Two Ways of Assessing: The difference between judgment and observation

Leslie Santos
Jan 18, 2018 · 3 min read

My friend shared a secret vulnerability: she feels like an impostor. Imagine the psychic load that lifted that day — perhaps she felt terrifyingly exposed and simultaneously relieved. While I listened, a pattern emerged: she is flooded with self-doubt when she compares herself to others in her industry.

We all compare, often without realizing it, and when we compare we are making a judgment. We are evaluating ourselves, we are evaluating others, and we are evaluating ourselves compared to others. This evaluation leads to despair and self-doubt, or self-criticism and self-loathing. Instead, we can train our brain and our eyes to see our world as an observer. Judgment and observation are different behaviors with identifiable distinctions. Understanding the subtlety between these two forms of assessment can shift our wellbeing from despair to joy.

Judgment and Observation are not Synonymous

Judgment and observation are both methods of scanning a situation and deciding whether to approach or withdraw. Thus, when we meet another person our brain automatically scans or assesses — what do I see, what do I feel, can I find similarities, am I intrigued or repelled? However, when the assessment begins to sound like an evaluation — are they smarter than me, are they more prestigious than me? — we have moved from observation to judgment.


The difference between judgment and observation can be discovered in the emotional tone. The emotional tone of observation is neutral. You scan a situation and simply notice what your direct experience is telling you. For example, I can look in the mirror and see that I am aging. I see wrinkles. I see gravity in motion. The emotional tone of this observation is neutral.

Observation is also objectively observable by anyone. For example, when my 10-year-old daughter declares, “You don’t look like that picture anymore.” Yes, a true observation. The photo was taken ten years ago.

Observation helps me make a decision. Do I want vanilla or chocolate? I taste. I make a decision.

Observation: I see. I report. I see. I make a decision.


However, when we judge, we form an opinion. Judgment, comparison and evaluation all share an unpleasant emotional tone that is polarizing and sticky. The stickiness of the tone can take the form of doubt, fear, aggression, resistance, grasping, dominance, piety or shame. The polarizing property of judgment is either good or bad, black or white, right or wrong. We have an opinion about what we see and mentally assign merit.

For example, I can look in the mirror and see that I am aging. I see wrinkles. I see gravity in motion. I judge and compare myself to a younger version of myself. Or I compare myself to a friend, colleague or celebrity. I decide that young is good, old is bad. They look better than me. My emotional tone is now unpleasant: I feel disgust and despair. Unlike the observable wrinkles on my skin (which anyone can see) judgment festers underground in ones’ psyche, drains resilience, and places a heavy toll on our wellbeing.

Judgment: I see. I evaluate. I see. I compare.

Here are examples I hear from my clients:

Observation | Judgment

I think he’s attractive. | He’s too good looking for me.

She is successful. | She is more successful than I am.

I am hungry. | I’ll get fat if I eat that.

I am aging. | Aging is not attractive.

This company is filled with Millennials. | I am outdated.

I am a new entrepreneur. | I should know more than I do.

The human ability to hold a standard in our mind as who we aspire to be is incredibly adaptive. We evolved as a species because of our ability to make observations and express what we see through language. Yet, how we see (observation or judgment) and how we internalize the language (objectively or with polarity) has an enormous impact on our wellbeing. Tune in. How do you see your world?

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