Recently I had a conversation with a friend who told me that he realized how often he was judging other people. He recognized that it was not only unproductive, but it was limiting his possibilities for connection. After a momentary flash of the self-defensive thought, “I don’t judge people like that”, this exchange compelled me to honestly assess my own inner voice. In reality, most of us spend so much of our lives in judgement – judgement of our surroundings, of other people, and often most detrimental of all, judgement of ourselves. Why is it that we spend so much of our mental and emotional energy in a state of critique, and is it ever useful? In evaluating my own life, I identified three principal circumstances under which my inner Judge Judy emerges.
If I consider the most primitive of reasons, I judge for self-preservation. My brain’s amygdala kicks into reflexive mode, I assess something or someone as good or bad, I make a decision about the potential effect on my life, and presumably, I am a safer for it. As an example of self-preservation judgement, I might be walking down a dark street at night and a man of a different race, dressed in a t-shirt and ripped jeans starts to quickly approach me. Immediately, my fight or flight response is activated. I feel threatened and immediately find a public space to retreat. Real danger or not, some combination of my common sense and intuition told me I was in an unsafe situation and propelled me to seek refuge. Arguably, this type of judgement can be deeply rooted in biases that have been engrained in us since childhood. If we never stop to reevaluate our preconceptions, we are indeed limiting our possibilities for connecting with unique people and experiences. On the other hand, I do believe strongly in tuning in and revering our instincts. It is truly a superpower if we choose to give it a voice.
Another reason for judgement that I have observed is buffering my own insecurities. Admittedly, I am fully aware that if I am able to identify a negative behavior or trait in someone else, it is because it is a direct reflection of my own vulnerabilities. We can only recognize someone else’s deficiencies to the extent that they also exist in us, but the judgement is our attempt at resisting and turning a blind eye to our own imperfections. Why? It’s so much easier to criticize someone else than it is to do the work on ourselves and acknowledge that we exist to learn and evolve, not to live on a pedestal of infallibility. While the more challenging path is to look inward, in doing so, we are never alone. And from where I am standing, it seems lonely up on that pedestal.
Lastly, I judge in order to defend my opinions and claim my power to choose my thoughts and beliefs. It is easy to forget, however, that every other person has the same right to choose their respective thoughts and beliefs. For example, I believe that it is so important to travel internationally and give my future children exposure to other countries and cultures because it opens their eyes to new perspectives and encourages tolerance. I might judge someone for never traveling outside of his city or even the U.S. because it is so contrary to my self-defined “noble” values. Nevertheless, is judging someone for having a different belief a productive use of my time and energy? If I believe that generally people are naturally creative, resourceful and whole (albeit at times a bit ignorant), then I acknowledge that I do not control their opinions, thoughts, or actions any more than they control mine. Another perspective I could choose to take instead is that the world is a more interesting place because of the diversity of thought and opinions. Maybe I have something to learn from the anti-traveler?
While humans are blessed as evolved beings with the capacity to make judgements in order to not only survive but also thrive via the fulfillment of our values, we are also cursed if we use that power to deflect our own deficiencies and try to manipulate other people into maintaining similar beliefs. Is it really better to live in a world of homogenous opinions? What if instead of judging, we got really curious about circumstances, people, and beliefs different from our own? As I begin my journey as a professional coach, I am learning the art of the powerful question. Asking good questions requires setting aside personal opinions and judgement. Curiosity breeds empathy, trust, and opening to new perceptions. Why cling so hard to judgement when curiosity is always available to us? As children, curiosity served as our inner compass and the key to unlocking the mysteries of the world. At what point does judgement and self-righteousness start to trump genuine curiosity? Although we are clearly socialized to judge for a variety of reasons, I am declaring a crusade to bring back the curiosity and wonder. I choose to identify my judgements as they happen and replace them with a powerful question. It just might be the ticket to freedom.