How can I temper my tendency to despise people?
January 2, 2011 2:33 PM   Subscribe

How can I temper my tendency to despise people?

I am by nature an uncharitable person, but I would like to become slightly more charitable in my judgments of strangers.

1) Often, I think, if I knew a person's whole story, his or her choices might seem less evil or less stupid to me. Tell me facts about a person you know relatively well, that -- if I understood those facts -- would give me context, and increase my patience when dealing with that person.

(For example: non-obvious medical conditions; psychological conditions; justifiable distractions; life circumstances that understandably have led to otherwise-despicable attitudes or beliefs; hidden motivations or emotional complexes; mindsets that had made sense in past life contexts.)

2) What are other mental hacks or habits that have successfully made you less inclined to despise people you know relatively little about?

3) Have you been successful in reducing your contempt for others, without also reducing your discriminating nature? How can this balance best be struck?
posted by foursentences to Human Relations (51 answers total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: 4) Contempt is often a great deal of fun -- ideas for mitigating this?
posted by foursentences at 2:35 PM on January 2, 2011

Try practicing the art of having no opinion at all. There's no reason, with most people, to have an opinion one way or the other about them. If you don't know someone all that well, then that person can just be whoever they are without your judgment. Don't try to like them, don't actively try to work against hating them, just try to think of people as who they are, being who they will be without your thoughts on them having any effect on their lives, because, really, your thoughts about them probably don't mean anything to them anyway.
posted by xingcat at 2:37 PM on January 2, 2011 [15 favorites]

1) Make a game of it. Whenever someone's actions strike you as stupid or beneath you, try and invent a good reason why they might be doing what they are doing. It can be as outlandish or complicated as you wish. That's sometimes a fun challenge. After a while it becomes habitual, so whenever you see someone you come up both with a very uncharitable AND a very charitable backstory for whatever he's doing.

2) How hard are you on yourself? If you do something stupid, do you beat yourself up over it and do your high expectations on yourself play into your harsh judgements of others?
posted by Omnomnom at 2:42 PM on January 2, 2011 [13 favorites]

Remember that you'll never really have enough information (e.g. about medical conditions, life circumstances etc) to actually judge another person. You can form an opinion about what their actions mean and what you can likely expect from them in the future, but you will never know enough about them to judge them.

Also, it might help to remember that you will be judged in the same way you judge others, so if you despise someone, it will come back to you like a boomerang.

It is hard, especially if you've found yourself getting trapped over and over again by Trying To Understand the guy who is mugging you right now. If that's in your history, you might need to pump up the righteous anger as a way of keeping safe, but you have to remember that that's what it is, a way of keeping safe.
posted by tel3path at 2:45 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

People are generally dynamic. Even people who do evil things or generally seem like worthless assholes tend to have something interesting or redeeming about them. Try to reflect on what that trait is.

I'm a very critical person by nature but I don't like to waste energy by sitting around fuming about other people's actions. So I try to question why someone is making me so angry (do I recognize a bit of myself in them? Am I just pissy and looking for someone to blame?) or focus on the good in them. And I also make a point to be grateful that I don't have whatever characteristic they have that I deplore--e.g. Ugh, that person's smoking, how disgusting! What a loser! But aren't I glad that I don't have a nasty addiction like that? Isn't my life so much easier for it? Huzzah.
posted by tetralix at 2:47 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

What are other mental hacks or habits that have successfully made you less inclined to despise people you know relatively little about?

Always assume that at least some of the contextual details you mention (medical conditions, past experiences, trauma, distractions, etc.) in part 1 of your question are in play. I mean, everyone is as equally human as everyone else, no? No one is exempt from the ups and downs of life. You don't actually need to know whether the cashier who's being snippy with you is back on the job for the first day after burying her father; you can just silently acknowledge that there may be some pain that she's in.

This is the beginning of compassion. It's not as much immediate fun as contempt, perhaps, but it does actually make life a lot more enjoyable in the bigger scheme of things.
posted by scody at 2:51 PM on January 2, 2011 [19 favorites]

I agree with you that contempt can be a satisfying feeling and I often find myself being righteously judgemental of people I don't know.

I try to remind myself that people who are dysfunctional and hard to love may well have had adverse childhoods. When I think about my loving family and relative (middle class) privilege and the lack of adversity I have faced in life, it makes me feel a) grateful and b) sympathetic or empathetic towards people who didn't have what I had and therefore haven't fared as well. People who haven't been supported have a much harder time in making the "right" decisions.
posted by beccyjoe at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Maybe focus on this idea that "contempt is often a great deal of fun".

I mean, is it?
posted by waitangi at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

This isn't necessarily advice for tempering your lack of charity, but I found that experiencing setbacks and low times does wonders for building compassion. Suffering can make you more aware of your own vulnerability and that of the people around you. You may intellectually grasp that you'll never really know enough about someone to judge them, but pain teaches you to understand and accept it emotionally. Look at your own dark parts and recall how you felt when you were at your weakest, and you may find a germ of compassion for the flawed lives of others.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:55 PM on January 2, 2011 [12 favorites]

If you're a reader try:

DFW's "This is Water"
Kierkegaard's "Works of Love"
posted by pseudonick at 2:59 PM on January 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

I'll be frank....I see more in your question than a simple need to minimize being judgmental.

1. Your use of the term, "despise."

2. Your question, "Have you been successful in reducing your contempt for others...?" insinuates that we all have contempt for others and needing the same kind of help in dealing with this as you. That's not true. Most people, frankly, don't "despise" other people.

3. Your addition of question #4 is the most troubling. "Contempt is often a great deal of fun -- ideas for mitigating this?" This sealed it for me. You need more than "mental hacks" to deal with this kind of possible narcissism and anti-social tendencies that you seem to view as normal, and only asking others how they've tempered their own contempt for other people. Most don't see contempt for others as "fun."

This all goes much deeper than this seemingly simple question.

On preview, my reply seems harsh. No intention to lash out or anything. I can only say - you asked the question. I said I would be frank.

Good luck in dealing with this! A new year is a good time to reevaluate many things.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 3:02 PM on January 2, 2011 [17 favorites]

As another poster mentioned, I always make a game out of it. I try to figure out why someone would say/do something that they did... and come up with a list of reasons.

"Oh. Maybe they had a bad day"
"Maybe they are brain damaged"
"Maybe they are slightly retarded"
"Maybe they've never ordered from here before and that's why it's taking them forever"
"Maybe they have Asperger Syndrome"
"Maybe they are OCD and that's why they need to sit in this exact seat right next to me"

I also have a huge wacky family on both sides (OCD, panic attacks, abusive relationships, veterans, learning disabilities, amputees, narcolepsy)... so I'm used to people being... ridiculous. So, that gives me some context. I also will sometimes pretend that the person I'm "hating" is a member of my family... which make me a little more patient.
posted by KogeLiz at 3:04 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

There can be personal value, perhaps, in being discriminating and discerning. You can make better choices for yourself, you can use extra data to assess risk, make plans, set goals. However, being a constantly judgey person makes you tiresome to be around and often creates barriers in making connections with other people. It is a rare person who can live a completely fulfilled life without making real connections with another person. If you are not the rare unique self-actualized hermit, being less contemptuous will help you get along with people which will help you with certain personal goals.

So, to answer your questions.

1. my sister has epilepsy which is being managed, as well as it can be, with medication. The side effects mess up her sleep and make her often super-stressed [without sleep as well as some of the other invisible neurological problems she has] in ways that are often not worth explaining to the random cashier at a drug store who she's broken down in tears in front of. The mantra that I use is "everyone's hardest struggle is their hardest struggle" whatever it is. I find myself frequently feeling lucky that whatever problems are plaguing other people [which, in the short run are causing me to not enjoy their company. I love my sister but it can be tiring being with someone who is so often upset] they are not plaguing me. This can lead to being more gracious about whatever problems they are having even if it's "oh poor you, the Porshe won't start and you're late for your movie opening"

2. my rule with me is that I can despise people as much as I want to in my own head, but as soon as I make that in some way public [through talking about it, facial expressions, contemptuous treatment, whatever] then I have, myself, become despicable by my own value system and so I'm no better than anyone else, possibly worse because I'm aware of it. It's easy to find ways to assess people and find them wanting. It is much more challenging to open yourself up to making connections with people you do not feel a bond with. I don't want to feel judged by others when I'm in public; I try not to do that to other people.

3. Yes, see above. Most of the assessments I make that help me do whatever it is that I am doing can stay safely under other people's radar. Once you're in a position of some sort of power or control [as I am on this site for example] you should also strive to continually earn that by being as fair and evenhanded as you can be. Having the perfect putdown for someone you don't even know in an online forum is something you can share with a close friend and you don't need to look like a bully saying stuff like that in public. In many interactions, your reputation is all that you have, and having a reputation as a judgmental jerk [whether you're correct in your judgments or not] isn't where I want to be in my life. I decided at some point I'd rather be sociable and socialized than always technically "correct" and sometimes this means shutting up or being less-than-totally honest in the name of being a good or likable person. I'm okay with this.

4. I feel that it's something that I outgrew over time. Whether this is or is not true makes it easier to see the sort of wrathful glee you can get from being a sneering harpie as something juvenile and unkind. I feel somewhat that both my parents are people who take some sort of joy in being contemptuous. It made them rotten parents and somewhat lonely crabby older people. I feel that I can choose a different path.
posted by jessamyn at 3:09 PM on January 2, 2011 [39 favorites]

Cultivate compassion. If you're so convinced of your awesomeness that you despise everyone else for being more stupid than yourself, try tempering that ego with compassion. It could make you insufferably smug, arrogant and passive-aggressively 'helpful' but chances are you're insufferably hostile anyway (if your initial reaction is to 'despise' people, that will come through in how you treat them).
posted by geek anachronism at 3:13 PM on January 2, 2011

DFW's This is Water

Seconding this. Not only is it a beautiful piece, it's part of DFW's great legacy. With all of his genius, controversy, humor, personal demons, etc, etc, he created something that can teach generations about basic human kindness and grace for its own sake.
posted by sweetkid at 3:18 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Part 2 of Omnomnom's answer is really important! A lot of the way you judge others might be related to the ways you judge yourself.

After a lot of thought, I realized that I'm so hard on other people's "stupidity" (assumed, on my part, based on extremely limited snippets of their actions, like not realizing that they're about to try to turn the wrong way onto a one-way street) because I'm so hard on MYSELF when I do something that I see as "stupid" or "not thinking". And I really don't want to be stupid or not thinking--so VERY much so that it's (in my mind) the worst and most scathingly angry insult I can muster to call someone else. I thought, "wow, my impulses to be really angry at myself have quite a way of coming out as lashing out at others" and I decided to be as aware and mindful of this as possible. It's a weird hybrid of internalization-externalization of feelings.

I try to remember (and really believe) that people are just trying to do the best they can, all the time, just like I am. No one can be perfect 100% of the time, not me or anyone else. I try to focus on doing what I can not to be angry with myself, to practice compassion toward myself as often as I can, because the only thing in all of the universe that I have any control over is my own choices.
posted by so_gracefully at 3:20 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Contempt is often a great deal of fun

If it's fun, it's because it makes us feel better about ourselves if we can find a way in which we think we are superior to others, so maybe find other ways to feel better about yourself. Disclaimer: I know nothing about you personally, may not apply.

Also, if you really want to appreciate how much other people's bad experiences may have coloured the way they live/act, go and volunteer somewhere very different from the place you grew up. If you've come from a reasonably comfortable background, where things like emotional and financial security, a secure home and a good education are a given, go and help in a youth club in a deprived part of town or something along those lines. You will quite likely see young people growing up in circumstances that make your mind boggle, and realise just how enormous the span of human experience is, even within just one city. Considering the things many people have lived through in their most impressionable years, it's a miracle of achievement on their part that they can hold down jobs, keep families and homes, let alone manage to meet whatever exacting standards it is you're holding them up to and finding them wanting.
posted by penguin pie at 3:23 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I feel somewhat that both my parents are people who take some sort of joy in being contemptuous. It made them rotten parents and somewhat lonely crabby older people. I feel that I can choose a different path.

Yeah, this is a really good point. My mom in particular is a person who has pretty limited stores of compassion, empathy, and patience -- she's not without them entirely, but I've come to realize that at best, her tank's about a quarter full of these qualities -- and I have watched with frustration and sadness how her general and often gleeful contempt for others has gradually but irrevocably led to her being pretty isolated, difficult, and lonely in her senior years (though she would probably protest that she likes no longer being invited anywhere for the holidays, because all of her former friends are just assholes).

At this point, aside from my dad, her most frequent company is her one surviving dog and the constant blare of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. I love my mom, and she loves me, and it is heartbreaking to say this, but believe me: you don't want to end up living a similar fate. But where else can a life of despising most of your fellow human beings lead?
posted by scody at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2011 [8 favorites]

Also, I think the people in the thread using the word 'practice' aren't saying that lightly. It really is practice. You have to go out every time and try and try, and appreciate small changes in your behavior and mind. You won't read this thread, get some points, and go out and just love everyone right away. Just saying that so you don't feel disappointed if that doesn't happen, and learn to appreciate the small improvements and be happy for them as they come. Keep practicing!
posted by sweetkid at 3:27 PM on January 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

We're all just people.

Some people do and say dumb things. This does not always mean that they are dumb people or that they do not deserve your respect. Occasionally, you might also do things that may give people cause to think that you are dumb or that you "don't get it." I try to remember this whenever I am feeling particularly uncharitable.

In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch says what I'm trying to say in much more eloquent terms, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view - until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

It's rare that I ever actually find out what is going on with someone: whether they just found out that they have cancer or that they're annoyed because their coffee is cold. I remind myself that someone else's rude/contemptible behavior does not excuse mine; while this doesn't always work for me, it's generally a good start.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 3:30 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your question makes me sad. "Contempt is a great deal of fun", really?

Maybe when your instinct is to judge someone and find them worthy of contempt, pretend for a moment that it's your mother, or father or sister or best friend that someone else is looking at with a mixture of smugness, superiority, and irritation. Maybe they don't know that your mom is a Holocaust survivor, or that your dad moves slowly because he had a stroke, or that your sister talks like that because she has autism, or that your best friend is struggling with depression and he just lost his job again.

The fact is, you don't know. Even if you know someone pretty well, you don't know everything about them.

We're all just muddling along here. Most people are trying their best, most of the time. If you look for the best in people you'll find it. If you assume the worst, you usually the one who loses.

Do you really lack the imagination to figure that every single person has their own set of problems, and challenges? Are you really superior to us all? If so, what are you doing to improve our lot, if you're so great?

My guess is that you've never faced any serious trouble, or grappled with major problems, or experienced a big loss. Maybe once you do, you'll find it less fun and amusing to judge others with contempt. Or maybe you have such a terrible self image that the only way you can feel good about yourself is to tear down others for their perceived failings. It's a miserable way to live and I hope you're able to turn this around.
posted by Kangaroo at 3:42 PM on January 2, 2011 [14 favorites]

Contempt is laziness. If you're already so great compared to others, why work to become a better person?
posted by mono blanco at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

It seems to me that contempt often comes from a very limited view of other people.

For example if you are a jock and you judge everyone else by their physical fitness you will be able to feel contemptuous about lots of other people. Old people are frail old crocks, little kids are puny, fatsos are laughable, healthy people who aren't into sports just don't get it.

Similarly if you feel contempt about other people over their relative social status you are looking at them from a narrowly limited view. Didn't even go to university? Grew up in a bad neighbourhood? Can't hold down a job! What's wrong with those people. Why don't they all become wealthy entrepreneurs with perfect dentistry!! They could if they really tried...

It doesn't matter what grounds you use for believing these people are so inferior that they should feel shame; it's still a reflection on you, not them. Ever meet someone what could only speak English and felt contempt for everyone who "can't even speak English". They have no clue how difficult it is to learn a second language, probably no idea if the person they are sneering at is trilingual, and are not making a fair comparison. Would they, if transplanted into another culture be able to learn a language swiftly and fluently? Probably not.

Suppose you are in a group with the English speaker above who is sneering out loud about "People who come to this country should learn English..." You might agree with him. Or not. The fact is that when he expresses a contemptuous opinion of other people he's exposing himself, his ignorance, his biases and his own limitations. Chances are he does not speak fluent Cherokee.

In my experience contempt is used deliberately to dehumanize other people. So if you see a dirty looking woman walking down the street reacting with contempt is a good way to distance yourself. It is much safer to think, "Filthy panhandler, probably mental..." than it is to be concerned about her. If you believe that she deserves to be homeless and dirty since that is the result of choice she made that she did not have to make, and if you also look at her and judge her to be a con artist and a drug addict and mentally label her with a series of epithets as undeserving of your compassion and interest, then you are scot free, no responsibility.

Also, unfortunately, there are a number of people with uneven talents and opportunities. For example they may be very good at academics and not at all good at interpersonal skills. If you are in this situation it can be very tempting to judge every one only on the scale that you are good at as a way of compensating for anxiety about being bad at the other things. I've known a lot of very bright people with poor social skills who fell into this trap of trying with increasing desperation to narrow down the judgment criterion so that they would be able to call themselves superior. After a certain time it becomes very painful for everyone else to observe.

Having been in that situation - been a social misfit who sneered at anyone who was into popular culture - I find that being aware that I sound like an idiot when I compare myself to others in a way that aggrandizes myself helps me not do it, at least out loud. So I try not to. Knowing how I will come across and knowing that I felt contempt for other people because of my own personal inadequacy helps me keep my thinking from going down nasty self-deluding channels - at least not as much as it used to go down those channels.

I've also seen highly competitive people use contempt as a tool to drive other people away or make them submissive. This has usually been in MUDs where guys do random aggressive things to other players and crow derisively, "Suck it up!" And if their opponent points out that what they did was against the rules they sneer, "Wah-wah-wah." In this case contempt works as a tool to determine who will be last man standing. But again this tends to make the winners look rather narrow minded. It's not uncommon for a game environment like that to result in just one small clique of aggressive and hostile players left still logging in, wondering plaintively why there are never any girls around... Or just to put it another way: Contempt can make you win the game by leaving you as the only one playing.

And finally there is Darwin and evolution: Survival of the fittest!! You know that person that you are sneering at because they are ugly, stupid, mentally unstable, poor, incompetent, annoying and naive? Well, there is a pretty good chance that they are more fit to survive than YOU are. If their liver has an edge over your liver on processing environmental toxins and luck decides that is the factor you are both going to be judged on by the anvil of largest percentage of genes still around in a million years you could turn out to be rankly inferior to them The stuff we think is important very rarely is.
posted by Jane the Brown at 3:55 PM on January 2, 2011 [17 favorites]

I can remember feeling this sort of reflexive contempt when I was in my 20's. Now, at 40, those feelings make little sense to me. Hormonal changes, perhaps? I'm not completely sure of why or how the change has occurred. In line with itstheclamsname's suggestion, I think a major shift occurred when my first marriage fell apart despite my herculean efforts to hold it together; I had thrown everything I had into something and failed, and this made me keenly aware that other people who fail may also be failing in the context of great struggles I cannot see.

Somewhere along the line I latched onto the concept, from Hegel I think, that anything that exists is inevitably rational. There are reasons that things are the way they are. If I don't understand the forces keeping things as they are, that failing is mine.

Whatever the process that brought me here, the extremes of my contempt now fall solely on companies that provide extraordinarily bad customer service. I also find people who are reflexively contemptuous, as I once was, more than a little tiresome.
posted by jon1270 at 3:58 PM on January 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Your question is essentially "how can I use mental exercises to feel less hatred towards others?" I don't think that it is possible to go through life not loathing your fellow man without also loving your fellow man. You may not necessarily like them, but given that there will always be people who are difficult to like (no matter how many "mental hacks" you exercise), then the only alternative to loathing is loving.

To feel uncharitable is not the same thing as to act uncharitably. St. Thomas states that to love is to will the good of another. If you can at least bring yourself to will the good of all the idiots, assholes, and ne'erdowells you encounter in life, and act as if you will their good, then you love them. And, if you make a habit of trying to love others, you will eventually feel love for them as well. I don't believe that there is a shortcut to this process (short of a St. Paul on the road to Damascus type thing).
posted by Wavelet at 4:04 PM on January 2, 2011

I see in your profile that you are a law student. Law school sometimes breeds contempt because all the emphasis is on one very particular kind of intelligence, as well as an adversarial instinct, and also encourages taking joy in proving your rightness. Do you feel your contempt has increased since you started school? If so, you may want to start broadening your activities and social circle beyond law students.

I say this with some trepidation, but you might want to consider some serious pro bono work to develop compassion. Your clients will definitely have made some bad choices, but you'll also see the hard circumstances they live with. In order for this to work you'll have to really commit serious time, otherwise you'll just end up with a brief impression of sad ungrateful poor people (because clients are inevitably less or differently grateful than you think they should be.) I suggest enrolling in a poverty law clinic or doing an internship for credit. This is not only going to help with empathy, but will make you a much better lawyer. You are not going to be able to communicate with clients of any sort if your default position is contempt. Being a lawyer can be very similar to being a therapist -- you'll never understand what's going on if you prejudge the person and situation, and you'll never get the full story if you don't communicate respect.
posted by yarly at 4:07 PM on January 2, 2011 [9 favorites]

Are you sure you despise people and not stupidity?
posted by blargerz at 4:09 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I second the notion of Jon1270 -- that everything and everybody is that way for a reason. If you are so superior that you think others deserve your contempt, you should be superior enough to rationally and systematically understand why people and things are the way they are.
posted by blargerz at 4:18 PM on January 2, 2011

Remind yourself you're not the center of the universe.

Think of the experiences and knowledge that they have obtained which you have not. Think of the ways in which they may actually be smarter, more compassionate, better read/traveled, or otherwise excel in areas in which you are lacking.

Think of the relative privilege you have enjoyed in relation to them, and how that changes your experience. For example, someone of a different gender, age, race, ability, religion, economic background, upbringing, etc, may have faced struggles and challenges you never have/will.

Challenge your internal bias - do you despise all people or do you think that you are better than them? Are you judging them based on your own insecurities? Are you judging them because you are uncomfortable with something in them that reminds you of yourself or something you fear?
posted by SassHat at 4:18 PM on January 2, 2011

I agree with others that you might want to consider if contempt is your way of treating others the way you treat yourself. I'm not sure being nicer to yourself is the answer, because maybe you find enjoyment in it because you're try to keep control over it, and in moments when it seems justifiable, you allow yourself a small indulgence. The solution would be to let go of this control over yourself, allow yourself to feel negative feelings towards yourself. This might seem like a marker of low self-esteem, but the difference is that you don't identify with yourself. Imagine that you have an evil twin that you sometimes catch a glimpse of in the mirror who sometimes poses as you, your own Tyler Durden who you envy, hate, mock, feel contempt for and vice versa. This is the opposite advice to the usual one about how others are just like you, with an inner life and various motivations and flaws, etc., and you should be compassionate, which is in fact taking pity on them. It's precisely because you're doing this that you are contemptuous of them, since pity is the flip side of contempt. Instead, you should recognize yourself as an Other, become a stranger to yourself.

And in my experience, most self-consciously empathetic people make an exception for people who aren't like them in that way. Funny how the advice to walk a mile in their shoes before judging doesn't apply, and it's almost as if they store up all their contempt for those special people and it all comes out in a flood.
posted by AlsoMike at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2011

When I was a therapist dealing with a wide range of flawed yet interesting human beings, it really helped me to realize that most of them are doing the absolute best they can with the resources they have.
posted by thebrokedown at 4:23 PM on January 2, 2011 [7 favorites]

I have found that being treated contemptuously myself -- being unfairly judged -- has done a lot for me in terms of helping me remember not to jump so quickly to contempt for others. For example, suppose you think unkindly of people who are on public assistance, and then all of a sudden life throws you a curve ball and you try to apply for some assistance yourself, only to be treated like a goldbricking lowlife by the flunkies handling your application. An experience like that, being confronted by someone else's contempt for you, can be a real eye-opener, and then the next time you're tempted to sneer inwardly about "welfare queens" or some such, you catch yourself and remember. (I'm not suggesting you actually say things like that, it's just an example of the kind of thing I mean.)

Not sure how you'd go about engineering such an experience, but life does tend to throw such curve balls our way sooner or later. Might want to keep it in mind, and hopefully take it to heart before it happens.
posted by Gator at 4:43 PM on January 2, 2011

You might consider the possibility that the objects of your contempt do not or would not value your opinion. Perhaps your contempt is beneath theirs.
posted by fuse theorem at 4:45 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another factor to consider: do your friends tend to speak or jest contemptuously about other people? It is really hard to change the way you think if you surround yourself with people who encourage the old, snarkmeister you. Seek out people who don't look down on others and challenge yourself to have fun with them despite this.
posted by Omnomnom at 4:59 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I definitely don't despise other people, but sometimes when I'm frustrated I fall into an unpleasant judgmental metal loop that sounds something like: "ugh, [person] is so wrong / stupid, I would never behave / think anything like that, ugh, etc."

It sounds totally corny, and I don't know if this will work for you, but when I realize that I'm in one of those judgmental loops I:
(1) Take a deep breath.
(2) Think the word "compassion."
(3) Repeat the deep breath / "compassion" cycle until I feel less frustrated.

I don't really remember when I started doing this, or why exactly it works for me, but at the very least it distracts me from the person who is the source (or, uh, object) of my frustration. Then, once I've broken out of that unpleasant mental loop, I'm better able to reflect on the non-obvious sources of the other person's behavior or opinions and, as a result, I'm able to be more charitable. Or, at the very least, I can carry on with my day without any lingering effects -- while I agree that there can sometimes be some inexplicable pleasure in judgment, I also find that engaging in it amplifies any agitation or frustration I'm already feeling.

Anyway! If the word "compassion" doesn't do it for you, maybe some other word or phrase would serve the same purpose of halting uncharitable thoughts? (For example, a sort of warning to yourself like "Hey, be nice!" or "[Person's] dog died this morning" or "What would AskMetafilter say?")

Also, I think it's totally cool that you're trying to be more charitable -- I've found that my level of general happiness and the number of judgmental thoughts I have about people are inversely related. So, good luck!
posted by cimton at 5:03 PM on January 2, 2011

Humble yourself each time you feel yourself getting contemptuous by asking, "Who am *I* to determine the worth of another person just at face value?" And then consider your answer very seriously.
posted by patronuscharms at 5:59 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

The problem with trying to understand people's context or whole story as a way to mitigate your contempt for them is that you're still framing others as defective and in need of justification for their defectiveness. You're setting the standard for how others should be and are grasping for ways the explain why they don't meet your (undoubtedly righteous and inarguable) standards. In looking into someone's back story you're still making them responsible softening your contempt.

So. First understand that your contempt is just that, yours. No one else is responsible. Your contempt is a manifestation of you and not the objects of your judgement. Every iteration of your internal derision of others says something about you - something you value, something you lack, some corner of yourself that you hold in contempt. Simply asking yourself what your judgments say about you should keep you pretty busy.

Second. We all have our tidy little ideas about how the world should be, but those tidy little ideas can be rather burdensome if taken too seriously. Think of it this way, every standard you set for someone else, every note of "discernment" about others is a block of concrete taking up valuable mental real estate in a mind that no doubt has better and more fruitful things to think about. There's a reason why you're allowing others to annex so many of your thoughts. Figuring out that reason should also keep you fairly busy.

Yet, if you really enjoy despising others, I see no reason to mess with it. Mess with it only if the degree of pleasure you get from judging others isn't paying the rent for how much head space it takes up or how much internal conflict it's causing you.

Lastly, if you still want to mess with this, try going all Zen on yourself. Try viewing others and yourself as perfect in and of themselves. You and everyone around you are perfect expressions of an indivisible self-ness that no one has the right to fuck with. That perfectness exists beyond any judgement that anyone can claim to place on another. Try telling yourself that people are neutral - they aren't good, bad, stupid, ridiculous, whatever. They just are.
posted by space_cookie at 6:37 PM on January 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

One thing that has helped me is that I make myself (sometimes it's a conscious effort) to assume that people are doing the things they do for a compelling (if not always good) reason.

Most people don't want to screw up, or alienate people, or be thought of as fools. So when I meet someone who seems to be messed up or not to have their shit together, I tell myself that something is making this behavior seem reasonable--or if not reasonable, then unavoidable and/or the lesser of two evils. Then it's on me to find out what it is, or if the encounter isn't that personal or long-lasting, to at least not to make life harder for them.

Another thing that helps is for me to take my ego out of the situation. Assuming I am not this person's employer or family member, my judgment of them doesn't mean shit. If the guy manning the checkout counter at the gas station seems like a dumb hick, so what? I don't know his story. I'm not in charge of his life. My opinion of him will not change his life. It doesn't matter if I approve of his fucked-up choices or not.

What I can control is how I am to him. I can smile and say "thank you" when he hands me my change. I can choose to not be the person who ruins his day because I think I'm better than him (and maybe by certain criteria, I am "better" than him, but IT DOESN'T MATTER.) This doesn't make me Mother Theresa, but it also doesn't make me an asshole, and I figure that counts for something.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:19 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

>I can remember feeling this sort of reflexive contempt when I was in my 20's. Now, at 40, those feelings make little sense to me.

Nthing this. As a copy editor, I am paid to be judgmental and fault-finding, so it is hard to banish these tendencies when I am off the clock. However. Getting older and (slightly) more tolerant has mitigated this somewhat.

Other factors:
1. Staying away, as much as possible, from situations that confirm my cynicism about someone else's ability to think and express their opinion -- e.g., comments appended to newspaper stories that appear online.

2. Realizing that my tetchiness -- fueled by ADHD, which wasn't diagnosed until my mid-30s -- is aggravated by the proximity of crowds. If I can avoid huge, slowly moving groups of people, I do.

3. Sometimes I can't avoid crowds. So I have had meltdowns in public, always when I was waiting to pick up and pay for the Adderall for my ADHD, the Effexor for my depression, or the Depakote for my epilepsy. ("Better living through chemistry" is not a joke to me.) The memories of these moments have made me a lot more tolerant of the person ahead of me who is taking 10 minutes to count out the pennies he is using to pay for his slice of pizza.

3a. Harkening to what jessamyn and scody have said about isolation: Life is just a hell of a lot easier if you're what jessamyn called "sociable and socialized" than if you're constantly maintaining a running mental list of everyone else's subpar traits. If I leave for work early enough, I can let my chatty neighbor bend my ear for a few minutes and still get there on time. Over the long haul, that makes the neighborhood a more pleasant place for both of us than if I hurry by, head down, every day and try not to catch her eye.
posted by virago at 8:13 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

As far as I'm concerned, contempt is merely the flip-side of love. It's what happens when we decide for ourselves what we value, and apply those values to the outside world: some things fit (and are met with love, like, and interest), some things don't (leading to neutrality, disinterest, misunderstanding), and some really don't (causing hatred, contempt, anger). The amount of contempt some the posters above seem to have for the very idea of contempt is a good example -- like AlsoMike said, most self-consciously empathetic people make an exception for people who aren't like them in that way. Of course they do: empathy is one of their values, so people who don't show empathy press their buttons.

I'm not real Zen, in case you can't tell, so I'm not going to tell you to try to be more empathetic. Instead, I suggest concentrating on the constructive aspects of the equation, rather than the destructive ones. Build new values. Find new things to like, love, and be interested in. When you encounter something you despise, go with that, and then try putting the strength and energy that gives you into turning toward something better. Be as honest as you can be about this process, with yourself and the people who fit in the first category, and I suspect you'll find that more and more things will fall into the Love and Disinterest bins. That might mean fewer things will fall into the Despise bin, and it might not... but if you ask me, that's fine, as part of learning to say Yes means learning to say No.

There's more about this process in Nietzsche's Three Metamorphoses; maybe something there will speak to you. Or hey, maybe you'll despise it. Either way, enjoy!
posted by vorfeed at 8:30 PM on January 2, 2011

I think you're almost there already by point (1). The crucial hack for me is this: I trust that if I had enough time & energy to properly understand a person's history and makeup (genetic, social, circumstantial, etc.), something in that history would explain their personality or behavior. So I know I can short-circuit the whole process and save myself the trouble of isolating the "specific" explanation for any particular case. I just assume it's there.

I can't remember the exact quote, but I think I saw this on MeFi recently: there exist many more garden-variety idiots than black-hearted Machiavellis. Replace malice with any personality trait, and the same is true.

The other thing to watch out for here is allowing your contempt to be replaced by condescension. It's easy to fall into that trap if you have the mindset that "there must be some way to explain this buffoonery." Unless you're perfect yourself, it's easy to counter this by reminding yourself what a bozo you can be (and laughing about it, of course :-P).
posted by akprasad at 10:20 PM on January 2, 2011

This may not be helpful at all - but perhaps you could save your contempt for people about whom you do know a lot of the story, and the choices before them, and the way their selfish choice affected everyone involved. Really focus on the black-hearted Machiavellis, and assume the rest are doing the best they can with the hand they've been dealt.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:39 PM on January 2, 2011

Whenever someone's actions strike you as stupid or beneath you, try and invent a good reason why they might be doing what they are doing.

I'm not always the best driver but I'm never an aggressive driver. I don't tailgate, I almost never honk my horn, I don't pass other cars except on the highway, etc.

One time, I was driving my poor sick kitty to the vet. He'd started convulsing so I freaked out and took him to the vet. He was separated from his brother and crying plaintively in the seat next to me. Suddenly, traffic in front of me couldn't go fast enough. I was driving much closer to the car in front of me, furious at the other drivers and strongly tempted to honk my horn all the time.

So now, whenever I see or encounter aggressive, angry, or hurried drivers, I always say aloud, "They must have a sick kitty in the back seat." It's unlikely that they do, but it reminds me that people can be harried for all kinds of reasons, sometimes legitimate ones.

Even if you don't believe it just yet, it's much better living with the belief that people are, at worst neutral. I start out with the standpoint that most of the people I encounter are doing what they can. If I perceive them as rude, surly, or mean, it's almost certainly something going on with them. It isn't about me so even if I do still take it personally sometimes I can let it go and move on.
posted by Deathalicious at 10:52 PM on January 2, 2011 [10 favorites]

Also, in answer to question #3:

Discriminating -- I prefer soups that are thick rather than watery.
Contemptuous -- this soup sucks!

Which evaluation is more useful? When you are discriminating you are careful in the objects, ideas, experiences, and people you surround yourself with. Ideally you have some sort of informal conceptualization of what kinds of things they are. That's discrimination. Contempt for the things that you don't like doesn't help you in figuring out the things you want in your life.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:01 PM on January 2, 2011 [6 favorites]

It helps me to reflect that all of the virtues and appurtenances that distinguish me and in which I take pride are actually handed to me. I inherited healthy brains and body, I was born into a privileged race, class, country, etc. My upbringing privileged me further and I was either too timid or indifferent to dare great damaging actions, so I made out ok in life so far. I look pretty preposterous thinking of myself as someone who is entitled to despise others. Nobody is sole author of their merit; we all come from someplace and somebody else.

It helps also to remember that even when I make mistakes I really do try most of the time to do the best I can with what I have to work with. If I want to give myself that comforting assessment, I can't, in fairness, withhold it from other people.

Even when people behave very badly, it is good for me to remember that, pushed to it by circumstances so dire I can't imagine, I, as a human being, am capable of anything any other human being is capable of. I am not special, I am not different, the rules apply to me as well as you.

There is a great difference between judging and despising others on the one hand and being discriminating about what and whom one allows into one's life on the other hand. I have the right to limit my invitations; I have no right to judge.

This is not about other people; this is an issue of humility and seeing yourself right-sized.
posted by Anitanola at 12:14 AM on January 3, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have found life far more pleasant since I've tried to not get irritated at people. I'm not sure exactly when I made that decision, but over the past couple of years it's happened. I try to consciously smile at people more. If someone ahead of me is taking forever to check out, I try to just kick back and relax and say to myself, "really, there's no place I have to be that can't wait another 5 minutes." Also, realizing in that same situation that what feels like 5 minutes may actually be more like 2 minutes. We (as a society, I think) are much more impatient today... waiting 2 minutes for the microwave to finish seems like a long time in our broadband, instant-loading world.
posted by IndigoRain at 12:53 AM on January 3, 2011

Contempt can thrive in a competitive environment. Is your definition of "good enough" too high (e.g. "best")? If you happen to be a perfectionist with no tolerance for failure, your feelings of contempt are likely a consequence of that. Are you holding on to a black-or-white view of the world (winners, losers, nothing in between) because you feel like the fear of the contempt you would turn on yourself if you failed is what's driving you to achieve?
posted by prefpara at 9:22 AM on January 3, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the main overall answer is to increase your self esteem.
posted by heatherly at 11:18 AM on January 3, 2011

non-obvious medical conditions; psychological conditions; justifiable distractions; life circumstances that understandably have led to otherwise-despicable attitudes or beliefs; hidden motivations or emotional complexes; mindsets that had made sense in past life contexts

Something that these all have in common: they are explanations about other people that present mitigating factors with respect tho those people's otherwise baffling refusal to behave exactly as you would in their circumstance. What's missing from the list is any hint of the possibility that you might simply be wrong about how one ought to behave or believe. I suggest you integrate that possibility into your worldview - if you were never wrong about any of this stuff, you'd be the first one, and we'd need to study you for science.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

Today in MetaTalk, there is a sad and terrible reminder that we sometimes truly have no idea the depth of the pain some of our fellow human beings are enduring, right in front of our eyes.
posted by scody at 10:58 PM on January 5, 2011

Living in DC, surrounded by people that were more accomplished, brilliant, interesting, and humble than I, certainly knocked the superiority complex right out of me. Likewise, finding out that people I was talking to had endeared depths of despair I'd never known humbled me. So, two things I keep in mind virtually all the time now:

- Regardless of the topic, the person I'm talking to might know more about it than I. Oh, the times I'd gone off about some law at a party in DC only to find out my conversational partner had helped research or write it.

- No matter how poorly the other person is acting, they probably have a genuinely good reason for doing so. Everybody has a certain amount of emotional goodwill available to them at all times. The person you're dealing with might have had theirs used up already for reasons you can't fault them for: divorce, cancer, layoffs, the death of a child. You simply don't know.

Point is: assume the best of others, and you'll never be embarrassed.
posted by timoni at 12:53 AM on January 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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