The word “judgement” has gotten a bad rap in our society in recent years. In today’s hyper-sensitive, politically correct atmosphere, we constantly hear people saying that “it’s wrong to judge others”. At best, this notion is simply an over-reaction to certain situations; a trendy, broad brush rule of thumb that is appropriate only in some instances and certainly not all. At worst, it is evidence of subconscious unwillingness to take responsibility for our own feelings.
To begin with, if we’re truthful about it, making judgments is an essential tool for learning about life. It’s a survival skill and, as such, it is indispensable. We are constantly making judgments about whether something feels good to us, whether something fits with our sense of right and wrong, whether certain behaviors are things we want to try to emulate, etc.. Making such value judgments is an important part of sifting through the contrast, i.e., the duality of the experience of life. For example, all of us have run into people whom we judge to be untrustworthy, for any number of reasons, and this is a valid self-preservational form of judgment. We also make positive judgments about people, such as when we decide that we want to be around someone more, perhaps even marry them. As we interact with people, we appraise how we feel about our interactions with them… which is the same as saying we evaluate them… which are simply other ways of saying we make judgments about them.
Furthermore, it’s part of our human nature to do this, and we can’t stop ourselves from doing it, even if we try. As we move through life, we very naturally react or respond to everything we experience, including our interactions with other human beings. These natural responses include feelings that arise within us about our experiences. And it’s impossible for us not to formulate opinions, i.e., judgments, based upon those feelings.
Since making judgments is something we naturally do and can’t stop doing, and it’s actually a survival skill that we need, how did it come about that people would suggest that this is something we shouldn’t be doing? Where might this idea have come from? As with the laws we pass, “rules of thumb” such as this one always arise from observed human interactions which have been deemed undesirable, or wrong – which, ironically, is itself a form of judgment! This particular rule probably came about in response to two different things.
The first is when people attach negative judgments to the person instead of the person’s actions. Instead of judging the actions to be wrong, they make the person wrong. What many don’t grasp is that when we do that, we’re making the person wrong for who she or he is. Implying that there is something fundamentally wrong with another not only makes the person feel dreadful about themselves, it accomplishes nothing that will change things for the better – because who can change what they fundamentally are? We can change behaviors – but we can’t change our basic natures.
The fact that our society conditions us to judge people for who they are and not make the distinctions between behaviors and persons, by calling people names or labelling them, exacerbates this problem and perpetuates it. But in doing this to another, all that we are certain to accomplish is to make the person feel shame and guilt about themselves. It will alienate the person from you to some degree, instead of engendering any positive improvement within them. People intuitively know this and then decide that it’s wrong to make any judgments at all, instead of doing the more specific work of being certain that they’re judging behaviors and not persons.
Secondly, the saying that we shouldn’t judge others also derives from the common wisdom that it’s impossible to know what’s going on inside of another that may be motivating them to do or say what they do. We all have very unique perspectives due to having lived our own perfectly individual set of life experiences. No one else can see the situation, whatever it is, from our own unique perspective, and it’s the same for us all. Since we can’t possibly know what others have experienced or what they are thinking or feeling, we’re in no position to judge their behaviors. We hear this wisdom in popular idioms such as “Who are we to judge anyone?” and “Let God be the judge.” So this is another genesis of the generalized rule that we shouldn’t judge others.
Certainly, these two scenarios should be taken into account regarding our judgments. But they tell us that care needs to be taken in how we judge our experiences with other people, not that all judgment is “bad” and should be avoided. They are recognitions of the fact that we should look upon others with compassion for them, and with a sense of humility within ourselves. Instead of “throwing the baby out with the bath water” by proclaiming that we should stop making judgments completely, it would better serve us all to simply become more aware and compassionate in how we formulate our judgments.
Perhaps even more importantly, the truth is that when an interaction with another generates a negative feeling within us, that negative feeling is based more upon our own thoughts and beliefs about the event than it is about whatever the other has done or said. And these are often heavily influenced by our assumptions about what the other was thinking or intending. The same applies to the positive feelings we experience. Either way, it is we who make the meanings we attach to our experiences, not anyone else, and we do so based upon our assumptions and our personal definitions of what is “right” or “proper”. So we need to be aware of what is going on inside of ourselves and be prepared to take responsibility for our own part in the feelings we experience. They are our feelings, generated within ourselves alone. And we need to own them, take responsibility for them, and stop trying to blame them on anyone, or anything, else.
Given that our feelings are ours alone, we are best served when we acknowledge them and heed what they are telling us by making adjustments accordingly. Based upon what we legitimately feel, we might reject the actions of another, yet have compassion for the person, forgive her/him and keep him/her in our life at the same level of closeness. Or we might choose to keep interacting with the person but distance ourselves from her/him a bit. Lastly, if someone’s actions or words are egregious enough, we might judge them to be so serious that we never want to put ourselves in the position to have something like that come our way again, so we completely remove the person from our lives. Whatever response we choose, we are making very natural and valid judgments. And those judgments will serve us well as we move forward in life – provided we are taking responsibility for our own feelings. Making such judgments is a legitimate part of the human experience, and we shouldn’t try to stop doing it.
Another valid form of judgment is when we evaluate the behavior of others for our own personal learning. In other words, we judge whether observed actions or words would be appropriate for ourselves were we in the same situation as the one we are viewing. For example, all of us have at times thought, “I would never do that to someone, and I would never want anyone to do it to me!” Conversely, we often see people who behave in admirable ways that we set as examples for ourselves to emulate. Our observations generate feelings within us, from which we then formulate judgments that serve us. Witnessing and responding to the actions of others, we avoid judging the person yet still decide/judge how we ourselves want to respond or behave in certain types of situations. In this way we learn through making judgments, and define for ourselves the kind of person we prefer to be.
As we move through life, it’s impossible for us to keep ourselves from evaluating or judging the actions and words of those around us. However, it is possible for us to be compassionate and mindful enough to refrain from attaching our judgments to the people we observe, i.e., we should never judge the person wrong for who he or she is. This is where the saying “Don’t judge others!” came from. We should never judge people in that specific way, since we can’t possibly know what they are thinking or feeling. Other than that, though, it’s not only acceptable to make judgments, it’s necessary, unavoidable and helpful – but only if we take responsibility for our own feelings as we do. Making judgments is an important survival mechanism through which we learn about people, including ourselves. And the more self-aware we are, and the more we “own” our part in our our interactions with others, the more we will learn and mature.