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.

If our eyes hurt, is it because the beam in our own eyes bothers us as we focus our attention on the mote in our friend’s eye?

finger pointingOver 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.