A couple of years ago, Will and I attended an event where someone asked us all to consider which emotion we had the hardest time owning and were most likely to resist and push away. We both gave the same answer: contempt.
At the time I remember thinking that contempt seemed mean and not that useful. I talked to some people about contempt, and don’t remember anyone at the event giving me a compelling reason to embrace it, though it’s possible I did hear good advice, but wasn’t in a place to process it.
And I’m happy to say that I’ve finally made some progress on appreciating contempt!
In particular, I noticed that a lot of my internal dialogue was actually pretty self-contemptuous. I seemed to be using self-contempt to notice when my own positions didn’t make any sense and straw man them.
Noticing when my own positions don’t make sense is awesome!
Using self-contempt to do that seems pretty efficient. If you’ve never asked yourself, “what would my enemy think about what I was doing,” I recommend trying it. It’s been eye-opening for me in the pass, and my worldview makes the claim that most people assume most people are more virtuous than is actually the case.
But then, viewing myself with contempt is also costly. It’s easy for me to miss how costly it is, because these thoughts are tinged with the cold kind of contempt contempt, and that tone can slip under my radar pretty easily. But I end up feeling small and not very confident as a result :-(.
And even though my thoughts aren’t perfect, they’re usually a better guess than than my best arguments against them.
Here’s an example of my contemptuous voice being mean:
“I think it worked out okay that I didn’t obsess about not having the dog jump on people. He’s naturally doing it less as he gets more comfortable.”
“OR you’ve created a behavior pattern that he didn’t have to have that makes everyone like him a little less and a generally pushy attitude that doesn’t serve him or anyone else very well.”
Sometimes, it says things that imply that I’m doing something more right than not.
“Meh, Argos (same dog) gets so frustrated when I try to teach him stuff. It didn’t seem as bad before, so maybe I’ve poisoned the process somehow.”
“OR you just thinking that because you’ve accidentally reinforced frustrated barking a few times in a row, that factor is very salient for you, and nothing else is all that different. You weren’t sure he’d ever learn the other stuff either, but he did.”
The self-contempt thing isn’t about me being a bad person, or about me having done the wrong thing. It’s M.O. is telling me that my thoughts, flattering or unflattering, are generally crappy and not to be trusted.
Kinda costly, but also useful and overall truer than not. Thanks contempt!