to determine the worth of another human’s existence.  To express contempt is to say that the person or thing is worthless, without value, and that destroying them would be a non-issue.

So What?

Shame and contempt shape our worlds more than we know.  My next blog in this series will look at how we use shame and contempt in our daily lives to describe ourselves and others.