The judgement trap

Judging others keeps us at a distance from people. It affects our ability to build and keep friendships, maintain close relationships with our children and to become intimate with a romantic partner. But you can overcome this harmful tendency

The judgement trap

Every human being has a strong need to be accepted for who he or she is. Unfortunately few people ever experience this. Most of us are judged on the way we look, the way we act and the things we say. Because we are aware of being judged, we tend to feel self-conscious and can even shut down emotionally in order to protect ourselves from the judgments and criticisms of others. Other people’s judgments can have a profound effect on our self-image and our self-esteem.

Because it is so painful to experience the judgements of others, you would think that we would not be judgmental ourselves. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. In fact, the more we are judged, especially as children and adolescents, the more we tend to judge others too.

Criticism—a family value

I was raised in a family of people who habitually judged and criticised others. They considered themselves experts on any given subject and were the first to state their opinion, to give advice, and to tell everyone and anyone what they should do to change.

In fact, I was so judged and criticised when growing up that I learned to become an expert at it myself. I learned to judge others before they had a chance to judge me. This is a common defensive strategy that far too many of us take on.

I became the expert, the authority, the person who looked down pompously at other people. I was wiser, more capable, more ‘right’ than anyone I knew. Few people argued with me and those who did had a major fight on their hands.

I believe we were all put on this earth to learn certain lessons and we are constantly being presented with opportunities to learn our lessons. When we don’t learn our lesson in one situation we can be assured that we will be presented another opportunity to learn it—and then another and another—until we finally learn it.

One of the most important lessons we are all learning is to be less judgmental of others. It certainly has been one of my strongest lessons. I have been blessed by being forced to learn this important lesson, a lesson that has changed my life. But I haven’t learned it easily. In fact, it has been a difficult and painful lesson, one that has often felt like it was thrust upon me without my consent.

Throughout the years this lesson has gradually been getting stronger and stronger, although looking back on my life I realise it has always been a driving force. Eventually I realised the following: Each and every time I judge another person negatively, I soon find myself in their shoes, experiencing the same things they experience, and now fully able to understand their perspective.

Other reasons for being judgmental

In addition to being judged yourself, you may have other reasons why you judge others. The following exercise will help you discover these reasons:

Exercise: discover why you tend to judge others

1] Ask yourself, “What do I get out of being judgmental or critical?” Write your answers down on a piece of paper.

If you find you are stuck for answers, the following possibilities may give you some ideas. You can use them as a checklist. I judge other people because:

  • It makes me feel in control
  • It keeps me separate from others
  • It is a way of protecting myself from pain
  • It is a way of protecting myself from intimacy
  • It is a way of feeling superior
  • It helps me hide my feelings of insecurity
  • It makes me feel powerful.

2] Notice under what conditions you tend to be the most judgmental. The next time you catch yourself feeling judgmental, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What emotions am I feeling?
  • How secure am I feeling? Am I feeling threatened? Criticised? Rejected?
  • Are there times or circumstances when I tend to be more critical or judgmental than at other times?
  • What patterns do I notice [for example, do I tend to be more judgmental or critical when I am feeling tired, hurt, threatened, angry?].

3] Pay attention to how you behave with different people and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I tend to be judgmental/critical of some people more than others?
  • Do I tend to be more judgmental when I am around certain people? For example, when I am with my old friends from school? Or when I am around judgmental people?

Choose empathy over judgement

We tend to be critical and judgmental of others because we lack empathy for their position. When we judge another person, we are, in essence, putting ourselves in a position above them. When we have empathy however, we put ourselves in their place. Judging is a position of superiority, empathy is a position of equality.

Now that you have a better understanding of the reasons why you judge, the next step to overcoming your tendency to judge others is to make a conscious decision to choose empathy over judgment. Once this decision has been made you are on your way.

Choosing empathy over judgment helps you become fuller, deeper and more compassionate. Here are some of the personal benefits of empathy:

  1. Judging makes us pompous, self-righteous, hard-hearted. Empathy softens us, makes us more open-hearted and wise. Judging causes us to contract, to become small and narrow-minded. Empathy causes us to expand into becoming more broadminded and open-minded.
  2. Judging blinds us to others. Empathy helps us to see others far more clearly—both their positive and negative qualities. It’s like a magic telescope that helps us to see inside the other, to view their heart and soul.
  3. Judging separates us from others, while empathy connects us, helps us to see our similarities, joining us in our humanity.
  4. Last but certainly not least, it is important to realise that our relationship with others mirrors our relationship with ourselves. The way we treat others is the way we treat ourselves, and vice versa. If we judge others, we judge ourselves, and if we judge ourselves, we judge others.

Judging others is a trap. It is an easy and convenient way to avoid ourselves and our own lessons. It depletes us of our energy—energy that could be better spent focussing on improving ourselves.

We lose ourselves when we are busy judging someone else. Our energy is drawn outward instead of inward, where it belongs. We stop learning about ourselves and focussing on our own lessons when we get caught up in trying to teach someone else the lessons.

Adapted with permission from The Power of Apology: Healing Steps to Transform All Your Relationships written by Beverly Engel and published by Wiley.

This was first published in the June 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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