I wish it had been an unusual conversation. A group of close friends had gathered for dinner to catch up on life’s happenings and events. In the course of conversation, and it happens more often than I’d like to admit, the typical meanderings through each other’s lives shifted to calling out the particular character flaws of individuals we all knew, but who were not present with us. “She’s so judgmental,” one friend observed. “Well, she’s a perfectionist and hyper-critical” another added, and on and on it continued as the evening progressed. Never one to remain silent, I added my perspective that dissected personality peccadillos, all without a defense or a counter-narrative. How easy it was to evaluate another with surgical precision without stopping for a minute to think about how it might feel to be on the other side of the scalpel.
As I replayed the conversation in my mind, I was struck by the fact that the very nature of our conversation displayed the very same tendencies we had called out in these others. More than that, hadn’t we just demonstrated the very judgmental and critical spirits we had leveled against others? Psychologists have long understood this all too common tendency of identifying in others what we tend to struggle with in our own lives. We had all demonstrated the process of psychological projection by which individuals defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities by attributing them to others.(1) How easy it had been to deny the existence of these ugly qualities in ourselves by placing them (and blame) on others.
The psychoanalytic tradition defined projection as a defense mechanism which is understood as a largely unconscious strategy to avoid conscious conflict or anxiety. And what could cause more anxiety than having to face the truth about ourselves? As author Richard Rohr notes, “I am convinced that there is nothing on which people are so fixated as their self-image. We are literally prepared to go through hell just so we don’t have to give it up. We’re all affected by it.”(2) The people who irritate and frustrate, the ones with qualities we dislike so much, are in fact a mirror that reflects our own image. Yet, we find every conceivable way not to see that kind of ugly reflection staring back at us.
In a world that values image, holding up a mirror and taking a good, hard look at who we really are is a challenge most will not undertake. It is far easier to project blame onto everyone else who is judgmental, mean-spirited, or any of the myriad of complaints we hurl against others, than to recognize this darkness resides in our own souls. How difficult it is to acknowledge what the ancient prophets understood: The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked. Or to keep firmly in mind what Jesus asked those listening to him preach his first sermon: Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
Carl Jung, a student, colleague, and later critic of Sigmund Freud noted that “everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.”(3) Other people can be a mirror for us, showing us who we are if we are courageous enough to take a look. To do so holds a great reward. Seeing our real selves in the mirror of our irritations and critiques of others opens us up to a deeper compassion. As one author notes about facing our real selves, “This is the reason why in the spiritual life our enemies are our best friends. That is why Jesus’s command ‘Love your enemies’ is so important. When we keep the enemy outside the door, when we don’t allow the not-I to enter our world, we’ll never be able to look our sin…in the face. Men and women who get on my nerves, who threaten me and cause me anxiety, need not become my bosom friends, but they have an important message for me.”(4) As I gaze into the mirror of the other, I am invited to see myself and recognize the kinship between us.
There is another aspect to the reward of seeing ourselves truly. For the Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, true knowledge of oneself was in a reciprocal relationship with the knowledge of God. He wrote, “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”(5) His insight offers me great hope. For somehow in the struggle of recognizing those parts of myself that are most shameful, most hypocritical, even most vile, there are clues to the God who knows all of that about me—and who knows all that I am meant for as a human person. Rather than lead me to despair, this kind of knowledge leads to life and a true sense of my real self-worth. For even as I will always see a marred image in the mirror, the God who truly sees me has declared love for me in Jesus Christ. God demonstrates love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God comes to be known more fully, even as I come to truly know myself.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert, Discovering the Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey (New York: Crossroads, 1998).
(2) Ibid., 16.
(3) Sue Geisler, “What You Hate About Yourself” http://elitedaily.com/life/what-you-hate-about-yourself/1024464/, June 30, 2015. Accessed online, Feb. 27, 2017.
(3) Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert, The Discovering the Enneagram: An Ancient Tool for a New Spiritual Journey, 17.
(4) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1., Ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 35.