(This is a further exploration of the ideas in my article a few months back at Urban Monk, “Are Your ‘Projections’ Limiting Your Success?”. This piece is about how we can learn about ourselves from the ways we criticize others, and “project” the parts of our personalities we’re uncomfortable with onto them.)
To me, one fascinating aspect of the Internet is the vast amount of anonymous negative commentary that goes on all over it. The ability to hide our identities when posting messages on blogs, forums and elsewhere lets people say things they’d never risk telling someone face-to-face. And even if we do reveal our names online, it’s harder for people to meaningfully retaliate against us than it would be in person.
People have different attitudes toward this phenomenon. Some like the Web for its raw, uncensored “snark,” and see it as a refreshing escape from the sometimes stilted politeness of face-to-face interaction. Others wish all the haters on the Internet would find amusement elsewhere. What we don’t usually consider is how much we can learn about ourselves in a medium that allows us to be as harshly critical as we want with few consequences.
It’s often said of people who are critical of others that they’re just trying to cover up their own insecurities, or build up their status in their social group by lowering someone else’s. But at a deeper level, when we criticize or judge someone, we’re actually revealing something we don’t want others to see about ourselves. Because we judge some part of our personality or characteristic we have as wrong or unacceptable, we try to convince ourselves and the world that someone else has it, not us.
Psychologists Hal and Sidra Stone, in Embracing Our Selves, call a part of our personalities we fear and refuse to acknowledge a “disowned self.” Disowned selves are created when we are repeatedly punished, often at an early age, for displaying some aspect of who we are. For instance, if our parents frequently shame us for being loud or expressive in public, we may “disown” our playful selves, and learn to be withdrawn and easily embarrassed around people—and critical of people who “put themselves out there” too much for our liking.
As the Stones describe, we limit our fulfillment in life by disowning parts of our personalities. If we refuse to acknowledge part of who we are, we cut ourselves off from the strengths and opportunities that part can offer us. The Stones illustrate this point nicely in their book:
Perhaps you are excessively neat, relentlessly hardworking, compulsively kind and thoughtful, always caring and giving, always right, or never complaining or angry. . . . So think about how these qualities can limit you, can make you intolerant, inflexible, unable to relax and accept yourself and others as full, complex human beings. It is nice to try to live a perfect life, but what if that means never trying anything because you are afraid to make a mistake?
By observing how we negatively judge others, we can learn about the parts of ourselves we’ve disowned, and that it may benefit us to reconnect with. With this in mind, let’s explore some of the ways people tend to verbally attack each other, on the Internet and elsewhere, and what we can learn about ourselves if we find ourselves putting people down in these ways. Even if you don’t actually say these things to people, you may be thinking them anyway, and still have an opportunity to learn about your “disowned selves” from those thoughts.
As you read this list, notice whether you tend to shame yourself for having these negative thoughts about people, or pretend that you don’t have them. If you judge yourself for judging others, you may be depriving yourself of valuable information about the places where you’re cut off from who you really are—in other words, “disowning” your judgmental self. For the moment, see if you can set that tendency to shame your critical self aside.
1. Loser. Although it’s tough to pin down precisely what a “loser” is, most of us seem deathly afraid of becoming one. Broadly speaking, “loser” seems to mean someone who persistently fails at projects they take on—whether we’re talking about business ventures, romantic relationships, or something else.
If we find ourselves frequently judging others as losers, that may stem from our own deep-seated fear of failure, and of having our failures seen and ridiculed by others. For many of us, this fear is so intense that it prevents us from even attempting to achieve most of the goals that interest us. For example, although many of us have at some point dreamed of starting our own business, the risk that our business might fail, and others would mock and reject us, often seems too terrifying to face.
It’s not surprising that many of us harbor this fear, as most of us have learned since a young age that mistakes and failures are bad and worthy of punishment. When we broke something as children, we were verbally or physically punished; at school, when we gave a wrong answer, we received a lower grade or ridicule from the teacher; and so on. It’s better not to try something, we were taught, than to mess up and be branded a loser.
However, overcoming this fear seems critical to achieving the fulfillment most of us are seeking in life. If we want to pursue the goals that most inspire us in our careers, relationships, and elsewhere, it seems we need to become comfortable with the risk of failure and ridicule. Otherwise, we condemn ourselves to “safe” but dull and restricted existences.
2. Jerk. “Jerk” also has different meanings to different people, but one common meaning is a person who is overly aggressive and calls attention to themselves with their behavior. If we find ourselves calling people jerks, or thinking that way often, we probably have some discomfort with our own aggressive tendencies, and our own desire to be the center of attention in a group of people.
Discomfort with our aggression can hold us back by limiting our ability to be a leader and promote ourselves. Taking a leadership position in any setting requires us to let others know that we want to be leaders, and that we see ourselves as capable of filling that role. We may even need to compete against others for the leadership position. These are assertive actions, and if we take them we run the risk of being perceived as pushy and arrogant—i.e., as jerks.
Thus, to many people, it’s more comfortable to sit on the sidelines and put down people in leadership roles—whether they’re politicians, celebrities, prominent businesspeople, or someone else—than to seek those roles themselves. We can confirm this by looking at the many magazines and websites devoted to attacking celebrities and wealthy people, which of course get massive readership.
If you find yourself often seeing others as jerks, it may be useful to take a look at your own life and notice the places where you shy away from taking the lead or promoting your products or services to others. My discussion here, of course, also applies to lots of stronger language that’s often used to describe aggressive people.
3. Idiot. Many of us get a thrill from knowing more than others about a subject, and pointing out their ignorance. Even if we don’t explicitly call others stupid, many of us secretly savor what we see as our superior knowledge and intelligence.
Our craving for superior knowledge often arises from a fear of being ignorant, or being seen as such. As I mentioned above, we’re generally conditioned to believe it’s wrong or unacceptable not to know the answer to a question, and that our level of knowledge is what makes us valuable to others. Many of us even feel the need to pretend we know the answers to avoid admitting ignorance—people who’d rather make up fake directions than admit they don’t know how to get somewhere come to mind.
Anxiety about being exposed as ignorant can limit our fulfillment. I know it used to have this effect on me. I used to be painfully shy, and much of this shyness resulted from a conviction that, if I wasn’t an authority on a subject people were talking about, I shouldn’t talk at all. In other words, I believed people mainly valued me for the information I knew, and if I demonstrated that I didn’t know something they wouldn’t want me around.
This anxiety can also affect us in the career context. A number of people I know have been interested in changing careers, but are so scared of looking like they don’t know what they’re doing in their new fields that they’d prefer to remain in a second-best situation. I worked with one client, for instance, who was interested in becoming a massage therapist, but kept fearfully imagining working with her first client and having no idea how to proceed.
Physical exercise is yet another area where this fear holds us back. When I tell people about my yoga practice, for example, they often respond “I’ve always wanted to do yoga, but I’m not very flexible.” Translation: although they could become flexible over time by doing yoga, they don’t want to look like amateurs at anything, and so they aren’t even going to start.
If you find yourself putting others down or seeing them as stupid, see if you can notice the places where your own fear of ignorance is having you play it safe and avoid the unfamiliar.
4. Fraud/Hypocrite. One of our favorite ways to denigrate others is to point out the places where their words aren’t consistent with their actions. Our willingness to do this reflects our own deep-seated “impostor syndrome”—our fear that we’re only pretending to know what we’re doing and “have it together” in our lives, and that one day someone’s going to find us out and the house of cards will come tumbling down. If we keep the focus on others’ hypocrisy, we think, maybe people won’t notice our own.
In his wonderful book Chained To The Desk, psychologist Bryan E. Robinson, in the context of discussing workaholism, suggests that this nagging sense that we’re “fakes” stems from early experiences where we’re persistently unable to meet our parents’ standards.
When it seems like we’re constantly criticized, no matter what we do or how hard we try, we eventually develop the belief that we’re just plain defective people. As Robinson puts it, “many workaholics were held to high standards that they could never reach. . . . Driven by insecurities, workaholics sometimes go to desperate ends to prove their worth. Often at the expense of others, they use superiority to disguise their inferiority.”
If you find yourself constantly looking for ways to prove that others are “frauds,” take a look at your own fear of being exposed as a fraud, and how this anxiety has impacted the way you’ve been living. As Robinson says, people who work obsessively are a good example of the harmful effects of this fear. In many lawyers I met when I was an attorney, for example, there was a desperate, frantic quality to the way they worked—a sense that, if one detail was out of place, their worlds would end. This constant fear actually tired them out and reduced their productivity in the long run.
As with other criticisms I’ve talked about, the worry that we’ll be exposed as fakes also deters us from trying new things and taking risks. I’ve known a few people, for instance, who were afraid of entering intimate relationships, because they worried that their partners would “find out” that they were childlike or immature in some way. Others are reluctant to promote their businesses, for fear that they’ll be met with ridicule and called frauds by the public. Notice whether any of these fears are limiting you in your own life.
One common theme you may notice in my discussion of these criticisms is the idea that, if you find yourself judging other people in these ways, there’s an area where you’re probably “sitting on the sidelines” in your life—holding back from pursuing your goals out of fear and insecurity. By taking a close look at the ways you criticize others, you can find out much about your “disowned selves” and the places where you have opportunities for growth.