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American Cheese and Honest Hypocrisy: An Opportunity for Self-Forgiveness and Moving On?

Some years back during a holiday visit, my sister-in-law leaned out from behind my refrigerator door holding a slice of individually-wrapped, plastic-sheathed American cheese.  “What is this?!” she asked, wide-eyed, holding the floppy slice aloft.   I didn’t think you’d allow something like this in your home.”


Later, when I pulled out paper napkins vs. the cloth ones we typically use, her eyebrows shot up and she once again expressed surprise.


Fair enough.  I’d likely been “virtue signaling” in some ways over the years with my environmental ideals and habits, and my efforts to eat and serve natural vs. not-so-natural foods.


Having discrepancies pointed out between how I come across (and try to be) and how I am at times in practice felt awkward and vaguely shameful.  Like I’d been exposed as a fraud.


Had they been in my kitchen, social media observers would have taken close-ups of my cheese slice and stack of napkins and accused me of “false signaling.”


I read a research-based article recently about hypocrisy, likability and forgivability, and it brought this cheese-n-napkins story back to mind. 


We all know that “no one likes a hypocrite” – people who say one thing, usually with moral superiority, and do another. No surprise there. 


The surprising part of the research is that it turns out that we actually don’t mind -- and are even likely to forgive -- people who say one thing, do another, and then shoot straight with people that that’s what they do or did. 


Why is this?


It’s honest.


And it sends a new signal, a truthful vs. false one.  They’re not trying to dupe anyone.


In other words, they may be trying to be a certain way but admit they come up short.


As it turns out, this research finding even extends to when people fess up to actions we might consider immoral.


Society has a soft spot for humans who commit "honest hypocrisy."




Here’s where my coaching curiosity comes in, illuminating a possible application of the research in our daily lives:


Are we extra hard on ourselves when we say one thing and do another? When we perceive our own hypocrisy?


As in when, “I promise I will eat only kale and almonds this week” becomes, “How did I get orange-dyed American cheese on my white pants?”


I’ve noticed my clients get extra judgmental about themselves when they do something that goes against what they say they will do. They seem to like themselves less.


Can we leverage our societal soft spot in order to forgive ourselves and stay in our own good standing?


What happens if, instead of judging ourselves, we speak truth to ourselves about the situation? That we are shooting for something and it’s a high bar we may not always reach.  That we didn’t reach it this time, but it remains a worthy goal. That this is just part of our process – shooting and missing sometimes. 


What if it were a friend or earnest colleague? Would you beat them to the ground if they admitted they came up short of a personal ideal or professional commitment, or would you encourage them to forgive themselves and keep on shooting? To pat themselves on the back for shooting high?


When we say one thing and do another, instead of internalizing our shame, we can choose to pause and notice it, look it straight in the face, and take a few gentle breaths to help us reset. 


Most of us aren’t aiming for Hypocrite of the Year.  We come by our "hypocrisy" honestly, so let’s just be honest with ourselves that we don't always hit our own mark – and move on, so we can continue to shoot for the moon and like ourselves at the same time.


We can flip our floppy cheese narrative in a way that drops the black and white, “all or nothing” perspective in favor of messy self-acceptance and worthy aspirations.


Through this framework, I can produce a fresh answer to my sister-in-law's "What is this?" question of long ago:


“That there is a Kraft American single.  It reminds me of my childhood and gives me a happy feeling.  It’s not my everyday go to, but sometimes?  I’m human.”

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