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Three Fingers Pointing Back to You

Why we see the bad in others rather than ourselves.

Maybe you know the saying, "When you point one finger, there are three fingers pointing back to you." Jesus had a version of this wisdom when he said, "Don't focus on the speck in your brother's eye while ignoring the log in your own eye." When cruel accusations fly, we all need to hear the voice of reason that says, "Look in the mirror, sister. You might just be talking about yourself."

Take Serena Williams at the U.S. Open Women's Final this past Sunday, for example. After an amazing journey to the match—having overcome serious health issues that kept her on the bench for a year—Serena was favored to win the Open. I watched Serena cream first-seed Caroline Wozniacki in the semi-finals and almost didn't tune in to the final, thinking it might not be much of a game. But as a psychologist and fan of the sport, I'm so glad I did.

Serena's opponent, Samantha Stosur, surprised us all with her mental and physical toughness. Stosur swiftly claimed the first set, 6-2, before the fireworks started to fly. Williams is a tough competitor and, staring down a break point in the first game of the second set, she hit a smoking winner across the court. But before the point was over, she enthusiastically cried out, "Come on!" A champion must have fire in the belly but, as it turns out, Serena had expressed her exuberance too soon, before the point was over and Stosur got her racket on the ball. The chair umpire called Serena's shout-out a "hindrance" to the play and gave the point to Samantha. A by-the-book call, but one that flipped Serena's switch.

Fire in the belly became a torrent of attack and paranoia. Serena made an innocent mistake, which she couldn't admit. She was losing the match, which she couldn't bear. She took it all out on the chair umpire. An easy target.

Serena called the chair umpire a "loser" and a "hater." She said that she wasn't a "nice person" and was "unattractive inside." She accused her of being out to get her. It was ugly. While I could understand where Serena's tirade was coming from, I just wanted to say, "Take a look in the mirror, sister. Three fingers are pointing back to you."

We all know what it's like to get caught up in the heat of the moment. When we cannot bear to see something painful in ourselves, we want to get rid of it. We want to relocate the ugliness we feel about ourselves and put it into someone else. We say those bad feelings do not apply to us; they apply to someone else.

The fancy psychoanalytic term for this unconscious process is projective identification. We get rid of the unwanted feelings (projection) and identify them as belonging to someone else (identification). I call it the shame relocation plan.

It is no surprise that the very labels that Serena placed on the umpire were aspects of herself that she couldn't face just then. She was losing. She was hating. She wasn't feeling very nice or attractive. She didn't want to look at herself. Those are some intense feelings to bear.

From a psychological perspective, I give everyone high marks for effectively handling the intense feelings stirred up by Serena's outburst. Perhaps the umpire could have shut Serena down sooner, but instead, she took the assault without striking back. Ironically, the umpire contained her inevitable feelings about being judged so unfairly. By doing so, I think she allowed the fire to die down rather than stoking it. And Samantha, to her credit, also kept cool. Perhaps she could have smoothed out the situation by suggesting a replay of the point, but instead she kept her head in the game, even in a rattled state. And Serena managed to keep her tirade cuss-free and to not carry it forward beyond a few games of heightened aggression, appropriately channeled into her play.

The way all three women handled the outburst allowed emotions to cool down rather than erupt further. After a short time, the match mostly settled back to its previous state. Samantha won easily, 6-2, 6-3. Serena ignored the chair umpire (probably a good move) and warmly congratulated the champion (an admirable show of containment and maturity). As I often say to my patients, sometimes pretty good is good enough.

Perhaps as the dust settles, Serena will be able to look at herself and better understand what happened. We all do well to follow the three fingers, not so much in self-accusation but in an effort to take proper stock of ourselves. Because, in the end, we all make mistakes. We win some and we lose some. Even the greatest champions cannot win them all. It doesn't make us losers, or haters, or unattractive. It just makes us human. What we do with those painful feelings is what really counts.

Copyright 2011 Jennifer L. Kunst.

To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.

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