Deranged, Inhuman, Disgusting

Deranged, Disgusting, or Inhuman

In other words, deserving of your contempt.

(If you haven’t read Crazy, Stupid, or Awful, you might want to read that one first. Crazy, Stupid, Awful means you probably are thinking of your partner as a “Them” instead of thinking about the two of you as a “We” or an “Us,” but some careful, attentive, open listening might suffice. Like in They Might Be An Alien)

But contempt is something a little different.


The Gottmans (e.g., Gottman, 1993) really brought the idea of contempt onto the couples’ therapy scene, a kind of relational filter that says “I’m better than you, and you don’t deserve my basic respect.” Sometimes, it looks like sarcasm or condescension (speaking as if your partner really is stupid, or worse). Sometimes, it’s withdrawal (because you believe that your partner really is disgusting and you can’t stand to be around them). Sometimes, it sounds like demeaning put-downs (because you think your partner is just a real piece of shit). It’s dehumanizing (e.g., Kteily et al., 2022). And that’s a much bigger problem than thinking they’re a decent human being who you just really don’t understand or agree with. 


The impacts of contempt are probably quite a bit broader than just in couples’ relationships, too. As therapists, we need to be on the lookout for contempt of partners, but also of kids and bosses, among others. And there are some pragmatic things we need to think about – when parents are using sarcasm, condescension, demeaning put downs, and/or withdrawal/neglect with their children… we need to intervene strongly and quickly to help them make changes. Eye-rolling, name-calling, and that pinched-face look of disgust need to be taken with plenty of seriousness. When it’s someone talking about a coworker, boss, friend, etc., the easiest solution might be to simply get out of that situation or relationship… contempt (like real burnout) is pretty damn hard to come back from.


But then, we also need to look at the underlying cognitive structures that support contempt… Contempt “implies sense of superiority over [other people], pessimistic feelings about their possibility of betterment, detachment from them, and avoidance driven by detachment (Miceli & Castelfranchi, 2018). So, I’m going to go ahead and say (maybe outrageously?!) that contempt is never rational. So, to be clear, I’m not saying that anyone should stay in contact with someone they feel contempt toward. Maybe the contempt goes along with other thoughts/feelings that are quite reasonable and dictate that the appropriate behavior is detachment (e.g., an actually abusive partner, an actually unfair and unpleasant working environment). But that sense of down-to-the-ground superiority of one (aggrieved) person over another? Mmmm… that’s a tough sell for me. Dehumanizing a human being doesn’t fit the logic I understand. 

And there are personality structures, too. It’s possible to have a contemptuous “personality” (or long term attributional style, maybe?). Sometimes, that goes along with narcissistic and antisocial stuff (esp when the dispositional contempt is typically outwards), but sometimes the contempt is directed inwardly at the self, as well! (see Schriber et al., 2017). 


I’m sure how you choose to work on this depends on your theoretical orientation… I just wanted to take a minute to bring it to the forefront and make sure we’re not letting some important signs pass us by! 


Comment below: What other markers of disgust do you see in clients? Do you ever find it easy to blow those off? How do you work with clients on these deep cognitive structures? 


Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of family psychology, 7(1), 57.

Kteily, N. S., & Landry, A. P. (2022). Dehumanization: Trendsinsights, and challengesTrends in Cognitive Sciences, 26(3), 222–240.

Miceli, M., & Castelfranchi, C. (2018). Contempt and disgust: The emotions of disrespect. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 48(2), 205-229. 

Schriber, R. A., Chung, J. M., Sorensen, K. S., & Robins, R. W. (2017). Dispositional contempt: A first look at the contemptuous person. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(2), 280-309. doi: 10.1037/pspp0000101. 




Crazy, Stupid, or Awful?!


Crazy, Stupid, or Awful?!

The foundation of couples’ work is often training them to listen. And of course, listening is actually incredibly difficult and relatively complex. For example, it involves all those difficult skills like self-soothing, holding difficult emotions, making space for the other person, accurate empathy, maximizing the use of working memory, tolerance for ambiguity, etc. And that seems overwhelming even here on this therapy blog, and it’s certainly overwhelming in session. But here’s an idea I sometimes put out in session when things start spiraling: 

You aren’t crazy, stupid, or awful and you probably didn’t marry someone who is crazy, stupid, or awful. So, there might be a misunderstanding in here somewhere. Let’s find it, shall we? 

Clients are more than likely to agree with the idea that they themselves are not crazy, stupid, or awful (and it’s nice to  validate them first, before going on to “defend” their partner). They also usually aren’t willing to say in therapy that their partner is one of those things. They at least don’t want to be married to (or in a relationship with) someone who is crazy, stupid, or awful.

This pause on our end often lets them pause on their end and create a little bit of space to hear their partner’s content differently. Yay! 

Occasionally, they will say their partner is crazy, stupid, or awful. Ok, no problem – now we know we’re in a contempt-place (in the Gottman way), and we can change gears to a process-rather-than-content level. 


Comment below: How do get couples to pause and refocus in session? Also, “QuotesFromSession” is a new tag – do you have any go-to session quotes that you often find useful? 




Office Treasures

Office Treasures

What kinds of useful treasures do you keep in your office?

Aside from the boring box of things-I-might-need-or-have-forgotten-at-home (headphones for ADHD assessment, bandaids for strange emergencies, deodorant because I’m sometimes in a rush, etc.), I have a box in my office of useful treasures that I pull out in therapy sometimes. It has mostly been populated because I really wished I had something in session and didn’t! I thought I’d share a few of those items with you:


  • Heart rate monitors
    • I keep two inexpensive heart rate monitors (the kinds that clip gently on clients’ index fingers) in my office, along with extra batteries. I use these in the Gottman way, when couples have a tendency to escalate (to help them see when they need a time out) and I also use them with individuals sometimes when we’re learning relaxation techniques
  • Copies of therapy-pics I’ve made
    • I like to make “take homes” for clients using stock photography, either for use in session exercises or to reinforce special ideas. I try to keep a few copies of my favorites so that I have them available and can send them home with clients
  • Bubbles
    • I use the small tubes of bubbles that are popular as kids party favors. That way it’s easy for them to be single use. The primary way I use these is to teach unpanicked breathing. Attempting to blow one large or many little bubbles is an easy way to get across the basic principle of “exhale longer than you inhale,” and clients seem to like the interactive nature of the activity. I also occasionally have couples use them when they need to discuss conflict calmly. And they’re part of my “emergency protocol” when an adult has brought a kid to session with them who I wasn’t expecting!
  • Small flag
    • I keep small plastic flags (the 10 for a dollar kind) in my office to use mostly when I am doing communication training with couples. After we’ve talked about whichever “rules” we are working on, I literally wave the flag when the rule gets broken. It makes for less of an interruption than actually interrupting, and clients seem to feel less “criticized.” (If I have a really high functioning couple, I may send them home with two flags to use during homework practice!) I will occasionally do the same thing with an individual, if we’re monitoring something together (e.g., yes-buts, self deprecation)
  • 8” inflatable beach balls
    • They take up almost no space, and (along with also being good for visiting kids), I like to use them with couples and individual trauma clients in the Bessel Van Der Kolk kind of way – creating a reciprocal, socially engaged, dynamic-yet-predictable interaction that can help to regulate the nervous system! Also, it can give clients a way to do a semi-dissociation while they talk about difficult things, kind of like how they do their best processing while knitting or petting a therapy dog. They’re the perfect size the be easy to throw and catch, even for not-very-coordinated people, but not so big that they take over the space.
  • Blank paper
    • I know, this sounds so ridiculously simple, but this is hands down the item I use most often. There are many times that I want a client to make a quick sketch, or co-create a visual metaphor with a client, or draw an explanatory diagram. I never know when that urge is going to pop up, and I really like not having to use the back of their progress note or the regular lined paper I keep I around, and not even having to get out of the chair and break the mood.


Comment: What do you keep in your office to use during therapy? Tell us how it works!