Reflections on Judgment

Reflections on Judgment

I’m too judgmental. It is a bad habit (there I go again!), one I learned from my family, where criticism far outweighed compliments. I went to a liberal arts college to learn critical thinking; I was brought up and educated to tear apart anything and anyone―to be a mental pit bull. I vacillate between my basic good nature―cheerful, polite to waiters, kind to strangers―and an ingrown critic who is hard to silence.

By now, my judgments are on autopilot, even when I’m just walking down the street evaluating strangers: “fashion victim,” “rude driver,” “texting addict,” “boring corporate drone,” “tattooed freak.”

With people I know, it’s even worse. I am full of opinions about how those I love are screwing up and could make better decisions. My sister should feed her kids healthy food instead of crappy mac ’n’ cheese. My dad is a skinflint. My friends should call me once in a while, instead of vice versa. My partner lets himself be taken advantage of at work; and while I’m at it, he needs to exercise more and see when the compost is full, rather than wait for me to tell him.

I save my harshest judgments for myself: I’m too fat, I haven’t lived up to my potential, I spend too much on shoes, I always say the wrong thing at the wrong time, I’m addicted to Scrabble, I’m not loving enough to my wonderful partner, I swear at other drivers, I think evil thoughts about people who say like all the time, and I’m . . . judgmental. The way I berate myself, you’d think I was pretty thick-skinned.

But if others criticize me, I am hurt and outraged. Don’t try to suggest I lose a few pounds or stop yelling at crazy drivers who look as though they might be packing a gun. Where do you get the right? I am defensive and sensitive―yet somehow it doesn’t occur to me that other people are, too. In my family, we can all dish it out, but we can’t take it.

Recently, after a death in my family, one of my sisters aimed a slew of judgments in my direction, accusing me of selfishness, irresponsibility, and general thoughtlessness. Specific complaints I can handle; character assassinations, I cannot. I was devastated (particularly because I was grieving, too) and decided that rather than try to defend myself and fight back―a strategy, to be honest, that has never really worked―I had to do something radically different about all the judgments that were poisoning my relationships. So I went to a daylong workshop at Spirit Rock, a retreat center in Marin County, California, on the topic of dealing with judgments. It was led by Donald Rothberg, an insight meditation teacher and the author of The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.

My initial hit at the retreat was that I didn’t want to spend the beautiful day in such a drab room; it was too crowded, and I couldn’t see the leader from my cushion on the floor behind a sea of folding chairs. Rothberg spoke deliberately, as if he had an unusually slow metabolism―getting bored here!―and then started a meditation. Sitting, I began to relax and to feel relieved that I could pour my feelings about judging and being judged into this container of a room. Rothberg asked us to first simply notice when we are judging―but not judge our judgments, which I guess amounts to being metajudgmental. OK, I noticed and labeled those thoughts. For a few fleeting moments in meditation, I could breathe those judgments away.

But then I wondered: Who would I be if I weren’t judgmental? How can you go around flatly accepting everything? People who are abusive to their dogs: Huh. Lying politicians and corporate thieves: Hmm. Movies with bad dialogue: Oops! I said bad. Without judgments, you become dull. You have no edge, no humor, no point of view. Your whole personality vanishes.

I was batting away those thoughts when the bell rang. Rothberg began speaking, addressing my concerns that being nonjudgmental equals being blandly accepting. “There’s a difference between judgment and discernment,” he said. Judgments go beyond noticing; they have an edge of reactivity and carry a charge. “Judging leads to pushing people away.”

Well, that seemed true enough, and interesting. Wait―was that a judgment or a discernment?
What makes judgments particularly powerful, Rothberg said, is that we believe we have the force of truth behind us. “We notice something, believe truth is on our side, and―bam!” The idea that we know the “truth” blinds us to our aggressive reactions. Our belief in the rightness of whatever it is we’ve noticed makes us feel entitled to throw some verbal punches. But being judgmental never really convinces anyone that what we believe is true; it just convinces them that we’re highly reactive.

Judgments, Rothberg went on, often cover unacknowledged pain. That’s why they pack such an emotional wallop, boomeranging their negativity right back at us. Judgments come from shame, embarrassment, irritation―or in my family’s recent case, grief. Imagine, Rothberg suggested, that instead of snapping to a judgment, you just notice it, pause, and connect to the physical sensations behind your judgment. What do those sensations feel like? Tightness? Pain? Anxiety? He suggested considering the source before reacting. Then it might be possible to notice and respond to something calmly, after you’ve defused the emotional bomb behind it. You could transform your reactivity and make use of your discernment for compassionate action.

All that sounded as though it would take practice. But I was willing to try. Judging is sort of like overeating―something triggers it, and if you can figure out the stimulus (shame, fear, anxiety) before you reach for the criticism or the cookies, you’re going to be in much better shape. You can take a deep breath and let the emotion pass. You can, in short, be kinder to yourself and the people around you.

Meantime, what about all these judgments flying my way? The best thing, Rothberg advised, was to not react. That’s difficult when the incoming judgments are so hurtful. But is it possible to have compassion for the person doing the judging? I suppose that for my sister, being angry at me and judging me was an easier way to deal with her grief than grieving.

Rothberg led us in a metta meditation, offering loving-kindness to ourselves, the people we love, and the people we’ve had difficulties with. Metta, he said, is a kind of antidote to judgmentalism; it can shift the energy. I closed my eyes: May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live in peace. Ah: it felt so different to be gentle with myself. Really, I am a kind person at heart, accepting and loving underneath all the judgments I volley into the world. It was such a relief to acknowledge and touch my bighearted, generous self, even if she had been hiding.

I repeated the mantra for my sister, and the huge ball of anger that had been inside me for months began to soften, and there was more 
space for my breath. There was more space for compassion, too, for the pain and grief she has been going through.

I wish I could say I was fixed after a daylong workshop, that I am now always compassionate and patient. I am not, at least not all the time. But I’m working on it. I’m more aware of how often I’m judgmental―and how it grates at my fundamental good nature and the people around me. And after a few months of noticing judgments and practicing loving-kindness meditation, I was even able to send a loving note to my sister. Magically, she sent one back.

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