“The impulse with judgment is usually to shame the person we are judging, to make fun of them or ostracize them. This is not an adaptive response.”
I try my best to be non-judgmental. I practice listening and making space for other points of view even if I don’t share them. But every now and then, I see someone doing something that really grinds my gears… and there I go again, judging.
Judgment is one of those qualities, like desire and anger, that most spiritual perspectives try to avoid. We love unconditionally and forgive generously. Perhaps we even leave the judging to whatever God is in charge. As nice as that sounds, it’s not particularly functional. All our emotions have an adaptive purpose—each one is there for a reason. Trying to ignore them is like refusing to use our built-in internal compass. So what is our judgment for? What should we do with our judgment of others?
The impulse with judgment is usually to shame the person we are judging, to make fun of them or ostracize them. This is not an adaptive response. Shaming someone can cause isolation, pain, and might even end up perpetuating the behavior you are judging. Tell someone they are stupid for liking purple bears, and you better believe they will start a purple bear club. Whatever we choose to do with our judgment, we must do it with a healthy dose of compassion, both for ourselves and the other.
Most commonly, judgment acts as a reflection, mirroring whatever we are most uncomfortable with in ourselves. Let’s say I am judging my partner, who keeps leaving half-filled coffee cups all over the house. If I reflect on how I feel when I see the cups, I might notice that it makes me feel shame. Perhaps those half-empty coffee cups drive me so crazy because they remind me of all the ways that I have not cleaned up my own messes or refused to take responsibility for my own actions. Judgment is often simply sublimated self-criticism—and this is worth remembering when you are on the receiving end of the judgment stick.
Judgment can be a red flag that there is something dangerous or unsustainable in our relationships. For example, if we catch someone in a lie, our judgment may simply tell us to no longer trust that person to tell the truth. We don’t necessarily need to end that relationship. We simply need to file that information away for our own future safety with that person.
In some cases, we do need to say (or do) something. Judgment can arise because we see an unethical behavior that might actually hurt someone else. What if we discover that an adult is abusing a child? In this case, our judgment steps in to remind us to protect those in our community that cannot protect themselves. We can still love the person and have compassion for them—shaming them isn’t likely to help anyway. But we must find some way to safely intervene.
In a case like this, leaning back on spiritual equanimity and ignoring the situation would mean abandoning a member of our human community. Yes, sometimes our judgment is simply our judgment of ourselves and we should keep our mouths shut. But sometimes it is there to remind us of our responsibility to the others in our human community. As long as we keep love, compassion, and honest self-reflection with us, our judgment can be a vital aspect of our personal and our social ethical compass.
Want more on this subject? Read “6 Questions to Ask Before Judging Someone.”