Q: I’ve been experiencing communication recently with others that I have been trying to identify psychologically. I’m referring to: People who project their own shortcomings or personality faults onto others and hold them accountable, but not themselves, for those exact actions or inactions. For example, a person who is late often, yet expresses dissatisfaction or anger when others are late. What is the basis of this? Are people just more sensitive to their own faults when they are apparent in those around them?

A: Contemporary psychiatry and self-help don’t allow judgmental terms such as “hypocritical.” These are thought to be moral evaluations, and are therefore invalid. Perhaps if we called it, “Narcissistic Hysterical Hypocrisy Disorder,” (NHHD for short) it would become acceptable to recognize this behavior as a problem.

Plainly put, some people simply are hypocrites. A hypocrite subscribes to a standard in some context, holds others to that standard, but does not hold him- or herself to that same standard. The hypocrite either shows no recognition that the standard in question applies as much to him- or herself as to others, or simply denies that he’s not living up to it. “What do you mean I’m late? I’m never late,” says the hypocrite who wants you to be on time, but who is not on time himself. Or, “That’s different when I’m late because … [insert excuse here].”

There are several possible causes of hypocrisy. One possible cause is an unwillingness to admit error. Some people are irrational perfectionists, and cannot tolerate the idea they might be wrong. “Gee, I guess you’re right. I’m late sometimes too. I should fix myself too, shouldn’t I?” This is not something you’d ever hear from an irrational perfectionist who’s also a hypocrite. Such a person could never even think this. It would collapse his whole psyche, his whole existing system of responses and behaviors — indeed, his whole world as he knows it. The world as he knows it as a place where he is always perfect and infallible, while others are always disappointing or betraying him.

This isn’t to imply that all irrational perfectionists are hypocrites. In fact, some perfectionists hold themselves to an impossible standard, but they don’t hold others to it. People like this are their own worst critics; but they are not hypocrites. They’re hard on themselves, but not on others.

Another cause of hypocrisy is irrational and all-pervasive anger. Many people simply go through life resentful. They’re not resentful at anyone or anything in particular; they’re just resentful. It may have started in childhood with their parents, or it might not even be that specific in origin. They might be resentful that everyone else’s life goes smoothly while their own is always flooded with difficulty. They believe that everything in life should be even and fair, and that difficulty and ease should be more or less evenly “spread out” by … well, by whomever is responsible for spreading things out in this way. The expectation is, of course, impossible and the perception that others have it so much easier is usually false. But resentment dominates their consciousness just the same.

This resentment serves as a fuel to justify the kind of hypocrisy you describe. Deep down they feel, “Why should I have to be on time? I’ve had it so hard. Everyone else has it easier, so the least they can do is be on time for me.” It’s not just about lateness, of course; it’s about anything they expect others to be doing which they don’t expect themselves to be doing, at least not so much.

“Projection” is a term from Freudian psychology that refers to something subconscious. It’s entirely possible that people are applying unfair or double standards outside of conscious awareness. But being conscious is not the key. The key is that they are applying a double standard — that is to say, they’re holding you to a standard to which they do not hold themselves. In all probability, they’re aware of what they’re doing. It’s just that they don’t think the standard is really unfair, either because their irrational perfectionism won’t allow them to, or because they’re going through life so full of resentment that they feel a double standard is the least you owe them.

This sort of problem is annoying and tiring, but it also erodes and ultimately destroys good will in marriages and family relationships. The best thing that can be done is to push aside all the mistaken thinking of psychiatry and self-help, and other self-proclaimed social superiors who preceded them, that people should not be judged or in any way held accountable for their contradictions.

Call hypocrisy by its proper name, and treat it accordingly — in yourself, or in others. This is the best way to foster change.