Young people today have a habit of describing themselves as a “hot mess.” Despite its Millennial-sounding modifier—not just a mess, but a hot one—the term is not new; examples of it go back to the 19th century. As one editorialist from 1899 wrote, “If the newspaper says the sky is painted with green chalk that is what goes. Verily, I say unto you, the public is a hot mess.”
When people use this term, 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, neurotic. And everyone can see them for the disaster they are.
Or so they think. In truth, you often think you are a lot messier than others think you are. Understanding this and acting accordingly can help you relax and enjoy your hot, messy life a lot more.
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It is a well-studied phenomenon in psychology that if a person is healthy and normal—not a narcissist or a sociopath—she tends to focus more on her worst characteristics than her best. 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.
The reason a person might so often compare himself negatively with others is not necessarily because he really is worse in every way. Rather, he probably suffers from “self-other knowledge asymmetry” (SOKA), in which he more accurately assesses the traits he hides from others, while others are more accurate than he is at evaluating certain other characteristics. 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. You see others as better-adjusted than you are largely because of SOKA, so social comparison leads you to conclude that you are unusually defective.
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. No one posts, “My son just flunked math again. #Brutal.” But if your brain were a Facebook profile, that’s exactly the kind of update you’d be posting day in and day out. Thus, you are comparing a negatively biased view of yourself with a carefully curated portrait of others, which can understandably lead you to conclude that you are indeed a hot mess.
If you let these very human tendencies go unabated, your reward for self-awareness will be a lifetime of miserable self-sabotage. Fortunately, two strategies can give you a lot of relief.
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.
Once you have internalized these truths, you can follow the second meditation to its next logical step: showing compassion for others for the suffering they are likely hiding by sharing your own feelings. If every time you feel insecure or anxious you assume that others are as well, then you can use your own weakness as a bridge. Admit to others that you have negative emotions and ask them about theirs. It is remarkable how this opens people up, facilitates deep communication, and makes everyone feel better.
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. Most likely, they will find it charming and even funny—which is a gift. And if they think less of you, that says more about them than it does about you.
If you are feeling up to it, you might even take the radical approach: Embrace your hot messiness as a gift. It might be encouraging creativity and leading 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.
You can easily imagine the same pattern inside your head: When everything is tidy and neat, we are good at following all the right scripts; when it feels like a tornado has gone through your feelings, the result may not always be pleasant but might help you uncover valuable new ways to live your life. That messiness you’ve been trying to hide might just be your ticket to something visionary.