Cathryn's Articles for Stepmom Issues and Relationships

Feeling Judgmental? Why? What are the Options?
Feeling Judgmental?: Why we do it, and what are the options?

By Cathryn Bond Doyle.

When we were growing up, there were lots of rules to remember. As kids, many of us were bombarded with rules from well-meaning sources such as our families and friends, schoolteachers and coaches, clubs, organizations, society and even strangers. They all offered guidelines for our behavior. These “rules” were designed to teach us many things: personal hygiene and table manners, how to get along with others, how to show respect for people in authority and how to behave “properly” – whatever that means.

Rules that started as edicts and guidelines, usually “morphed” into rigid yardsticks for measuring people on the scale of “right-ness and wrong-ness” which morphed into goodness or badness. As a result of being so rule-focused and having to follow rules in so many areas of our lives, many of us unintentionally became self-inflicting rule-police, making thousands of right-wrong judgments each day. We've been conditioned to view others (and ourselves) in relation to our "rulebook."

Depending upon our backgrounds, childhood circumstances and our unique personalities, we each developed a working (and survival) relationship with these “rules.” We made decisions about which rules to follow and which to fight, which to ignore and which rules to endorse and teach to others. For some, following these rules became a safe pathway to approval. For others, NOT following the rules led us down the “heck with you” path which has its’ own unique set of rules.

At some point in our young adulthood, these rules solidified into a concrete customized collection of “rules to live by.” If challenged, we could probably explain the origin and rationale for each rule. We defended our actions, whenever necessary, with the rules in our personal rulebook. Having a personal rulebook has its pros and cons. It can serve us well as we move through our lives and interact with people in different situations.

However, having all these rules about how to be good (and not bad), how to be right (and not wrong) can also cultivate a not so attractive judgmental quality in each of us. Judgmental in the sense that our feelings and opinions of others can be based on how closely others do or don’t behave in comparison to OUR rulebook. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t even occur to us that there is more than one rulebook.

How many times have we rushed to judge a person we’ve never met just because they do something outside the parameters of our rules? Ever noticed that our judgments are usually negative? If their behavior, comments or appearance violates any of our rules and we decide that, because of this violation this person is wrong or bad or stupid, we’re being judgmental.

What’s wrong with being judgmental?

Well, actually there’s nothing wrong with being judgmental…that would be a judgment wouldn’t it? It’s just that judgments hurt. So the real question we want to behave in a hurtful way that has negative impact on others and our self…or not?

A common element of most judgments is that we make a decision about someone without having all the facts. We make a decision that could impact our relationship with that person. Sometimes we’ll judge another, assuming we all have the same rulebooks or that OUR rulebook is the right one. (That’s a judgment right there because we make theother wrong.) In many cases, judgments are palpable. Whether voiced or conferred non-verbally with a look or a sigh, when someone judges us, it doesn’t feel very good.

It’s common, in intimate relationships, to see partners judging each other’s behavior. Whatever the cause, judgments can look and feel hostile (anger intending to punish), sarcastic (whether cloaked in humor or just being mean) and controlling. When we’re judging someone, we’re not being very kind or loving. Attempting to change another person’s behavior by withholding love or denying approval leaves the “judged one” feeling alone, angry, hurt, sometimes betrayed-not exactly emotions that endear us to each other.

If we're doing this in an intimate relationship, we’re hurting the one we love the most. When we judge someone, the communication breaks down, the love wobbles and the trust weakens. The good news is that there's another way to react to differences. If differences can be viewed as just that “different points of view” and partners can get curious, intending to understand each other and learn about the rulebook of their beloved, there can be an immediate and positive shift in the relationship. Let’s take a look at some common questions about judgments.

Why do we judge others?

Here are a few commons reason for why we could be tempted to judge someone:

1. Judging someone as “bad or wrong” gives us a false sense of self-esteem. Feeling better than someone else can feel good when we're feeling badly about ourselves. Have you noticed that really happy people rarely have anything negative to say about anyone or anything?

On the other extreme, some people will judge themselves as “less than” other people as another way to numb their own sad or angry or painful feelings. It’s easier to judge another than to face the responsibility for our own situations. This numbing judgment, along with self-pity or guilt (also numbing feelings) can temporarily feel more comforting and less uncomfortable than our true feelings.

2. Sometimes we find others to judge as wrong to bolster our need to feel right. Being right is more important than staying connected to some of us. Pointing out the flaws in others is a strategy for some of us. This approach helps reinforce the value of following the rules.

3. Judging others can make us feel safe. We can hide behind the “right thing to do.” This validates that we're right (or OK) and others are wrong. These judgments are often silent and are used to keep us separate (and therefore safe) from the world. Sometimes being right is the only way we feel we can avoid being punished by others.

4. Sometimes we’ll judge others to end a conversation that’s not going our way. “Well, you’re wrong.” This breaks the connection with another. “Fine!” is the flip side of this tactic. It’s a passive aggressive way to end a conversation that’s anything but OK.

What’s the harm of judging others?

Certainly by now we have covered several disadvantages of judging others. Being aware of where and when we’re judging others is a great first step in eliminating this habit. Judging or being judged is hurtful to any relationship. It disconnects us from feelings of love and that’s the key reason to consider a new strategy.

When we’re judging people we don’t know well…or even at all, we’re not being very kind. There’s sort of a cold, hard feeling that we carry with us when we judge, have you noticed that? If we know the people and are around them, they will feel our judgments via our non-verbal behavior towards them. We’ve all done it. We’ve all felt it from others. Also, those of us who tend to judge others often find ourselves at the mercy of our own judgments and are therefore usually very, very hard on ourselves. If we’ve made a mental connection between people’s behavior and their inherent value, then we’re probably doing the same thing to ourselves and that’s hurtful!

What are the benefits of suspending judgments & just accepting others?

1. It frees up so much energy and attention to accept "what is," whatever that means. Again, we aren’t talking about behavior that is abusive or people breaking laws or violating personal boundaries. However if someone wants to dress in a certain way, or wear their hair just so, or cut their meat in a certain way…so what! If someone talks or walks or entertains in a unique way…so what! Letting judgments go frees up your time and attention for more positive things.

2. It allows more open communications between people. When people feel accepted, they’re willing to be more open, more real and better relationships can develop. When there are misunderstandings, suspending judgments enables people to feel safer to explain their feelings and their actions, in the spirit of informing…as opposed to in the fear of being judged and made wrong. Somehow there are fewer misunderstandings when people assume the best in each other and respect each other’s different rulebooks.

3. We can be more loving when we’re not judging. When we’re more loving, we’re more curious (less defensive) and more open (less blaming) and the people around us feel that emotional safety. Any time we’re around someone we know accepts us and doesn’t judge us, we somehow feel better about ourselves. Isn’t that a great gift to give someone you care about?!

What’s the alternative to judging?

A healthy alternative to judgment is conscious acceptance: acceptance that we each have our own rulebook and need to express our unique creative temperaments and personalities. Accepting that we each have our own preferences, needs, wishes, wounds, tastes and desires gives us the ability to separate people’s choices from their value and worth as individuals.

If we could look at life choices as different flavors of ice cream, it would be so much easier to accept that some of us like vanilla and some chocolate and some wild cherry with nuts. We’re all just picking different flavors of ice cream. No one needs to be bad, wrong or right. If we can accept each others’ choices, and trust in each other to take responsibility for the impact of each choice, then there’s much more freedom for all of us to be ourselves. Out from under the threat of being disconnected or manipulated, going from judgmental to accepting is a great and glorious shift felt by all involved. As we become more aware of the negative impact of making judgments, we can choose to make a new decision going forward.

How can we diffuse our need to judge?

1. Remember we don’t have all the facts. Walking in someone else’s shoes does make a difference. If we don’t know all the background for a decision, assume we’re missing something that might explain things.

2. Trust that each person knows what he or she is doing. People rarely do anything without having good reasons. We may not agree, but as long as someone’s choice is not hurting us, give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

3. Remember that we all had different backgrounds and therefore unique rulebooks. “Not good or bad, just different” is a good mantra for beginning to accept without judging.

4. Make the love or friendship connection more important than needing to have the same rules whenever possible. This feels so much better and gives each of us the chance to explore our own choices without having to fear the loss of love or approval.

5. Remember how it feels to be judged and decide NOT to have that kind of impact on anyone else. Having compassion for the sting of being judged by others can give us the momentum and incentive to learn a new, gentler approach to accepting differing behaviors and actions.

6. Get curious. Learn to ask clarifying questions that are intended to teach us something new. There are many ways to do things, many insights and perspectives we can learn about. If we don’t know the reasoning for a choice and we ask about it, from a sincere place, people are usually very eager (or at least willing) to share their viewpoint. Become curious and people feel valued and honored. Suspending judgments and replacing them with acceptance is a great gift to family, friends and strangers. It is also a new approach for accepting ourselves with compassion and gentleness.

All in all making judgments is a choice. It really is but we can forget that if we've grown up with the same set of rules. Who set the rules in the first place? We can make new rules as adults. When we know it’s a choice, then we have the option to make a new and different one. As we find new and more positive ways to boost our self-esteem and our sense of self-worth, to feel safe from the loss of love and OK whether we get approval (or not) and can be more compassionate to others and ourselves, we will find judging others less appealing and accepting others and ourselves will become second nature. That’s not necessarily the right thing to do…it just feels, “Oh so good!”

© 2003 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.
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