The complex and cummulative feeling of contempt and its expression can take a relationship past the point of no return quicker than you can blink your eyes.It is urgent that we all become more aware of and sensitive to this point of no return before it comes and goes.
I have been intrigued with this point of no return question regarding all behavior, and especially in relation to personal and work relationships. But being a positive psychologist by nature, I have to hope that choices can be made by individuals to fix any broken realities they are part of and create new and better ones they want. For me, the potential for any type of transformation from the negative (resisting the natural drive to learn, grow and improve) to positive (following this natural drive) is always there. Then again for me, the real question is:
“Can a person be influenced or otherwise taught to become more aware of the point of no return before it comes and goes, in distinguishing each separate moment of danger vs. opportunity?”
The answer to this question is in understanding what it is that is happening in between these two extreme points—when “trouble in paradise” first starts and when it becomes practically irreversible. Psychologists who have studied behavior and communication in both individuals and relationships have converged on one “dinosaur termite” in this point of no return continuum, but call it by a variety of terms. Of all the explanations, I like University of Washington’s leading marriage expert, John Gottman’s verbalized culprit most—“contempt.”
For a long time now I have felt a strong need to only divide emotions into either positive or negative ones, in knowing their main purpose and using them for our best welfare. Splitting hairs between the positive emotions—all varieties of love, and the negative ones being all varieties of fear—just didn’t seem that productive or even necessary. Knowing that the purpose of positive emotions is to validate the direction in which we are moving and the purpose of negative emotions being to warn us to slow down and rethink our approach, was quite enough to deal with.
But it is becoming evident these days that the expression of some negative feelings and energy can in fact be more destructive and disabling than others. And the presence of this emotion of contempt appears to be one of these negative feelings that is critical in speeding up the process of getting to and going past the point of no return in all individual thinking, communication and relationship behavior.
Let’s get a good understanding of what the complex emotion of contempt is all about. The dictionary definition is a good start. “Contempt = The act of condemning, despising, disrespecting, ridiculing and scorning something as being despicable, worthless, paltry, or insignificant.” However, it is the word’s connotation—the excess baggage it carries with it—that makes it more powerfully influential in the negative, harmful sense. The actual expression of contempt is what accumulates all the other destructive, defensive feelings under one umbrella—inferiority, over-control, judgment, criticism, un-acceptance, exclusion, insensitivity, distrust and condemnation—which all work collectively together to effectively shut down thinking, communicating, and relating on any positive, healthy level.
Logically then, If we are going to intervene effectively—within ourselves and between others—we must learn how to become more sensitive to and aware of the development and building of this contemptuous termite, before it comes and goes past the point of no return, or the so-called tipping point that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in the earlier best-seller, “Blink.”
I believe the way to do this is to pay closer attention to the words we use and the practical connotations they carry, when we are expressing any sort of disproval of anyone else’s ideas, values or behavior that doesn’t align well with our own ideas, values and behavior. This is especially true regarding the “name-calling” we do both privately and publically in response to this uncomfortable state of affairs. It is in the judgment of the names we call others who are different from us, which seals the doom of possible transformation of understanding and acceptance leading to better relationships. This is the point of which we need to become more sensitive towards, because it quickly turns from opportunity to danger quicker than you can blink your eyes.
The bottom line to this contempt thing is that our minds, bodies and spirits require many more positive experiences than negative ones to keep learning, growing and improving. Contempt is the “devil’s” way of getting things hopelessly out of balance past the point of no return. This is something we all can and should do something about.
William Cottringer, Ph.D. is President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA and also a business and personal success coach, sport psychologist, photographer and writer living in the mountains of North Bend. He is author of several business and self-development books, including, The Prosperity Zone, Getting More By Doing Less, You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too, The Bow-Wow Secrets, Do What Matters Most, “P” Point Management, and Reality Repair Rx coming shortly. He can be contacted with comments or questions at 425 454-5011 or bcottringer.pssp.net