"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.