Tales of a Reformed Judgmentalist
Yes, I Know That’s Not a Real Word
Why can’t you just do it? I don’t say the words, but they run through my head like an annoying song stuck on repeat while I listen to my friend explain why she hasn’t reached her goals in life, why she feels stilted, why she’s disconnected from her family.
In that moment, it’s totally binary to me. Either you do it or you don’t. If you don’t like your circumstances, change them. If you’re tired of your job, quit and find another one. If you hate where you live, move.
And why on earth would you wear those shoes with that dress?
I judged my friends for their life choices, my clients for failing to understand what I tried to convey in content, my favorite authors for their unusual word choices. I was a judgmentalist.
Yes, I know it’s not a real word, but I couldn’t come up with another term to describe how I lived my life. Every comment a person made, every article I read online, every time my husband didn’t do what I wanted, I judged.
Privately, but still.
And that judgmentalism made me profoundly unhappy. I realized that I was making myself feel better by looking down on other people’s choices. Cue intense self-loathing.
Like a lot of people, I grew up in social circles founded on judgmental behavior. Whether at school, at work, or at family functions, everyone was looking for a reason to nitpick at someone else. It’s caustic.
In private, friends and relatives would comment on others’ choices, deride their decision-making, speculate on the inevitable crash and burn. In my defense, I didn’t realize for a long time how unhealthy that attitude was.
Judgmentalism Starts With Self
It wasn’t until I started therapy that I realized how harshly I judged myself. My therapist asked me to write down my self talk whenever I made a mistake. The things I was saying to myself were cruel and degrading:
- I’m such an idiot!
- Good job, Laura, you’ve fucked up again.
- You’ll never really make it as a writer.
- If your clients find another writer, they’ll realize how much you suck.
- Why did I say that? Stupid, stupid, stupid.
- I’m officially the worst person in the world.
Worse, I said those things dozens of times every day, whether I bumped into a wall on accident or turned in a piece of copy I knew could be improved upon.
No wonder I was judging other people. It’s how I treated myself. By judging and berating myself for every little thing, I trained my brain to view others with the same degree of scrutiny and, in some cases, derision.
Fucking nobody can live up to that shit.
“You can’t treat others kindly if you can’t treat yourself kindly.” — Brené Brown
Worse, the voice in my mind wasn’t even my own. When I judged and criticized myself, the voices came from everyone who ever told me I wasn’t good enough, wasn’t capable, wasn’t strong, wasn’t qualified.
But I couldn’t figure out how to beat the judgmentalism out of myself.
Judgmentalism is an ingrained habit. It happens without conscious thought. In some ways, it became my default position.
I found myself poking holes in everyone’s theories, making snap judgments about their stories, predicting terrible outcomes based on what I just knew were bad choices.
At the same time, I was judging myself more harshly than ever, determined to live up to some version of Laura that I’d bronzed and placed on a pedestal as tall as K2.
Nobody Really Knows Anyone
Here’s where things changed for me.
Nobody really knows anyone else. Not completely, at least. My husband knows me pretty well. So does my mother. But they don’t know everything.
Figuring that out was so liberating, I actually felt the weight lift off my shoulders.
They don’t know everything.
My husband might know that I decided to cut ties with a client. He might even know why. But he doesn’t know everything.
He can’t feel the flutter of anxiety I experience every time I hear from a toxic client. He can’t share the burden imposed by such a client or understand what it does to my creative resources.
Other people just don’t know everything.
When I came to grips with this fact, I realized it applied to everyone. I might know the basic details of a friend’s decision to quit her job and start a business that will probably fail, but I don’t know everything.
Maybe she needs to prove something to herself. Perhaps she has market knowledge I don’t possess.
It’s this cyclical loop, right? People don’t know everything about my life, so they judge. I let their words creep inside my brain and make a little nest. The judgmentalism starts to rot me from the inside out.
But when I realize that I’m accountable only to myself, and that other people really don’t have a right to judge me because they don’t have all the facts, I can stop judging myself.
Even better, I can start judging others. Instead of assuming I have all the facts, I assume I don’t. Then, I can’ connect with people to learn more about their thoughts, decisions, and actions. My mind opens wider every day.
Judgmentalism Is One of the Most Insidious Trends in Our Culture
I see judgmentalism as a close cousin of comparison. Often, when I judged myself harshly for a decision or mistake, I followed up with a comparison.
“God, that was so stupid. ANGELA would never have done that.”
There’s no Angela. It’s just an example.
The same goes for judging others. I might think, “That’s not going to work out. I would never have made that decision.”
But I’m not the other person. And again, I don’t know everything.
Comparison comes from a place of deep insecurity and fear. So, I believe, does judgmentalism. If I’m judging myself or someone else, I’m fucking scared. And I believe that either I or the other person lacks the ability to follow through with the decision or plan in question.
But here’s the kicker: Judgmentalism is also born out of concern.
If I judge my husband for something he did at work, I probably experience fear and insecurity. His decision doesn’t sit right with me, for whatever reason.
However, I also want to protect him.
“Why did you do that? What if you get fired?”
The problem is that concern that comes from a judgmental place causes rifts in relationships. It tells the other person I don’t trust them to make good decisions, which whittles away at trust, compassion, and empathy.
Let’s say I’m concerned about a decision my husband made at work. Instead of turning our dinner conversation into the Inquisition, I could try to relate to him instead.
“That’s an interesting way to approach the problem. What led you to it?”
If I can come to people with concern sans judgment, I try to understand them and learn from them. We build trust because the other person knows I’m not going to judge and compare.
And it doesn’t mean I can’t play devil’s advocate. Everyone can benefit from a sounding board. But if I’m not in a judgmental mindset, I’m trying to help by making sure the other person has thought through every aspect of the decision. And if the other person asks me to stop, I can respect that boundary.
Judgmentalism doesn’t have any boundaries. It’s destructive and overbearing.
We’re Never Going to Know Everything
Just because I don’t agree with someone else’s choice doesn’t mean they’re wrong — outside of, you know, murdering someone or otherwise causing direct harm.
It just means I don’t understand. I don’t know everything.
And that’s cool. For the first time in my life, I’m actively fighting to avoid judging myself. Criticisms and nit-picks still work their way into my internal monologue, but I try to catch them before they become a habit.
More importantly, I’m trying to approach other people from a place of curiosity, empathy, and compassion. Instead of judging them, I decide that I’ll help them in any way I can.