Why Judgement Leads to Suffering

And what to do instead

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
 there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
 When the soul lies down in that grass,
 the world is too full to talk about.”
~Rumi

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance (we’ll call her Dawn) about weekend plans. She told me that her niece’s party was on Sunday, but she had to work on Saturday, she was six months pregnant, and she didn’t feel like driving to 6 hours after work on Saturday and then driving back home Sunday after the party. She also said that there are no hotels near her in-laws, so if she went, she would be sleeping on the couch.

The idea of driving 12 hours in less than two days, and sleeping on a couch, all at six months pregnant, sounded miserable to me. But I got the sense that her husband’s family wasn’t being quite as understanding.

“And how does his family feel about that?” I asked.

“My sister-in-law is mad at me,” she said. “She’s been complaining about it.”

I didn’t think there was anything wrong with Dawn’s decision not to go to the party. And you might say that’s easy for me to say, because it’s not my child’s party that she’s missing, and there’s no reason for me to care if she goes or not.

And that’s true. Her decision to attend the party has nothing to do with me. But it has nothing to do with her niece or sister-in-law either. Her decision not to go is about herself, not about anyone else.

You may believe that’s selfish, but that would depend on your definition of selfish, because anytime that someone doesn’t behave in the way you think she should, you could say that person is selfish. Selfish is a story that we tell ourselves about someone else’s behavior. Selfish is subjective. Saying that someone is selfish is making a judgement.

And it’s the judgement that is the problem.

When we judge a situation or a person, we are labeling it as either good or bad. As right or wrong. And when we do that, we assign a bunch of different thoughts and feelings to it, and we create an inner story around it. It is this inner story that causes us to take the situation personally. And it’s taking the situation personally that is causing our inner turmoil of anger, sadness, indignation, or whatever it is we are feeling.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t hold people accountable for their behaviors. We all deserve to be treated with kindness, respect, and compassion. We should never tolerate mistreatment, abuse, cruelty, harassment, betrayal, disrespect, or any types of behaviors that are intentionally hurtful.

But even if someone engages in those behaviors, we shouldn’t take it personally, because it’s not about us. It’s about them. The only thing that we can control, and the only thing that we are responsible for, is ourselves. And it’s the same with other people.

Bullies are bullies because they choose to be. Even if someone is mad at or irritated with you, that person can choose to behave in a respectful manner. Being mean is a choice. Everything someone does or doesn’t do, or says or doesn’t say, is a choice. And that choice speaks to that person’s character, not to yours.

To believe that we are somehow responsible for someone else’s behavior is like saying we can control how birds fly. It’s believing ourselves to be much more powerful than we are.

We have every right to remove toxicity from our lives. When someone does something that crosses a line or violates a boundary, we don’t have to accept or tolerate that behavior or keep that person in our life. And we have a right to feel hurt, sad, and angry when that happens. But we don’t have to cling to those emotions. We don’t have to create stories around those emotions and use those stories as an excuse to hold on to our suffering.

We don’t have to personalize it. When we depersonalize, we find the key to freeing ourselves.

When we judge, we personalize, and when we personalize, we suffer. We then blame the other person for our suffering, when we are the ones who have built our own prison. We remain locked in our self-created prison, yelling at the other person to let us out, while we are standing there holding the key.

We don’t need to judge Dawn’s decision not to attend the party as good or bad. It just is. It’s about her, and she has a right to say no. Her “no” does not mean that she is unkind, disrespectful, or uncompassionate. She is under no obligation to subjugate her own desire to not feel miserable for the benefit of someone else. It is not necessary to create a story about her decision.

But we often look at someone else’s choices through the lens of what we would do, and we create a story. We say, “When I was 8 months pregnant I drove 10 hours each way to go to my cousin’s party and I slept on the floor.” And if you did that and were happy with that decision then that’s great. But that’s your story. Why should that be Dawn’s story?

Why would we think that we are the authority for someone’s behavior? Why would we think that we know what is best for someone else, when we aren’t standing in their shoes? Why would we judge ourselves and our behavior as being better than someone else’s?

Why do we think that we deserve to be the author of someone else’s story?

If you put five different people in the same situation you could end up with five different outcomes. So how can we possibly judge what is the right vs wrong decision? We each bring different values and life experiences to every decision that we make. We say that if we were in someone else’s shoes we would have chosen differently, but we are really basing that comment off of our own shoes, not theirs.

And regardless, that doesn’t mean that our choices are superior. It also doesn’t obligate the person to act in the way that we would choose to act.

We are not the main character in someone else’s story.

We interpret other people’s behaviors through our view of the world, and we assign meaning to those behaviors when there is none. Because chances are we have no idea what that person is thinking, feeling, or dealing with, and our interpretation of their behavior is based upon what we are thinking, feeling, or dealing with. It’s all about our story and not about theirs.

Did a coworker not say hi to you when she saw you in the hallway? Maybe she just had a miscarriage. Or she just found out that her husband has cancer. Or she is taking care of ailing parents while also trying to deal with her teenage son’s heroin addiction, and she’s struggling to even make it through the day without falling apart. Maybe her not saying hi to you has absolutely nothing to do with you, and everything to do with her.

You can ascribe meaning and judgement to someone’s lack of hello or nasty email or rude response or party invite decline. And then you can get upset over your judgement and the story that you created.

Or you can decide not to write an inner story about it. You can send that person compassion, let go of judgement and suffering, and move forward with your life.

You can take the key you have in your hand, unlock the cell, walk out, and lay down in the field of freedom.