I’ve discovered a psychological theory that I’ve been testing. People criticize others for the very same character traits that they themselves possess.

An example: someone who’s obsessed by his own health issues may well disapprove of others who constantly talk about health. Ditto weight. Ditto strong political positions. How often have you heard an extreme liberal bad-mouth an extreme conservative for her views, extremely?

I’m still trying to determine the frequency of this trait. Recently, a friend discussing another woman said, “She’s a control freak, a bully. And I told her so!” Aside from the immediate question, “what did stating that accomplish, besides making her feel intensely angry and upset with you?”, I noted to myself that the friend always attempts to force others to accept her judgments and opinions. That is, she borders on being a bully herself, in this regard.

No less a personage than the Bard himself knew of this reality. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” he pointed out in Hamlet. The queen criticizes an actress for her loose ways, and we all know the queen’s been remarkably unfaithful.

We often see this characteristic in politicians and public figures. The evangelist who thunders against stealing money while encouraging his congregation to contribute to a fund that serves only him. The country leader who rants about lack of honesty in elections but refuses to reveal his tax forms. The actress who discusses another’s numerous plastic surgery while she bears the surgeon’s knife marks on herself.

I must admit I’ve found this tendency in myself. When my brothers and sisters were young and addicted to sugared cereals, as was I, they’d try to sneak the treats during Saturday mornings while watching cartoons. I’d run into the living room, catch them in the act, and yell righteously at them while removing the Froot Loops or whatever. Then I’d tote the goodies back to the kitchen where I proceeded to stuff my face.

Psychologists mention our ability to project onto others our own unconscious impulses or qualities. With projection, humans might accuse someone of a motivation or action that they deny in themselves. By rejecting the existence of the undesirable trait in themselves they’re free to attribute them to others.

Aside from noting this interesting human behavior, why do I care?

People’s perceptions of others as well as their personal experiences and backgrounds lead to differences in opinions. That’s fine. That’s human, one of the ways we learn and learn to get along. The challenge comes if the perception leads to conflicts and hurt feelings. I’ve been guilty myself and have also been burned by others. A lesson for me in my own behavior.

Teachers are full of wisdom, frequently easy to understand and use. Once, following a presentation I gave in which I probably criticized someone, a teacher approached me afterwards. “Remember,” she said. “When you point a finger at someone, there are three pointing back at you.” Good advice then and now.

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