How to recognize contempt in a dysfunctional family

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If you grew up in a dysfunctional family, you may have been treated with contempt. When your parents looked at you with disdain rather than love, that was contempt.

In his research, Dr. John Gottman calls this combination of emotions (anger and disgust) one of the biggest relationship killers.

Outward displays like eye rolling and a curled lip characterize contempt. It’s what Pete Walker refers to as “negative noticing” in his book Complex PTSD.

Outward displays like eye rolling and a curled lip characterize contempt. Click To Tweet

Growing up, my father treated me with a great deal of contempt. He never gave me any teaching or guidance; then when I did something wrong, he would sneer and belittle me.

I realize now how ridiculous it is to expect a child to know how to do something she’d never been taught. But that’s the backwards logic of the toxic parent.

The real meaning behind contempt

On the surface, contempt expresses superiority and disgust toward its subject. However, I’ve learned from mentors and other experts that it may reveal the opposite underneath.

This makes sense when I think about my ex-husband who would literally shoo me away when I expressed any kind of emotional need. (I had married someone like my father, who withheld affection and avoided emotional intimacy.)

His contempt likely arose out of fear around his ineptitude when it came to relating on an emotional level.

In this way, contempt appears as a display of superiority. But there may be subconscious feelings of inferiority behind the display.

As children, however, we’re not sophisticated enough to understand that. Even adults who don’t study these things would have trouble grasping the concept.

How such treatment affects the child

I rarely, if ever, experienced my parents gazing at me with love. They either ignored me or treated me with contempt.

I recently came across a photo of an aunt-in-law looking at my child self with adoration. I realized in a flash that my parents never looked at me like that.

The photo drove home the fact that someone who had only recently met me treated me with more love than my parents did.


Being raised on contempt conditions you to allow others to treat you that way. And you develop a harsh inner critic who piles on the shame as well.

This is why we have so much trouble relaxing or enjoying ourselves. We feel we must be doing something to prove our worth.

When we stop producing, we call ourselves lazy. Or we procrastinate because we never received the encouragement needed to push through challenges.

As a result, we have no idea how to give ourselves that needed encouragement. Similarly, if you never received praise for a job well done, you will not know how to give it to yourself.

Your parents did not have to call you names for you to know how they felt about you. Displays of contempt would signal your unworthiness of support and simple engagement.

Your parents did not have to call you names for you to know how they felt about you. Click To Tweet

Since we blamed ourselves for our parents’ contempt, we constantly tried to win them over. We felt if we could do the right thing, they’d finally love and accept us.

Due to our dependence on them, we had to believe they were right. We couldn’t risk thinking the ones responsible for us had such terrible judgment.

So, we internalized their contempt and turned it on ourselves.

Why parents might display contempt

It’s obvious our parents acted out of their own unhealed inner children. Why else would an adult feel the need to belittle and demonstrate superiority over a child?

Those parents we treated as supreme beings at the expense of ourselves were no more than bratty children who lacked the most basic emotional intelligence.

And if you’ve grown up and away from your dysfunctional family, I’m willing to bet they still are.

How to kick your inner critic to the curb

your inner critic
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You may be surprised to learn your inner critic is often the internalized voice of your parents and caregivers.

If you had critical, unloving, or inattentive parents, you would find fault with yourself, too. Since you relied on your parents for survival, it felt too risky to blame them. You had to blame yourself instead.

You grew up telling yourself that if you could only be quiet enough, perfect enough, funny enough, or pleasing enough, you’d win them over.

Your inner critic deduced that your deficits made you unlovable. Not that your parents were wrong for not loving you enough.

Your inner critic deduced that your deficits made you unlovable. Not that your parents were wrong for not loving you enough. Click To Tweet

If you grew up with emotional neglect, only certain emotions were allowed. Even the so-called positive emotions had to be expressed in a certain way.

When you felt sad or angry, you did not receive the support you needed. You learned these emotions pushed people away and should be suppressed.

Instead of giving yourself compassion when you feel sad or angry, you shame yourself. You talk yourself out of these feelings with false positivity. This can lead to depression and deep-seated resentment in the long run.

Contrast your inner critic with compassion for others

Have you noticed how differently you speak to others than to yourself? When you’re going through something hard, you tend to beat yourself up. But when a friend is struggling, you speak supportive words of compassion.

The first step in kicking your inner critic to the curb is to extend yourself the same courtesy. Practice speaking to yourself the way you speak to others who are dealing with disappointment.

Instead of pushing yourself or telling yourself to shape up, comfort yourself. Give yourself a hug or nice treat and tell yourself it’s okay to make mistakes or feel bad sometimes.

Dr. Kristin Neff has popularized the concept of self-compassion and this is its first tenet. The second includes remembering you’re not alone when you’re not perfect. All of us experience, disappointment, both in ourselves and others.

Dr. Neff also advocates mindfulness as important for replacing your inner critic with self-compassion. Mindfulness is the simple act of accepting your thoughts and feelings without judgment.

That means losing the shame around emotions your parents never helped you understand or process. It also involves observing those emotions rather than identifying with them.

Self-sabotage as self-protection

your inner critic

Remember, your inner critic is the child’s way of protecting herself. She believed if you could do better, be better, do more, be more, you would finally win love.

Your inner critic is the child's way of protecting herself. Click To Tweet

As an adult, this self-protection becomes self-sabotage. It looks like pushing yourself to the point of burnout and self-punishing perfectionism.

When you begin to observe this self-saboteur rather than identify with her, you may be shocked at how ruthless and cruelly she behaves toward you. But she thinks it’s all in your best interest.

Healing this inner child means taking over from her with your adult mind and resources. Reassure her she doesn’t need to protect you anymore. You are capable of taking care of things and will not die if you’re imperfect or have a bad mood.

The rejection and abandonment the inner child thinks she’s protecting you from seems like life and death to her. That’s because your parents’ abandonment would have literally resulted in your demise when you couldn’t take care of yourself.

So, know these coping mechanisms come from an intelligent, logical place. But they don’t work anymore and never did, really. That’s because you were never the problem – your parents inability to meet your needs was.

How to stop needing closure after a toxic relationship

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When a relationship ends, people often seek closure. When you leave someone due to their toxicity, freedom is often not enough. In fact, you cannot feel free without answers to lingering questions.

Closure refers to a feeling of resolution and understanding following the end of a relationship. But when does the need for closure hold you back from moving forward?

The concept of closure after a relationship may be another product of magical thinking. That’s the same mindset that kept you in the relationship, despite all the signs this person would never change.

The concept of closure after a relationship may be another product of magical thinking. Click To Tweet

With that said, is it possible you’ll never receive the resolution your heart desires? More importantly, can you move forward and heal without the elusive closure you seek?

Do we need closure in a relationship?

The need for closure keeps you focused on the past relationship. It leaves your healing in the hands of the one who wounded you in the first place.

The idea that someone committed to misunderstanding you will suddenly give you validation makes no sense. And why would you trust them to tell you the truth after all their lies and manipulation?

The need for closure could be your self-saboteur protecting you from the hard work of healing. It lovingly convinces you that if you only extract a few choice words from this person you’ll be okay.

But healing never rests on one factor. It’s multi-faceted, ongoing, and ever-evolving. And it’s a journey that ventures within.

Seeking closure can disrupt this journey and re-traumatize you. When you go back to the toxic person and get gaslit or manipulated, you re-enter the dysfunctional dynamic.

Seeking closure can disrupt the healing journey and re-traumatize you. Click To Tweet

That can lead to backsliding into self-doubt, guilt, and emotional dysregulation. You become susceptible to their control and power games, and lose your hard-earned autonomy.

Resolution comes from within


Desire for closure can be a form of emotional avoidance. Rather than sitting with the difficult feelings that arise after a broken relationship, you tell yourself answers to certain questions will solve the problem.

Often, the regret we feel after leaving a relationship has to do with how much we put up with and for how long. We mourn over the time invested and the loss associated with our sunk costs.

We try to redeem this wasted time and energy by finding answers to unanswerable questions. But, there is often nothing we can do to make sense of this loss. Except to take the hard lessons and move on.

The promise of closure can distract us from this seemingly grim fact. Closure is the sexy, glamorous alternative to the daily slog of personal growth and trauma healing.

Closure is the sexy, glamorous alternative to the daily slog of personal growth and trauma healing. Click To Tweet

It’s a one shot deal we believe has the power to solve all our woes. But healing results from a daily practice of facing our emotions, setting boundaries, and establishing a solid relationship with ourselves.

The truth is, closure comes from within and can never be granted by anyone else. It came when you finally decided to walk away from that toxic relationship.

It serves you to remember the source of your pain will never be the fount of your resolution.

How to overcome suppressed anger and why it’s dangerous

suppressed anger
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Much of the self-help advice out there seems to advocate suppressed anger. They bypass this important emotion and go straight to forgiveness instead.

People who have been gaslit and abused are expected to calmly set boundaries. The advice says to act in a monk-like manner and remember not to blame your abusers.

Common knowledge says forgiveness is the path to peace. Regardless of whether anyone has said sorry, expressed understanding, or asked for forgiveness.

More often, you are told to forgive in spite of receiving none of the above. That would be fine if there were evidence that forgiveness advances healing. But there is no such evidence.

On the contrary, suppressed anger can be far more dangerous than withholding forgiveness. Truth is, you are not a saint and you don’t have to act like one in order to heal.

Suppressed anger can be far more dangerous than withholding forgiveness. Click To Tweet

There’s nothing wrong with healthy anger. In fact, it’s essential to both your mental and physical health.

Anger has much to teach us and arises as a signal that something needs addressing. It could indicate wrongdoing toward you, for example.

If you’re like me, you might have held your anger in until you could no longer. Then something triggered you to explode and express anger inappropriately.

That’s an unhealthy release of the emotion. But the answer is not to go all Zen and pretend you never experience rage. Instead, embrace that emotion and lose the shame you feel around harboring it.

Consequences of suppressed anger

Women especially have been raised to believe anger is unacceptable. As a result, we never learned how to process our anger. More often, we did our best not to feel it.

When you talk yourself out of your anger, you minimize your feelings. This is a dangerous form of self-abandonment that can lead to physical as well as mental health problems.

Anger tells you when something needs to change. Suppressed anger prevents that change from happening. And the consequences can be disastrous.

Anger tells you when something needs to change. Suppressed anger prevents that change from happening. Click To Tweet

In his book, When the Body Says No, Dr. Gabor Maté explains how suppressed anger can lead to an array of diseases. He goes so far as to call it suppressed rage.

suppressed anger

Releasing suppressed anger does not mean unleashing it on someone else. That’s often the fear around our anger: that we’ll hurt others if we acknowledge it.

But you can experience your anger without taking it out on anyone. You can feel anger toward someone and not have to unleash it on them.

It’s a matter of connecting with your anger to better connect with yourself. You acknowledge that you feel angry and have a right to feel that way.

Denying your anger does not make it go away. Instead, it turns against you and ravages your body with disease. There’s evidence it causes depression and anxiety, too.

Suppressed anger means denying yourself full expression of your feelings. That’s why advocates of “good vibes only” can seem fake and hard to relate to.

Suppressed anger means denying yourself full expression of your feelings. Click To Tweet

They’ve cut off part of themselves in the hope that bypassing “negative” feelings will bring joy. But it’s a counterfeit happiness and the body knows the truth.

How to embrace anger

That’s why learning to embrace and process your anger can be a lifesaver.

This includes feeling your feelings instead of denying them. When anger arises, locate it in your body and get curious about what triggered it.

Often, our anger is about one thing that needs addressing. When we suppress it, we deny ourselves the chance to resolve that one thing.

Instead we invite depression which makes us feel bad about everything. And removes our motivation to do anything about it.

You might have the urge to dispel the angry feelings and that’s what makes you lash out. Try a different way of releasing the emotion such as movement or journaling.

Listen to what your anger is trying to tell you. What needs to change in your life? What’s one step you can take toward that change?

How to deal with a narcissist or toxic person

toxic person
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Do you have a toxic person in your life who lacks empathy and compassion? They refuse to understand you or take responsibility for their part in any problem.

These people manipulate rather than communicate honestly. They gaslight you as a way to control you and the narrative. It’s always about them and what they want.

That’s who we’re describing when we use the term narcissist in this post. They do not need an official diagnosis for you to know they are very bad for you.

The narcissist or toxic person might be in your family. They could be a spouse or ex-spouse, someone you work with, a friend, or romantic partner.

You may have several of these people in various areas of your life. And sometimes you need to detach from them for your own mental health.

Other times, it’s not possible or desirable to go no contact with the narcissist. You may have to co-parent with an ex-spouse or encounter a toxic person in the workplace.

So, how do you deal with these people whether or not estrangement is an option?

Silence in response to the toxic person

If you’ve made the difficult decision to cut ties with a toxic person in your life, they rarely go quietly. Narcissists are not in the business of accepting or complying with your wishes.

If you've made the difficult decision to cut ties with a toxic person in your life, they rarely go quietly. Click To Tweet

When you finally draw that line and go no contact, it’s usually after years of trying to forge a functional relationship. Going no contact means you’ve faced the truth that no such relationship is possible.

The narcissist will use hoovering to suck you back in. You will feel compelled to explain and justify yourself, to make them understand.

But there is no understanding with the toxic person. They are not interested in you, but in getting what they want. And what they want is to control you and get back to the way things were between you.

In my experience, there is nothing you can say or do that will make them understand your point of view. Silence works on the narcissist because it withholds the supply they desire.

The gray rock method

Gray rock is a psychology term that refers to you becoming as dull and lifeless as the object in question. When narcissists prompt you to explain or plead for understanding, you only provide fuel for their toxic fire.

Gray rock is a psychology term that refers to you becoming as dull and lifeless as the object in question. Click To Tweet

You may know already that no amount of talking will get the narcissist to see your side. Instead, it may fill you with self-doubt and reverse steps forward you’ve made in your healing journey.

If you’re in a situation where no contact is not yet possible, you can go “gray rock” instead. It means you refuse to engage with them in any meaningful way.

At first, they may challenge you on your new way of communicating. They might mock you or try to get you to engage the way you used to.

If you can withstand all that and continue to act like a gray rock, they will cease to have power over you. They will likely give up trying to bait you and move on to a better source of supply.

But, isn’t silence and gray rock phony?

toxic person

If both of these options feel inauthentic, they are. However, it’s not possible to have an honest and intimate relationship with a narcissist or toxic person.

It's not possible to have an honest and intimate relationship with a narcissist or toxic person. Click To Tweet

When you share your feelings openly and seek understanding, you get nothing but abuse. They objectify you as they use you to fill their own need for attention, control, and power.

No matter how good your intentions or how tactfully you approach them, your words will never have the desired effect.

They will never make a toxic person love you, understand you, express remorse, or share their honest emotions. These elements of true relationship are inaccessible to the narcissist or toxic person.

It is rare for this type of person to change or self-reflect. While you’ve been working on yourself, they’ve stayed where they are.

Silence and the gray rock method are modes of self-preservation. You’ve finally decided you can no longer play this unwinnable game.

It may come after physical illness brought on by stress. Or mental anguish that makes it hard to function. You may realize your very life depends on this self-protection.

Whatever the reason, you’ve finally accepted that reasoning will get you nowhere with the narcissist. It’s time to take care of yourself.