How to be Judgmental

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Instinctively, most of us fear and avoid judgment. Without regular, searching, accurate reflection on what we’re doing and what results our actions achieve, we set ourselves up for a numb kind of stagnation that can last for years or decades.

Don’t Judge Me, Bro!

Instinctively, most of us fear and avoid judgment. In school, I distinctly remember having the thought that it would be great to be a graduate so I wouldn’t have to take any more tests. What I failed to notice was that testing goes on ad infinitum disguised as social approval, job interviews, audits and yearly reviews.

Rendering judgment can also feel icky. We want to be polite, to not shame people, to see the best in ourselves and others, to be “non-judgmental.” Yet avoiding judgment, when judgment is warranted, is a kind of willful blindness; a failure to see what is obvious and important. What we won’t see can most definitely hurt us.

When we suspend our judgment, we are more liable to stay in dead-end jobs, stick with neglectful, abusive, or simply incompatible partners. We also fail to rein in our own self-destructive habits. Without regular, searching, accurate reflection on what we’re doing and what results our actions achieve, we set ourselves up for a numb kind of stagnation that can last for years or decades.

Failing with Style

The first thing to know about skillful judgment is what to judge. Intuitively, we tend to judge based on results. Results are obvious. They’re the outcomes we have to live with. Sports pages are full of final scores that omit any mention of how many of those scores came to be.

When judging ourselves, outcomes matter, but our choices and actions that lead to the outcomes need our attention most of all. Looking back at our sports metaphor, it serves us better to look at how much and how well the team practiced than the final score. Because there are so many variables that affect outcome beyond our choices, it pays to connect causes with effects as accurately as we can.

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Sometimes we do everything “right” and it still doesn’t work out. Baseball outfielders live in fear of the “bad hop”: the ball that bounces inexplicably up or sideways, away from the waiting glove. Beating ourselves up about life’s bad hops gets us nowhere fast.

Even more vexing are the people who seem to be doing all the wrong things and still get great results. We’re jealous and perhaps tempted to use the shortcuts that seem to be accelerating them to the top. But before we succumb to temptation, consider that many times bad behavior goes unnoticed or unpunished for a long time…until the hammer falls. People who drink and drive often convince themselves over time that their driving really isn’t that bad, until they crash or the police catch them. Then there’s hell to pay.

Know Better, Do Better

Maya Angelou is frequently quoted as saying “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” When we use our 20/20 hindsight to judge our past performance, we create a funhouse mirror that presumes we knew what we couldn’t possibly have known at the time. Investors curse themselves for missing the “obvious” breakout stock. (Google, anyone? How easily we forget that there were grave doubts about Google at its IPO.) Both common sense and compassion require us to set aside our current knowledge when we judge our past selves.

Chain Reaction

One of the pleasures of connecting causes with effects is that it’s a repeatable, chain-able skill. Like a pool player executing a complicated bank shot, we can track a result back through time and choices to find a moment where we might have chosen differently. Did you give a bad presentation at work? What caused that? You were tired. OK, but why were you tired? You didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before. Why was that? You stayed up and watched movies late into the night. There’s your moment of choice where it could all be different.

Of course it’s not likely that you said to yourself “oh, I’ll embarrass myself at work tomorrow in exchange for some movies tonight.” But now that you see the connection, you may think differently as you sit on your couch in front of the TV and watch the clock crawl towards midnight.

I, The Jury

If you go to the trouble of judging yourself, at least make sure it’s you that’s doing the judging. This can be harder than it looks. Parental expectations, societal norms, and keeping up with the Joneses can all seem to appropriate our own voice. Before you decide some choice of yours is good or bad, how about asking yourself how you know, and who (if anyone) put that way of evaluating things into your head. I’m not asking you to construct your ethics from the ground up, but if you’re using someone else’s formulation because you agree with it, at least know who it is and recognize what you’re doing.

What Use Judgment?

The acid test for whether it is appropriate to judge is whether the judgment gives useful guidance in the future. In fact, many of the negative forms of judgment discussed above fail on this point. If we’re judging some supposedly immutable characterological trait, then what use is knowing it other than perhaps to avoid future situations that will expose this weakness? On the other hand, specific decisions made in specific situations are ripe for judgment because we can immediately look for better alternatives the next time around.

When judgment is viewed as a tool for self-improvement rather than a weapon for self-condemnation, I believe much of the stigma that goes along with judgment and “being judgmental” evaporates and we can add it as a valuable tool in our mental toolbox.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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