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Mental Health Beyond 101: Judgment

Mental Health Beyond 101: Judgment
  • On March 7, 2014

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This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.

I want to write this article mainly to make a case against judging others. Yes that’s right–I judge judgments.

No I don’t really. How could I possibly judge such a common behavior? Not only that, but I would be a massive hypocrite if I sat around judging people who judge people. I don’t like being a hypocrite.

I love the internet. It’s so many things to me, but the thing it is most is a place where I can find like-minded people to talk to. It’s like if someone took the world and sorted it into categories for me. I can pick and choose what categories I want and then dive in and meet people. I’ve made dear friends there through things as diverse as the BDSM community, Stephen King fandom, writers, gamers, knitters and more. I would never have met those people in the real world, I just can’t get out that much.

However, the judgmental nature of the internet takes the judgmental nature of human beings and turns it up to eleven. It can be scary out here.

When I tell people I practice non-judgment as much as I can, the reaction I get is intense. “Well, I do, and I don’t see any problem with it!” “I won’t change how I am just because you think it’s better,” etc. The defensive reactions to my simple statement of non-judgment are strong and immediate. I’ve decided this means two things–one, that people really like to judge and two, that when you challenge someone’s comfort they react swiftly and strongly. Judgment is a comfort.

What I hope to get across is that judgment is a comfort–one we all use–but it isn’t the best comfort. It doesn’t work very well.

What do I mean by judgment? I mean side-eyeing the lady with too-tight pants. I mean not so quietly commenting on the behavior of another person’s child in the grocery store. I mean spending time on the internet cattily discussing someone’s choices where they can’t hear you. I don’t mean discernment, or honest opinions, or even filtering what you might allow in your life. I mean shit talking, guys.

The way I know I’m judging is that I can feel it. It feels a certain way in my posture, my gut, my chest. It’s sort of a cross between relief, superiority and icky. This is a practice, the whole noticing thing, so try it out next time you’re tweeting about that slutty girl down the cubicles from you. Lean in to how your body feels when you’re acting this way. I’ve done it, so I apologize in advance for how much this sucks. Still, do it. Notice how you feel when you judge someone.

Human nature is one to classify and rank. I’m not sure why, but that’s what we do. We like to give things names and then decide how they fit into our lives. When I started studying Buddhism I discovered that judgment is strongly discouraged and I didn’t understand why. I learned people sometimes go as far as to abolish “good” and “bad” out of their vocabulary for a while to see how that goes. I didn’t do that, but I did start to notice how I felt when I judge others.

The relief and comfort I get from judging is very noticeable. I feel good in the same way I feel good when I’m right about something. I feel justified and on top of the world (and the person I’m judging). I feel a sort of hyper glee. It can be very fun.

The problem with judgment is that the joy of it is only half the story. Right after feeling super awesome about not wearing tight pants like THAT GIRL, I feel a sinking, gross feeling in my gut. What I’ve discovered is that judgment leads almost universally to shame. It’s like a water slide right into the pit of self loathing.

See, if I’m judging that girl for her pants what I’m teaching my brain is that there is a problem with clothing. That some people might not like some articles of clothing that other people wear. It’s a hop, skip and a jump from that to some people might not like the clothing I wear. Some people might be thinking about me the way I’m thinking about that girl. I am not being nice to that girl, so people are probably being not nice about me.

Now, if I could stop there perhaps it would be okay. But the honest truth is that most of us care what people think. Most of us struggle with a desire to belong, to be seen and loved for who we are. We crave meaningful connections in our lives. This is healthy and normal.

What happens when we sit in judgment is that we train our brains that we might ourselves not be worthy of those connections. In truth, judgment hurts us because we’ve taught ourselves that not everyone is worthy. If not everyone is, who am I to believe I am? Each time you pass judgement on another, you train your own brain that you don’t belong, either. You’re weird too, right? You wear tight pants or don’t want to pursue romantic relationships or have a tattoo (or don’t) or play too many video games or really like to talk about lipstick or still play with LEGO or your gender may not be “normative” or… you name it. We are such beautiful, individual creatures.

The brain believes what we tell it. We are lucky enough to have brains that we can train. We can teach it to be kinder and more resilient. We can also teach it in unproductive ways. The brain is plastic, it will change as we tell it to.

Whenever I tell people I don’t judge, they tell me things like “well I’m not saying anything I wouldn’t say to their face,” and “I know they judge me so I don’t care.” I want to be clear that the reason not to judge has nothing at all to do with other people. I’m not talking about how mean it is, or how hurtful it can be to another (although things like this can be hurtful). When I started changing my judging nature it wasn’t about them at all. It was about me and my wellness. I was damaging myself by judging others. That was a thing I could stop doing, so I did.

I assigned myself a group of judgment points every day. I like to quantify things, it gives me a target. Every time I heard myself make a judgment, I spent some points. I started adding up how many judgments I made a day and the number was staggering. Over the course of a year I focused on turning my judgment into compassion. Again, not for them but for me. If I can act compassionately toward a mom who’s kid is losing their shit, maybe I can act compassionately toward myself when my kid is losing his shit. If I don’t judge her, I don’t train my brain that it is bad parenting when your kid goes nuts. Kids just go nuts sometimes, and we all do the best we can.

Teddy Roosevelt said “Comparison is the thief of joy.” I cannot agree more. Allowing my undisciplined brain to run around making judgments on everything turned me into a less-than-joyful person. As I practiced with judgment points, I found that overall I grew happier. I no longer had that icky, gross feeling inside me. I stopped participating in the “shit talk” that most groups of people do. I find now that I am uncomfortable around it and usually I excuse myself or disappear into my smart phone when that is happening. When judgment is going on around me, I feel that same sinking feeling I used to when I did it myself.

Mind you, I’m no saint. I sometimes still judge and get catty. Podcast listeners are familiar with our lambasting of some bad writing early on in the show. It was the exact same experience for me–fun and gleeful, then sinking and gross. It was that feeling that allowed me to say that I don’t feel comfortable shit talking writers again. I don’t always get things right the first time (ahahaha actually never). What I like about this type of work is that we’re allowed to mess up. It’s noticing how our behavior really makes us feel, what we’re teaching our brains when we do things, that matters. If I never slipped up I’d never get a chance to grow and change.

If you’ve read all the way down here and decided you’re not giving up judging, I understand. It is a comfort, I won’t deny it. It feels good, like a warm blanket of rightness. For myself, I found it a bit too warm in there. Consider at least adding the comfort of compassion to your daily thoughts. The practice of empathy and compassion is good for beating shame. Give it a try the next time you open your twitter to shit talk something. Try adding a compassionate statement too. See if it changes the quality of your experience.

Remember–wellness is about you, not anyone else. Take care of you, and the rest will follow.

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