How to recognize contempt in a dysfunctional family

Photo by John Bussell on Unsplash

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.

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  1. A fellow trainee Psychotherapist

    I really appreciate the commentary you offer regarding the dysfunctional thinking of our parents. Particularly, explanations on what they might have experienced in their own childhood. In another blog of yours, you also mentioned parents’ fearing emotional intimacy. That itself was a huge insight into why my parents behaved/behave they way they do. Thank you for the work you do

    • Thank you for your comment. I appreciate the words of affirmation.