Linda: It was John Bradshaw who offered a handy distinction between guilt and shame. Guilt is “I made a mistake. Shame is I am a mistake.” Shame is more global, and much more lethal to our self-esteem. In this same way, there is a difference between criticism and contempt. If someone we care about criticizes us, it hurts, but a criticism can be specific to one area of our behavior or attitude. To be held in contempt by someone we care for is another story all together. Being held by them as lacking, defective and inadequate, it can erode away our sense of self.
We are highly influenced by those around us. Our sensitivity is such that even if their contemptuous judgments are not spoken out loud, the thoughts and feelings are communicated through their body language and facial expressions are wounding.
We are highly influenced by those around us. Our sensitivity is such that even if their contemptuous judgments are not spoken out loud, the thoughts and feelings are communicated through their body language and facial expressions are wounding. If our partner’s attitude is one of disrespect, and this atmosphere persists for some length of time, it takes a terrible toll on the relationship and both individuals in it. Both the one being held in contempt and the one feeling the contempt suffer. Consider what does that mean to the psyche of the judgmental partner who remains in the partnership with someone who they deem to be beneath them.
Living in a relationship characterized by contempt is dangerous and unacceptable. It has to stop. One of the partners has to get strong enough to stop the ghastly pattern, either to change it or leave the relationship. How does one stop such an unacceptable pattern? The one who is being held in contempt will be the one in the most pain, so will have the higher motivation to change things. This person must create a network of committed support to receive honest feedback about who they are to regain their sense of self.
If our partner is the main person we reality test with, we can get caught in their negative perception of us. We need input from others, who do no have an investment in manipulating us for their own benefit. We need to get away from the shadowy righteous judge in our partner long enough to receive fresh information that can help us to purify ourselves from the accumulated toxins we have absorbed.
Therapy, supportive family and friends, and empowerment groups, all help us to heal. Months or even years of a steady stream of solid support can be needed for a substantive change to take place. We sift through the input to come to some clarity about what is true about us, what we need to work on to change and improve, and then get busy with that process. We develop the qualities that need strengthening, and take ownership of those strengths that already exist.
Once the sense of self becomes stronger, a stand can be taken. The recovering person begins to speak on his or her own behalf; ”I will listen to you when you are ready to speak about yourself. I’m not available any longer, to be verbally abused.” It may take repeated demonstrations of leaving the room in the middle of a conversation for the righteous judge to receive the message that the old pattern is now giving way to a new one.
When the partner who had participated as a co-conspirator in the pattern changes their part of the dance, the pattern will change. The boundaries have been draw differently; a new message is being spoken and demonstrated. “There is no room in this relationship any longer, for you to confess my sins, I will speak about myself and you will speak about your own experience. If you don’t honor this guideline, the conversation is over. I am no longer available to be spoken to with disrespect.”
In the process of taking such a stand, we risk the entire relationship. But risking the relationship is the only force strong enough to break deeply entrenched destructive patterns. When a person becomes powerful enough the take such a self-respecting stand, the old pattern is over. One of the two things will happen, either respect begins to flow back into the relationship, and the judgmental partner is forced to contend with their own shadow, instead of indulging it. Or, if the judging partner is just too attached to their pattern to give it up, the relationship can end. But either way, a very important link in the hostile dependency chain tying these two together has been broken.