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Do Not Cut Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

I always smile when I hear the expression titled in this week’s blog. It is meaty with metaphor and meaning. I first learned it many years ago. It was during a conflict that a friend was describing and wondering what to do about it. Another of our friends said, “Whatever you do, don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” I got what it meant within the context of what was being shared and the friend in conflict conducted himself accordingly. I have used this expression many times since – whenever I hear others intending to retaliate out of spite.

That fact is that what happens to some of us during a conflict is that we say or do something to hurt the other person because of our own feelings of hurt, betrayal, disappointment, and other emotions. We may seek retaliation or revenge and not always be fully conscious of doing so. Or, we may be aware and purposely act out of spite. In any case, it is not always clear what motivates our reactions. Perhaps we act out of a sense of despair that we are not being heard or the pain we are experiencing brings out such a reaction. Maybe there is a mean streak that shows sometimes when a dynamic is very hurtful.

It was not until recently that I looked up the meaning of the expression “do not cut off your nose to spite your face”. In keeping with the above discussion, it essentially refers to disadvantaging ourselves in order to do harm to an adversary. As to the origin of this phrase, the precise wording ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ does not appear in print until the 18th century. Versions of proverbs that mean much the same thing date back to the Tudor era. Then, Grose’s 1796 edition of the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (love that title!) reflected the current form in this sentence: “He cut off his nose to be revenged of his face. Said of one who, to be revenged on his neighbour, has materially injured himself.”

If you have found yourself taking out something on another person to your disadvantage – that is, cutting off your nose to spite your face – this week’s ConflictMastery™ Quest(ions) blog may help you explore this tendency:

  • Considering a situation in which you acted out of spite to your detriment, what did you do or say?
  • What compelled you to take the action(s) or say the words you did?
  • What sorts of things occurred as a consequence of your actions – for you? For the other person?
  • Using the metaphor of cutting off your nose to spite your face, what does your nose represent in that situation?
  • What else did you figuratively or literally cut off besides your nose?
  • What does your face represent in this situation?
  • How was that spited by your actions?
  • What are you thinking now about the situation that you weren’t thinking about at the time?
  • What would you like to do differently in the future when the inclination to spite another person arises?
  • How will your face be when you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face?

What other ConflictMastery™ Quest(ions) may you add here?

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