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in: Relationships & Family, Social Skills

October 15, 2019 Last updated: November 5, 2019

Gut Check: Are You a Contemptible Person?

vintage businessman sneering at camera

Are you really struggling in life?

You can’t keep a job, can’t make friends, can’t find a significant other. 

You know something is deeply wrong with your personality and/or behavior, but you can’t pinpoint or describe what it is. Or maybe you don’t think anything is wrong with you, and thus feel befuddled as to why nothing seems to be going your way and you aren’t making progress in life. 

The diagnosis for what’s going on may be this: you’re a contemptible person.

That might sure sting, but we don’t say it to be harsh; while recognizing the fact that you’re contemptible is difficult, it’s incredibly useful to do, as once you understand what plagues you, you can start to change. 

So today we’ll cover both how a person gets to be contemptible, and how to shake that way of being in order to live a much more successful and fulfilled life. 

What Makes a Person Compelling

In order to understand what makes someone contemptible and thus repellent, you first need to understand what makes someone compelling and subsequently attractive. What traits are magnetic and winning? What traits draw other people to an individual, and help him move ahead in every area of life?

John Neffinger and Matthew Kohut locate the answer to this question in two main qualities: strength and warmth.

“Strength and warmth are the principal criteria on which all our social judgments hinge,” they write in Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential

Neffinger and Kohut define strength as the ability to get things done. A strong person can impose his will on the world. He can shape and influence things. He acts rather than being acted upon. 

A strong person is also a competent person. He’s skilled. He’s good at what he does and provides value to those around him. 

Warmth is the ability to make others feel cared for and accepted. A warm person is approachable and empathetic. He acknowledges other people’s feelings and recognizes their needs. When you’re around a warm person, you feel at ease; you feel good. When you leave the presence of a warm person, you feel like you’ve been noticed and affirmed. 

Some situations call for a stronger approach; others require a warmer touch. The most compelling people have developed and have access to both strength and warmth, and are able to deftly dial up different combinations of the two qualities according to the circumstances. 

Most other people, however, embody varying degrees of strength and warmth. 

You probably know people who aren’t very strong, but are pretty warm. They’re kind of bumbling and inept, but you can overlook their ineffectiveness because they’re good with people, and they make you feel good. At worst you can be bugged by their overly solicitous personality, and feel pity for them as “Nice Guys.” But they’re often tolerable to be around.

On the other hand, some people are complete a-holes, but they’re good at what they do. They lack warmth but make up for it with strength. They’re capable. They’re useful. You may not really enjoy having them on your team, but you appreciate their ability to get the job done.

So ideally, you want to have both strength and warmth. And having at least one or the other makes life and your interpersonal relations go more smoothly.

But what of people who have neither strength nor warmth?

No Strength + No Warmth = A Contemptible Person

When you lack strength and warmth, you’re both incompetent and selfish, incapable and annoying. 

It’s this combination of uselessness and unpleasantness which elicits contempt in others.

Philosopher Robert Solomon described contempt as a combination of disgust and anger. It’s not just dislike, but active dislike. Contemptibles violate shared standards, norms, and expectations, and though it’s within their power to change, they act frustratingly indifferent to doing so.  

Contemptibles bring nothing to the table in terms of skills and effectiveness and they rub people the wrong way while they’re doing it. 

Consequently, contemptibles have a hard time moving forward in life. 

At work, being both inept and irritating results in them getting passed over for promotions. Or outright fired. 

Their social and love lives are typically close to nonexistent. No one wants to build a relationship with someone who is both incompetent and oblivious to the thoughts, feelings, and needs of others. Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman calls contempt one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” when it comes to relational happiness and longevity, for when one partner loses their respect for the other, disgust ensues, and the relationship is frequently doomed.

How to Be Less Contemptible

If you can’t seem to get ahead in life, it might be time to do a quick gut check and ask yourself if it could be due to the fact that people view you with contempt. 

Yeah, it’s a tough question to answer truthfully. Who wants to think of themselves as contemptible? But it could go a long way in helping you move towards a more fulfilling and flourishing existence. 

If you’re starting from a negative place, developing both strength and warmth may seem overwhelming. But remember that you don’t need both qualities to escape from a place of contemptibility; possessing at least one or the other will greatly increase your ability to function in life. 

The simplest area to start with is strength. As with all social dynamics, developing warmth requires more complexity and nuance. But becoming skillful and technically competent is a pretty straightforward deal; capability is there for the taking if you put the work into gaining knowledge, figuring out the rules, and becoming effective. Seek to not only master some skill, but to also learn how to get things done and move things forward. Become indispensable within an office, team, or group. People will cut you some slack with your prickly or cold personality as long as you’re good at what you do. 

Here are some articles to read on how to turn up the strength dial:

Simply gaining strength alone will remove you from the outright contemptible category. You’ll gain the confidence and status that comes from being useful. But without warmth, you still won’t be as professionally successful as you could be, and will struggle with your non-professional relationships too — which is where the lion’s share of happiness and fulfillment derives. 

So it behooves you to move beyond simply not being contemptible, to being compelling as well, by adding the quality of warmth to your way of being. 

Fortunately, we’ve got plenty of resources on how to turn up the warmth dial too: 

You don’t have to be contemptible. All it takes to escape the orbit of interpersonal disgust is turning the dial up on either strength or warmth, and ideally, with some time and effort, both. 

Learn more about how to be compelling by developing strength and warmth in my podcast interview with Matthew Kohut: