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When people use the term hot mess, they generally don’t mean they’re running from the Mob, entangled in a deadly love triangle, or waking up after a bender missing a kidney. Instead, they mean that they feel steaming, churning emotional disarray—they’re unsure of themselves, insecure, and neurotic. Everyone can see them for the disaster they are.
Most people experience self-criticism in two ways. First, there is comparative self-criticism, in which they contrast themselves negatively with others, whom they conclude are superior. Second, there is internalized self-criticism, in which they don’t live up to their own high personal standards and expectations and thus experience a lot of daily failure.
Studies show that you are the best judge of your neuroticism; those close to you are the best judges of your intellect; meanwhile, everyone can accurately judge your extraversion.
Many people abet this asymmetry by believing that if they admit to weakness, others will perceive them more negatively than they actually do. We are generally unforgiving of our own weaknesses and thus keep them hidden. At the same time, we are blasé about others’ shortcomings, and even find them attractive.
Some psychologists call this the “beautiful mess effect.” We incorrectly think that others will judge us harshly for admitting to a mistake or for asking for help, when in reality people see vulnerability as sweet, or as a mark of character.
Comparing ourselves with others makes all of these effects worse. Thinking about how others see us—called “metaperception”—seems like it should help us understand ourselves better. Unfortunately, the conclusions we draw while doing so tend to be inaccurate.
Social media massively magnifies the problem by encouraging everyone to post only happy, self-flattering things. You see your friends hiking on a sunny day—smiling, social, and cheerful. They might have been crying their eyes out or yelling at a loved one earlier in the day, but you would never know.
Accurate self-perception and metaperception require knowledge of your biases. Left to your devices, you might find it easy to think of yourself as messy in comparison with others. But being mindful of the errors that lead you to that conclusion can help you reevaluate.
Next time you feel ashamed of your inadequacies, meditate on two facts:
1. You are the only person who sees inside your head.
2. Others are suffering inside their head, just like you.
Being open about your suffering in others’ service is a form of self-compassion as well. It allows you to understand your pain nonjudgmentally and treat it as part of a normal human experience. This kind of self-compassion has been found to improve your mental health more than self-esteem approaches in which you try to change your subjective evaluation of yourself.
For example, next time you are nervous about a conversation with someone, instead of trying to psych yourself into being confident, tell the other person you are nervous.
Embrace your hot messiness as a gift. It might be encouraging creativity and lead you to seek out new experiences, which can raise your happiness. To understand this, consider studies of people’s rooms, which have shown that although physical tidiness may have benefits such as encouraging us to eat right and give to charity, a little bit of clutter can encourage the generation of creative ideas. Messiness releases you from conventionality and thus inspires fresh insights.
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