Monthly Archives: December 2014

Judge Not

I have an observation. I have been a counselor of one sort or another for over 40 years. (that’s not the observation.) The observation is that in those 40 years I have noticed that the act of judging others is bad for our mental health.

There are lots of criteria for diagnosing behavioral health problems. There are many theories about the causes and basic processes. One of these is that shame under lays much of the emotional and psychological suffering people endure. I happen to agree with this last theory. Time and time again in my life I have seen how shame in one manifestation or another is the cause of depression, addictions, anxiety, relationship difficulties and most other forms of misery. One symptom of shame is judgment.

If I am uncertain in my beliefs about myself and my worth, and not comfortable with the uncertainty, then I will develop a need to check for external validation. In other words I will look around to see if other people believe as I do or if there are other indications in the environment that my beliefs are accurate and therefore that I am OK. Or, if not exactly OK, that I at least am making a good effort at pretending to be OK, or to be normal, or to be like others or whatever. When I see such evidence then I can relax a bit. When such evidence is lacking, however, there is a problem. This is the first cost of judgment, hyper-vigilance.

Having to be hyper-vigilant is a strain. It does not matter what my particular area of judgment might be, my need for validation means I am constantly on alert. This level of attention has a cost in terms of my ability to relax. In other words it creates a constant pressure on my system and a low level stress response. So for example, if I have bought into the unrealistic cultural expectation that I must be thin, and I need the external affirmation to compensate for my shame, then I must be on constant alert, watching not only my own weight and diet but that of everyone around me. This is a lot of work. In this case, the judgment that I may pass on others who have ‘let themselves go’ is a symptom of my own sense of uncertainty born of my perception of my inadequacy. It creates a constant tension. This is a continuous low level activity. Although it may be out of my awareness this is a constant in my life and it limits my capacity to just be, or to remain in the present.

A second cost of judgment is social. If I need external validation for a sense of peace and I discover someone who does not believe as I do, I must take action. This demand for action is even more compelling if the individual in question is apparently happy in spite of their failure to believe as I do. The action I must take is often in the form of either condemnation or proselytizing, or preaching. The result of either of these actions is disconnection. The upshot is damaged relationships and isolation. This of course confirms my original belief that I am different or not good enough and I sink further into a black hole of shame. This is yet another cost of judgment.

The best cure for shame, as with all emotional difficulties, if first to sit with and acknowledge the emotion. As soon as I engage in judgment of others, however, my focus is on managing them in order to feel better. I lose out on the experience of shame and all that it is trying to teach me. Admittedly, sitting in our shame is very uncomfortable. There is a reason why most therapists, coaches and teacher exhort us to do exactly that. It is the only way to get through it. Engaging in judgment is a whole lot like drinking, or gambling or any other addiction in that it medicates our shame and thus prevents us from working through it. If I am attending to the behavior and beliefs of other people, I cannot attend to myself. Thus I become disconnected from my own inner experience, my self.

As I said at the outset, being judgmental is not a problem in itself. It is a socially oriented emotion and there are times when it performs a useful function. When it is unnecessary or excessive it is a symptom of underlying shame. The outcome is reduced ability to connect, compromised relationships and almost constant hyper-vigilance. This is not a recipe for serenity. It is a guarantee of misery. When I find myself judging others, no matter how outrageous I find their behavior, appearance, beliefs, or statements, it is worth taking a look inside to learn what is my motivation. When I find myself trying to shame others or convince them to believe as I do it important to search out the root causes. What is the reason I am giving up my serenity? Recognize that my judgment sacrifices only my own tranquility. There is little payoff in judgment, even when it is necessary. It is really true that when I judge I give up a piece of myself. In judgment there is no peace.