Part 9. Judging people.

Most of the time judgments are helpful. We evolved to make them. In prehistory they increased our chances of survival, and still do. (We have to make judgments to cross a road.) There is, however, a difference between judging people and being judgmental:

(A) ‘He’s a homeless person who I probably can’t trust implicitly.’

(This observation might be right or wrong, but it’s made to help the speaker make a decision.)

(B) ‘He’s a homeless person who is probably an alcoholic or mentally ill.’

(This observation might be right or wrong, but it’s spoken to edify.)

(C) ’He’s a homeless person, which means he’s a loser.’

This observation is the judgmental one.

Even being judgmental is natural. As infants we learn like sponges, and grow up clinging to ideas about how things should be, so it’s understandable that when someone behaves contrary to our expectations we might be disconcerted and look at them askance. There may even be an innate need, evolved long ago, to notice when another person is attracting attention to themselves, or not performing an action right, and to warn them. But our species also thrives on diversity, so any remnants of that need to be judgmental tend to atrophy as we grow. However, the insecure among us (and almost all of us are insecure in some way) might tend to cling to the habit of being judgmental because it can give us comfort and certainty. For example, some of us:

1) make critical judgments of others because we want to argue with our own inner voice telling us we ourselves have unacceptable flaws.
However, perceiving people to be inferior reinforces our belief that we are flawed, because when we judge other people we are also judging ourselves with the same criteria. We then require constant reassurance that we’re okay, and perhaps we even hang out with other judgmental people to gain that reassurance. It is only when we let go of our judgments of others do we feel less pressure on ourselves to be worthy.

From the postsecret site.


‘When you judge someone what you are really trying to do is find a way of saying “I’m better than you”, even if it is a silent, internal conversation. You gain nothing of any value by thinking you are better than someone else – only a momentary ego boost, a false sense of pride or support for a racial, moral or social stereotype, which are all best avoided.’

Domonique Bertolucci, ‘The Happiness Code

2) Some of us place people into easy-to-criticise categories, because it’s convenient. It saves us the trouble of thinking.
The trouble is, we come fear the people in those categories because we have distanced ourselves from them. Further, because our prejudices are simplistic and inaccurate, we have to keep fooling ourselves to maintain our position. We have to persist with our bigotry and remain close-minded, lest our belief systems crumble and the abyss yawns.

3) Some of us are taught bigoted views in childhood, so those views feel right and comfortable. To stray from those views leads to anxiety.
However, those imprinted beliefs are disabling us because they’re inaccurate. They give us a distorted view of the world, that can limit us. And, although our beliefs feel right and true, to someone who has not been similarly imprinted we can look like a goose.

4) Some of us judge others because we want the approval of our friends.
The trouble is, by strengthening our connection with judgmental friends we diminish our connection with broader humanity, so in the long run we lose out. And, if our friends are judgmental, you can bet they will be judgmental of us when we step out of line.

5) Some of us create a picture of how the world should be. By knowing what to expect we gain a feeling of control, and feel a little safer.
The trouble is, judgments are often wrong and expectations are rarely met.  So the ‘safe’ world becomes unpredictable, and not so safe. Anxiety results.

In short, the quick assumptions we make allow us to think our lives are running smoothly. And, on the surface at least, our judgments of others can help us feel good about ourselves. Judgments provide certainty, and with that certainty we evade anxiety.

But a big chunk of resilience is not about evading anxiety, it is about experiencing anxiety and feeling we can handle it. In the same way, avoiding uncertainty is not the way to go: we need to embrace uncertainty and feel we can handle it.

That means, instead of making quick and easy judgments to keep us comfortable, we are better off embracing the uncertainty that comes with not making judgments. And, by discovering that we can handle uncertainty, our need to make judgments diminishes. We no longer need to make the world safe because our resilience makes it safe. As a result, we let go of our judgments and complaints, and our mind relaxes. It doesn’t search for problems. We become easy going, and more accepting of others.

More importantly, we become more accepting of ourselves.

I’m not going to tell you to stop being judgmental. After all, we can’t simply ditch our judgments and replace them with a manufactured easygoing attitude. Suggesting that would be useless advice. We judge people for the compelling reasons listed above, so telling you to stop judging people is not going to work.

So, what do we do?

Two things: We can become easygoing in other ways, so that we don’t feel the need to make judgments. Second, we learn to let go of our expectations of how life should be.

This section looks at both strategies. Both involve letting go.

‘The art of living in two words: letting go . . . It’s letting go of our judgments, our expectations, of wanting to be right, of wanting to control, of wanting things to turn out exactly as we’d like them to turn out, of wanting people to act a certain way . . . It’s recognising the tightness that stems from our desire for things to be a certain way . . .
It’s noticing when we are holding these thoughts, and letting go. Loosening our heart’s grip on any of these, and letting go. And then letting go again. And again . . .
And so the art of living is a practice, one that doesn’t end, that doesn’t have a mastery level. It’s a constant letting go, a constant picking up again, and then letting go again.’
Edited excerpts from articles by Leo Babauta in his blog, ‘Zen Habits’.

Q. ‘You’re suggesting that I chill out and become easygoing. But I’m an activist. If I became easygoing I would lose my drive to get things done.’

On the contrary, if you develop the ability to become easygoing you can choose your battles wisely and focus your energies on your projects.

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