I’ll be happy to tell you how to fix your life. I can easily look at your life and tell you what you’re doing wrong. It’s obvious to me. I’ll try not to be condescending when I explain it all to you, but we’ll both know I’m the superior one.
OK, not really. But I found myself thinking about some things Sunday afternoon that made it feel uncomfortably close to this arrogant and narcissistic attitude.
I saw some people in public and I started silently criticizing them to myself. I cataloged some of their flaws and errors. If I’m honest with myself — which I’d rather not be — the truth is that I was critical of them for things that aren’t problems for me. When I realized what I was doing, I recognized that arrogant old attitude once again.
“Why aren’t you people more like me?” something inside me silently sneered.
And once more, I was appalled that I was trying to feel better about myself by criticizing the flaws in others.
It’s difficult for a person who’s messed up his life in one area to learn not to be judgmental about other people who’ve messed up their lives in different ways than he or she has. I know this from experience. It embarrasses me to admit to you that this has been part of my life-long inner dialogue.
If you have an internal voice that condemns you for your own failures, that voice also condemns others — and there is a peculiar sense of relief at times in attacking others instead of yourself. I’ve experienced this terrible pattern over and over, but it makes me feel sick to realize when I‘m doing it.
Maybe you’ve done something similar. I suspect most people who do it are completely unaware they’re doing it.
I’ve mentioned to you before that I get a “thought of the day” for my Type 1 Enneagram personality. Some days, the thought will be virtually meaningless to me, but on other days, the truth of what they’re saying hits me like a ton of bricks.
Early this morning, I received this as my daily thought: “A major feature of your personality is to become convinced that you know the way everything ought to be. Notice this tendency in yourself today.”
This one stung, so my first response was to be sarcastic.
“Wait,” I thought. “Surely they don’t mean to imply that this isn’t true, do they? What if I just happen to actually know the way everything ought to be? Have they thought about that? Any other possibility would hurt too much to accept.”
So when I found myself thinking about that Sunday afternoon, it couldn’t help but come back up when I silently criticized the people I saw in public.
It’s painful to see my flaws and patterns, even though it’s the only way to have a chance to get past them. This is a flaw I didn’t even realize for a long time. It’s something I picked up from my father — for complicated psychological reasons — and I can see how I unintentionally hurt people in my life with it in the past.
You see, I feel terrible for not being perfect. This harsh inner judge is eager to tell me everything I do wrong and he’s eager to condemn me. Criticizing others — even silently — seems to be my defense mechanism. In the same way that a victim of bullying is likely to react by bullying others, I reacted to extreme criticism by becoming an extreme critic — even if I usually keep the voice inside my head.
The truth of the matter is that I have neither the time nor the energy to criticize and fix other people. There’s enough to fix about myself.
I know this very well in the adult part of my brain, but the wounded child keeps hearing the criticism — of things in my life that I have messed up — and sneering, “Oh, yeah. Well these people are terrible, too. Let me tell you what’s wrong with them.”
I can usually stop myself now, because I recognize the pattern. But if I’m not careful, it’s easy to step into that old habit — of comforting myself about my faults by viciously pointing to the flaws in others.
All I can do is to keep noticing the pattern and calling myself out on it, because I don’t want to do this to you.