If you stand back and observe your thoughts during an average day, most of us will see a fair share of self-judgement, as well as judgement of others. Our minds can be pretty quick to form conclusions of something (or someone) as good/bad, right/wrong etc. “He’s annoying!” or “This will never work out!” for example. The tendency to judge is even stronger when we are stressed. We quickly move into black and white thinking when we are feeling overwhelmed. This is because maintaining an open mind requires us to use more mental and emotional resources. And when we are stressed they are in scarce supply. When we are stressed our focus narrows. Our capacity to see multiple perspectives diminishes as we hunker down and just try and survive the threat.
What is the problem with self-judgment and judgement of others? Doesn’t self-judgement help us to keep ourselves accountable and motivated? Doesn’t judgement of others help us to know what our own principles and values are? Motivation and accountability are important qualities. So too is knowing what our values are and living up to them.
Judgements can help us quickly navigate through life. For example, you know that at 3 pm the best route to get to a meeting is to avoid going past the primary school where parents will be waiting to pick up their children. When you are walking in the bush and hear a rustle near your feet, jumping first and surveying the scene second, makes sense.
To avoid throwing the baby out with the bath water, let’s make an important distinction between judgement (of the judgemental kind) and discernment. Discernment requires self-awareness and as much information as possible. It involves standing back, taking in all available information, and from a broad and balanced perspective coming to a provisional conclusion. Judgement (as I’m using it here) is an automatic and conditioned habit of the mind. Judgements become so automatic that we stop being conscious that they are not truths but opinions.
Here are a couple of examples of internalised judgements from my childhood that I still see popping into my mind decades later. Growing up we were required to eat everything on our plate. There were all sorts of stories about the starving Biafrans and how lucky we were. “Good boys and girls eat everything they are given.” Eating with others as an adult, I see judgements arise when they don’t eat everything they have been served. When I’m not mindful, it is easy to feel judgemental towards the person, based on nothing more than a few pieces of broccoli on their plate. Why do I need to have an opinion about my friends based on their eating habits? And another example. For many years I felt ashamed that my marriage had come to an end and that I was divorced. My conditioning was that “good people stay married.” I worried what others would think of me if they knew. In effect, I pretended to myself and if possible to others, that I was not divorced. As you can imagine, a lot of unnecessary suffering was experienced through that little mind game.
These two examples hint at some of the problems that can arise from judgements of others and self-judgement. Judgement of others disconnects us from their humanity, through a narrow focus on one aspect of their behaviour or being. This inevitably creates and entrenches division between individuals. (Sometimes judgements are used intentionally by groups to create just this effect. You might know the words from one of the songs in the musical South Pacific: You’ve got to be carefully taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!) Mindfulness has interestingly been shown to correlate with lower levels of unconscious bias (ie less judgmental). A judgemental attitude can be described as a “joy stealer” due to its narrow focus on the negative.
Negative self-judgement can lead to feelings of shame and self-aversion. We can end up going to war against parts of ourselves. And rather than acting as a motivator, research in self-judgment shows it to be disempowering. Overblown (moving in the direction of narcissism) self-judgements disconnect us from others. How much consideration do we give another person where our self-judgements put ourselves in the highly superior category?
Well-being is supported by social connection and psychological integration. Harsh judgements or inflating judgement are destructive of both.
A starting point for working with those conditioned judgements is to be able to catch them in the moment. This is not easy as we live so much of our life on automatic pilot. The busier we are, the more challenging it is to be mindful of the thoughts and feelings that move through us. Pausing regularly and tuning in to our inner world is a good start. Mindfulness meditation also increases our self-awareness. We get better at catching those judgements before they’ve woven a huge narrative, where we are the star – either the villain or the hero(ine). That’s got to be good for all concerned.
The Mind and Movement September One-Day Retreat has as its theme: Working with the Judgmental Mind and Being Enough. Come along and continue the exploration.
Dr Kathryn Choules is a certified instructor of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction from the University of Massachusetts and a Senior Teacher of Meditation (Meditation Association of Australia). She has been offering mindfulness programs, workshops, training and retreats in Western Australia since 2013. With many years’ experience in government, academia and the community sector, both in Australia and overseas, she understands the challenges and benefits of finding calm amidst the storm of modern living and the modern workplace.