Dr. Steven Berglas of Harvard’s psychiatry department talks about projection, whereby someone projects their problems or hang-ups on to others, perhaps to deny or manage them. This projection often manifests itself in what he calls If You Spot It, You Got It, or YSIYGI for short. Berglas explains it thus:
“It works like this: You notice that colleague X has what is, in your mind, is an affliction. You then take it upon yourself to castigate him for his affliction — irrespective of whether or not it impairs his on-the-job performance or has a negative effect on group morale.
What makes this dynamic so ugly is that unbeknownst to the person under attack, the critic is being driven to criticize by a repressed-and-intolerable feeling that he’s “got” what he deplores in others.”
You’ve no doubt come across this before. It might be the person at the back of presentation criticising other’s poor public speaking skills when they suffer from chronic lack of confidence in that exact situation, or it might be personal criticism of someone’s chosen lifestyle when the critic secretly shares the same lifestyle they are attacking or in some way wishes to.
Of course not all criticism necessarily is projection, and just because I’m not very good at doing something doesn’t mean I shouldn’t criticise someone else for not being good at it – as long as its relevant. As Berglas says, negative feedback needs to be constructive and be relevant to the task at hand; why tell someone they’re fat when in makes no difference to you?
Nasty critics are often exposing their own vulnerabilities and hang-ups, but that doesn’t mean they should be necessarily pursued and berated. They can be reminded that constructive feedback is always better, and that no one is perfect. When criticising and taking criticism, remain calm and listen, because even if you disagree, different points of view can open up all sorts of realisations.