Spite is an expression of modest malice that most often refers to reactive expressions that stem from being irritated with someone. A spiteful remark is less serious than a planned malicious action, yet those which are prone to spiteful are more prone to escalate their behaviour towards malicious acts.
The emotion is volatile. It’s a little out of control and often stirred by the pettiest of issues. Spite is understood to be a punitive action with no real value to justice. It’s neither deemed to be specifically just or unjust in its overall application, but spite has a distinctive petty and pathetic aspect.
It can be quite a shocking experience for both the person on the receiving end and, less noticeably, the person expressing the spite. When people receive spite, they will usually be left with the distinct impression of hostility and aggression. This is unsettling and creates an uncomfortable air that keeps people on edge and wondering what could come next.
A disrupted environment results. Spite’s volatile and out of control nature taunts the mind to watch out and become anxious. The aim of the spiteful person is to make others feel pain or to deprive them of positive feelings. Spite can indicate resentment and envy smouldering below, and both of these emotions can fuel other negative emotions. Owing to these consistent connections, spite is often one of many negative emotions experienced around the same time: a symptom of darker underlying emotions.
Nevertheless, spite can be a temporary coping strategy. If people come into contact with others whom they perceive as unfair, spite may express the undercurrent of anger that’s being experienced. Although not ideal, if people do not have a more constructive way to express themselves, it’s better than suppressing anger and developing passive-aggressive personality traits. As this would cause compulsive motivations – exceptionally strong impulses – to treat others with clandestine destructive behaviour, suppressing anger is worse than spiteful expressions which are born from feelings of injustice, for the destructive anger is concealed and much more difficult to address.1 Spite is an overt expression, so it’s apparent and can be addressed.
Expressing spite constantly is unhealthy. Expressing spite frequently leaves people with an emotionally out of control, unpredictable and fazed demeanour. Defensive and aggressive attitudes change people’s dispositions towards the fight side of the fight-or-flight spectrum; it alters their metabolism (chemical processes for sustaining life). For example, the suppression of the intestinal tract, suppression of organ functioning, increasing blood pressure, and prioritising blood flow to the muscles and heart.2 When this happens continuously it interrupts the optimal metabolic balance for wellbeing, so it places accumulating stress on various systems. It contributes to an increased likelihood of suffering health conditions that stem from the body’s state being inordinately occupied with defensive postures, such as those related to metabolic syndrome, heart disease and memory functioning (see Stress).3
As spite is often an outward expression of resentment (e.g. from a grudge), its intention is sometimes to get others to stop behaving in a specific manner. The idea is to rattle them, so they’re scared or deterred from repeating the perceived offence. A problem occurs, however, because of the volatile way in which spite is expressed. The reasons behind spitefulness are often not related by its hasty interaction, so the cause remains overlooked. The people receiving the spite are then left feeling like they’re being attacked. This then leads to a vicious cycle with both parties wanting to hurt one another, yet neither remembers how the mud-slinging started. Withholding the reason for the spite prolongs the experience. Explaining the reason often ends up defusing a situation or facilitating a more productive outcome.
It’s now well established, through longitudinal studies, that spiteful and mean behaviour is highy correlated with an avoidant attachment style.4
Old French. Spite = action arising from, or displaying, hostile or malignant feeling; outrage, injury, harm; insult, reproach.
1. A malicious and usually petty desire to hurt, annoy or offend someone.