My friend is lazy, willful, and self-absorbed. Wait—could that actually be me I'm talking about? Martha Beck on what we can learn about ourselves from the funny little phenomenon called projection.
"There are two kinds of people I can't stand," says Michael Caine's character in the epically low comedy Goldmember, "those who are intolerant of other cultures, and the Dutch." I love this line, not because it slams the Dutch (for whom I feel great admiration) but because it slams hypocrisy—specifically, the baffling double standards of people who condemn in others the very offenses they themselves are committing. My fellow life coach Sharon Lamm calls this the "you spot it, you got it" syndrome. In other words, whatever we criticize most harshly in others may be a hallmark of our own psyche; what I hate most in you may actually be what I hate most in me.
This style of thinking is so illogical, you'd think it would be rare. Because of the peculiarities of human psychology, though, it's actually more the rule than the exception. Understanding the "you spot it, you got it" phenomenon requires some focused thinking, but the effort will bring more peace and sanity to your relationships and your inner life.
Whe We Spot What We Got
Let's start by replicating a little thought experiment devised by psychologist Daniel Wegner: For the next 30 seconds, don't think about anything connected to the subject of white bears. Don't think about bears of any kind—or the Arctic, or snowy terrain, or white fur coats, etc. Ready? Go.
You probably just had more bear-related thoughts than you typically would in a month of Sundays. They're still coming, aren't they? You may distract yourself for an instant, but then another pops into your mind—see? There's one now!
This is a universal truth: We invariably experience more of any thought or feeling we try to avoid. Why? Because when our brains hear the instruction to shun a certain topic, they respond by seeking any thoughts related to that topic, in order to escape them. (After all, if you decided to throw away every blue thing in your closet, the first step would be to go looking for blue items, right?) Wegner calls this search the "ironic monitoring process," which has the perfect acronym: "imp." When we try to repress awareness of anything, we activate a mind imp that zeroes in on every memory, every sense impression, every experience related to the forbidden subject.
The "you spot it, you got it" phenomenon occurs when we do things that are in opposition to our own value systems. To feel good about acting in ways that are reprehensible to ourselves, we must repress our recognition that we're doing so. Our imps go into high gear; we become hyperalert to anything that reminds us of the behavior we're denying in ourselves, focusing with unusual intensity on the slightest hint of that behavior in others, or imagining it where it doesn't even exist.
This is why people can, without irony, say things like "So help me, Billy, if you keep hitting people, I will slap you into Thursday!" Or "I only lie to him because he's so dishonest." Condemning others for our worst traits turns us into ethical pretzels, hiding from us the very things we must change to earn genuine self-respect. Articulating such false logic is the key to resolving it—but this is always easier when we're talking about someone besides ourselves. So let's start there. My friend is lazy, willful, and self-absorbed. Wait—could that actually be me I'm talking about? Martha Beck on what we can learn about ourselves from the funny little phenomenon called projection.
Project And Reject: The Hypocrite's Two-Step
When we're the ones doing the spot-it-got-it tango, we don't see the paradox; we simply feel an unusually ferocious antipathy to someone else's actions. When someone else is perpetrating the very acts they claim to despise, we may feel confused, sensing that there's something crazy going on, unable to pinpoint exactly what. I have some recommendations.
Be Suspicious. Be Very Suspicious
One of the friskiest babysitters I ever hired was a sweet little grandma I'll call Beulah. Despite her age, Beulah had endless energy; she could keep up with my three preschoolers far longer than I could. She was also touchingly concerned that my children not become "addicted" to anything: Sesame Street, ice cream, pop music. She volunteered to police my bathroom cupboards and remove any leftover medication the children might consume. Even so, she worried constantly that they would get drugs somewhere.
One day I came home from work to discover that Beulah had wallpapered half my daughter's bedroom with hideous paper she'd found at a discount store. She'd also single-handedly moved our piano to a new location, and (though I wouldn't discover this until weeks later) ordered four hundred dollars' worth of Girl Scout Cookies at my expense. As Beulah gave me a disjointed, rambling explanation at a rate of approximately 900 words per minute, I noted her many small scabs and that her pupils were dilated. I recalled an article that mentioned these were symptoms of crystal meth abuse. The light finally dawned: Beulah was a speed freak.
As I regretfully fired my babysitter, I realized that her obsessive talk about addiction had always been a "you spot it, you got it" behavior, and it should have been a signal to me that Beulah herself was a drug-stealing addict. Everyone makes comments about other people from time to time, but those who focus on one topic continually, irrationally, and inexplicably are often describing themselves. When someone seems unduly preoccupied with a certain flaw in others, it's time to do a once-over to see if it's taken root in Mr. or Ms. Obsessed.
Sidestep Mind-Binds If you want to experience insanity, observe a relationship with a hypocrite: the unfaithful lover who sees endless evidence of a partner's nonexistent infidelity; the rude, hurtful coworker who expects to be treated with kindness and respect; the political extremist who violently opposes violence. Opposite moral imperatives that come from the same person, called double binds, are so crazy-making that they were once thought to induce schizophrenia. If you try to have a close connection with someone who vehemently attacks flaws in others while demanding that you accept, overlook, or excuse those same flaws in him or her, you will feel a blend of anxiety, extreme bafflement, self-blame, anger, and hopelessness. When you see people abiding by a big fat double standard, step outside their duplicitous perspective by telling yourself that the craziness you feel is coming from the critic. Once you've had this perceptual breakthrough, you may be able to use it on the one person whose behavior you actually can change: yourself. My friend is lazy, willful, and self-absorbed. Wait—could that actually be me I'm talking about? Martha Beck on what we can learn about ourselves from the funny little phenomenon called projection.
See It And Free It
The impish nature of our psychology ensures that we all occasionally spot what we've got. However, we rarely see our own delusion; we just find ourselves ruminating on the vices of others. If Joe weren't so lazy, we think, he'd always bring me breakfast in bed. Or Chris is such a miser. Expected me to split the check for coffee—like I'm made of money! When these thoughts become especially dominant, there's a high probability we've got what we spot. But we can turn our own unconscious hypocrisy into a wonderful tool for personal growth. Here's how:
Phase One: Write Your Rant To begin, list all the nasty, judgmental thoughts you're already thinking about Certain People. Who's offending you most right now? What do you hate most about them? What dreadful things have they done to you? What behavior should they change? Scribble down all your most controlling, accusatory, politically incorrect thoughts.
Phase Two: Change Places Now go through your written rant and put yourself in the place of the person you're criticizing. Read through it again, and be honest—could it be that your enemy's shoe fits your own foot? If you wrote "Kristin always wants things her way," could "I always want things my way" be equally true? Could it be that this is the very reason Kristin's selfishness bothers you so much? If you wrote "Joe has got to stop clinging and realize that our relationship is over," could it be that you are also hanging on to the relationship—say, by brooding all day about Joe's clinginess?
Sometimes you'll swear you don't see in yourself the loathsome qualities you notice in others. You spot it, but you ain't got it. Look again. See if you are implicitly condoning someone else's vileness by failing to oppose it—which puts your actions on the side of the trait you hate. You may be facilitating your boss's combativeness by bowing your head and taking it, rather than speaking up or walking out. Maybe you hate a friend's greediness, all the while "virtuously" allowing her to grab more than her share. Indirectly you are serving the habits you despise. Your rant rewrite may look like this example from one of my clients, Lenore:
Phase One: The Rant "My kids take me for granted. They expect me to drop whatever I'm doing and focus on them, anytime. I'm sick of them taking me for granted."
Phase Two: The Rewrite "I take me for granted. I expect me to drop whatever I'm doing to focus on my kids, anytime. I'm sick of me taking me for granted."
This exercise was a watershed for Lenore; once she realized that by devaluing herself she was teaching her children to devalue her, she could begin getting respect from them by respecting herself.
We can often learn such priceless lessons by remembering the "you spot it, you got it" dynamic. Recognizing this impish quirk of human thinking helps us peacefully detach from crazy-makers who might otherwise drive us nuts, and jolts us free from the places we get most stuck. We automatically become freer, less caught in illusion, less obsessed with other people's flaws. That's good, because there's nothing worse than people who are always talking about what they hate in other people. Boy, do I hate them.