Clean Out Your Own Closet
If you watch your thoughts over a full day, which by the way I recommend highly, see if you can count the number of times your mind drifts automatically toward observing, evaluating, and/or criticizing someone else's behavior. If we're really honest with ourselves, it happens many times everyday. Why? Because it's the default habit of the ego to deflect away from itself and focus on someone else. In other words, we'd rather think about someone else's stuff than our own. It's sort of a built in protective mechanism. It's a way to see and confirm who we are in a positive light.
If I am thinking more about other people's behaviors and problems, then I can spend less time thinking about my own. It's just easier. It doesn't require work or effort on my part. It doesn't require seeing what I don't want to see, and it allows me to maintain a "better" sense of myself by comparison to someone else. In reality, however, spending time thinking about other people's negative behaviors or personality characteristics is simply a defense mechanism to avoid working on myself.
Here are some of the primary ways this works:
Get Rid of What I Don't Want
I split off (literally get rid of) the behaviors and personality characteristics I have, but don't like and don't want, and assign them to someone else. Example: That guy always arrives late to our office meetings. The truth: I often arrive late to appointments.
I'm Better Than You
I feel better about myself because after all, I don't have those kinds of problems. This is the "one up" syndrome. If I want to feel good, I do it at the expense of someone else. Example: Look at how overweight that guy is. The truth: I can feel better about the fact that I'm not overweight which lets me feel better about myself.
Who Am I?
I can affirm my identity. If I'm not really sure who I am or don't have a strong sense of self, I can always say who I'm not by defining what I don't like about someone else. This one is a little less obvious. It more often than not takes the form of being angry with someone and devaluing them. Example: He never shuts up. He talks and talks and talks and says nothing at all. Truth: What I'm really trying to say is that I'm not a chatty Kathy. I'm not dumb. So by comparison, I'm smart, aware and articulate. The problem here is that I may not really believe that I am that way. The underlying feeling is that I am not all that great at communicating and I'm at a loss as to how to fix that.
Stuck in the Past
What I am noticing and criticizing is related to or reminiscent of a previous or current relationship and has a very personal meaning. Example: She interrupts me every time I'm trying to have a conversation with her. She's downright rude! Truth: Yes, she does interrupt, but the personal reaction is related to my father who never let me say what was on my mind, but always interrupted and corrected me as I was trying to express my feelings.
The bottom line is that it just takes less energy and is much easier to clean out someone else's closet than work on our own. We don't have any personal investment in someone else's problems. If we focus on them, there is no emotional fallout for us. We can feel "good" about being better, being different, and not having qualities that we perceive as negative.
Should We Ignore What We Observe?
The question arises that if we are not supposed to be critical in our thoughts of others, are we then just supposed to pretend that we don't see what we see? No, absolutely not. But there is a big difference between observation and criticism. It is very important to observe, notice, and see what is. The problem is in the emotional reaction, and in particular, using our observations to ignore and avoid dealing with our own problems. We should make use of our observations to work on ourselves. In other words, clean out our own closet. If someone close to us wants some help cleaning out theirs, they will usually ask for it and then we can help in an empathetic way.
Here's the Exemption
The only caveat pertains to problems that come from someone else that greatly affect us and must be dealt with. These are not just problems we notice, but problems that can have a negative impact on us as well as the other person. Examples might be having an alcoholic spouse, or a teen who is aggressive, or a parent that is abusive. These problems require intervention and are not what I'm speaking to in this blog. For our purposes here, we are talking about the everyday tendency to focus on other people and their negative traits rather than deal with our own.
When you find yourself having critical thoughts about someone, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this a problem that perhaps I have? If so, how can I work on it?
- Is this a problem that reminds me of someone close to me and is this personal for me? If so, how is this still affecting me? Can I work on releasing it? Or can at least put in perspective?
- Am I uncomfortable with myself today? If so, what's bothering me and how can I work on that?
- Am I feeling inadequate, unworthy, unloved, or unappreciated? What can I do to change that?
Secondly, work on feeling some empathy for the person you are criticizing. A simple method for this is just to wonder what her life is like. What kinds of things might she struggle with? What might she be dealing with right now in her life? What might she be insecure about? The fact is, everyone has an internal life that is active all the time, and what appears on the surface usually doesn't reflect all that occurs internally. If we really have compassion for ourselves, we have to have compassion for others, even those that bother us. Try to approach the person you are thinking about with the kind of compassion you would like to receive if someone was observing you.
If you are really ambitious, you can make a regular game out of it and practice turning your attention toward yourself every time you catch yourself in critical thought patterns. It can become a habit, and one that is very beneficial in the long run because you can solve a lot of your own problems rather than deflect away from them and let them grow.
If your thoughts and observations pertain to someone with whom you are more intimately involved such as a spouse, child, parent, or close friend, you need to make a distinction between generally critical thoughts and relationship issues that need to be addressed. If the observations are something that you need to address, then address them directly with the person involved.