Over coffee in a cozy restaurant, my friend Margie was talking about an acquaintance. “All she ever does is complain about her physical condition,” she said. “If not her allergies, her bad back. If not her back, her heavy periods. She’d probably feel better If she didn’t discuss them so much.” I agreed, and we continued our conversation, which consisted, you guessed it, primarily of Margie’s analysis of the current state of her own health.
Another day, another friend on the telephone. We’d reconnected with a third woman after several years. “I remember now why I stopped seeing her,” said Jolie. “She depresses me. She never has anything happy or interesting to say. Complain, complain about how this person was rude and that relative treated her like dirt.” Then Jolie updated me on the status of her sister after a recent visit (it went badly and the sister was boring) as well as a new neighbor (ill-mannered, always borrowing tools).
A former boss believed in honesty along with positive and instructive critiques. He claimed. But woe be to the employee who, like me, mentioned a case in which other workers had a valid complaint and suggestion for improvement. He went into defensive attack mode. To hell with working for change.
After incidents like these, I started noticing a phenomenon. If someone complained about a personality trait in others, sure enough, the moaner demonstrated that same characteristic. Like my co-worker—candid, brusque, eccentric in her appearance—with nothing good to report about another woman, who actually was much the same as she, simply thirty years older.
What’s up? We seem eager to identify flaws in others but not ourselves. Don’t blame contemporary society and self-centered Gen Xers. The phenomenon is mentioned in the Bible’s “Sermon on the Mount,” and addresses the mote in your brother’s eye vs the beam in your own.
My first inclination is to inform whiners of the errors of their ways. But when I observed informants, I realized they were as annoying and blind as the complainants. Like the relative who continually criticizes me for offering my suggestions for improved behavior (I won’t label my action as “criticisms”) to children. The pot calling the kettle black perhaps.
Those who exhibit this behavior most commonly might be accused of hypocrisy, engaging in the same behavior for which you reproach others. While in religion, hypocrisy might be a straightforward error, the psychological explanation is complex. This area of study includes the quality of self-deception along with the action of “projection”: denying an unpleasant trait or impulse in yourself while attributing it to others. In the extreme, it may characterize a sociopath, someone who feels exempt from common social standards and responsibility. .
Now that I’ve identified this common quirk of human nature, what do I do with it? Laugh at the foible? Find some tactful way to correct others? Probably it’s best to be vigilant about my own behavior and accept a friend or acquaintance informing me of my own shortcomings. Although this will be a challenge because the beam in my eye is blinding me.