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.
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 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.