Do as I say, not as I do. It’s a common refrain that acknowledges personally falling short of the benchmarks we set for others. But when a person begins to show consistently hypocritical behavior (that is, they’re regularly acting in a way that blatantly contradicts their stated beliefs), you’d be wise to put up your guard. That's because hypocrisy is often the first sign of a few key relationship roadblocks that may be lurking in the distance.
Generally, hypocritical behavior reflects a kind of “psychological inequity” in a relationship between the hypocrite and everyone else. “It’s this sense of, ‘Well, the rules apply to you, but they don’t apply to me,’” says clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Don’t You Know Who I Am? How To Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Picture someone who scoffs at the fact that they have to wait in line or show their ID at a bar, but who would also expect everyone else to be required to do just that.
Apply that example in other contexts—say, a vocal advocate of deadlines who fails to meet their own, or a self-proclaimed environmentalist who drinks from plastic water bottles at home—and it becomes clear that not all hypocritical behavior is created equally. “Hypocrisy exists on a continuum,” says therapist Anna Klinger, LCSW. “As for the outspoken vegan who occasionally eats mozzarella sticks? Sure, it’s annoying, but ultimately harmless, and much more so than, say, anyone acting to further themselves at the expense of someone else.”
“Hypocrisy is like the canary in the coal mine. It’s signaling to deeper reasons why the person feels as though they can or need to act this way.” —Ramani Durvasula, PhD, clinical psychologist
The more hurtful variety of hypocritical actions tends to look like someone constructing a particular (and false) public image of themselves, while putting others down as a means of deflection or control, says Klinger. And if that kind of behavior is consistent, it can reflect a few potential underlying character issues that would be tough to navigate in a relationship. “I would say hypocrisy of this kind is like the canary in the coal mine,” says Dr. Durvasula. “It’s signaling to deeper reasons why the person feels as though they can or need to act this way and other issues that can make a relationship with them really frustrating.”
Below, experts share the five relationship red flags that tend to follow hypocritical behavior.
Hypocritical behavior is often the first sign of these 5 relationship red flags
Because a hypocritical person is often more caught up in image than truth, they tend to speak or act one way in public and a different way in private. “For example, they might say something nice to your face to make you feel good, and then turn around and bad-mouth you to someone else. Or, they might pretend to act ethically, but in actuality, they don’t,” says psychologist Susan Whitbourne, PhD. Over time, that flip-flopping can make them really difficult to trust.
To alleviate the cognitive dissonance of acting one way and feeling another, a hypocritical person also tends to bend over backward to rationalize their behaviors. “Rather than being insightful about their inconsistencies, they pass the blame or create a narrative to explain them away,” says therapist Stella Fischl, LCAT. And the more stories they spin, the tougher it becomes to actually trust them to do the right thing, in any circumstance.
Often, the driving force behind a hypocrite’s tendency to behave differently from how they expect others to act is a deep-rooted belief that they are, somehow, different. “There’s a sense of being entitled or being so special that they really feel like they can just do as they please—but others should still be adherent to certain rules and order,” says Dr. Durvasula.
That notion can come from a dominating sense of privilege, constructed as early as childhood. “A person who grew up in and maintained a privileged position will often assume that things should keep going their way, and that they’re worthy of certain advantages they wouldn’t offer others,” says Dr. Durvasula. From that mindset, it’s a quick trip to grandiosity, one of the traits of “difficult people” who assume the world revolves around them. Cue: Interpersonal issues on the horizon.
3. Lack of empathy
Thanks to the clear disconnect between their expectations of themselves and of others, a hypocritical person often struggles with seeing a situation from another person’s perspective. “If they were able to empathize with others, it’s likely that they’d have a stronger sense of unease with their behavior,” says Dr. Durvasula. “It’d be almost like, ‘Well, this doesn’t seem fair that the rules apply to this other person, but not to me.’ And they'd be concerned that this person was having a worse experience.”
4. Lack of self-awareness
More often than not, the person acting hypocritically isn’t really aware that they’re doing so. (Remember how good they are at jumping through hoops to justify their behavior?) The classic case is a person who’s upset with their partner for staying out late with their friends one Saturday night when they, themselves, stay out until 1 a.m. every Friday.
“This person is unaware of the fact that they’re giving themselves a free pass to do exactly the same thing that they have a problem with their partner doing,” says Dr. Durvasula. “They can’t perceive that as an inconsistency, perhaps because they're so wedded to the sort of grandiose defense that they're ‘all that.’”
5. Deep-rooted insecurity
For a person who’s not totally comfortable in their own skin, hypocrisy can act like a protective shield, creating a public image that they feel is more socially acceptable than their true self.
In some cases, this behavior reflects a psychological phenomenon called reaction formation, where a person who’s insecure about some part of themselves acts in hypocritical ways because they feel “corrective,” says Klinger. “Their motivation is to deny the part of themselves that makes them uncomfortable by overcompensating,” she says. “The idea is, ‘If I rally against this particular group of people, then no one will suspect that I identify with them.’”
More generally, though, a hypocrite who creates a spotless public image—while not actually upholding their values—is likely seeking reinforcement from others of their own specialness. “They’re not solid enough in themselves to be okay with the fact that the same rules apply to everyone,” says Dr. Durvasula. “And they act hypocritically as a means to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy or insecurity.” Carry that over into a relationship, and it’s easy to see how you might find yourself perpetually reassuring this person of their own worth.
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