Judging someone doesn’t define who they are – it defines who you are
Posted Oct 24, 2014
Barbara Markway, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years of experience.
She is the author of four psychology books and has been featured in media nationwide.
Despite our best efforts, we all judge others. It might be over small things, like a co-worker who took too long of a lunch break. Or it might be over bigger issues, such as a person who behaves selfishly or hurts our feelings.
Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach frequently tells this story: Imagine you are walking through the woods and you see a small dog. It looks cute and friendly. You approach and move to pet the dog. Suddenly it snarls and tries to bite you. The dog no longer seems cute and you feel fear and possibly anger. Then, as the wind blows, the leaves on the ground are carried away and you see the dog has one of its legs caught in a trap. Now, you feel compassion for the dog. You know it became aggressive because it is in pain and is suffering.
What can we learn from this story? How can we become less judgmental?
- Don’t blame yourself. We are instinctively hard-wired for survival. When we see a dog (or a person) that might bite us (literally or metaphorically), of course we feel threatened. We go into fight-flight-freeze mode, and are unable to see the myriad possible reasons for another’s behavior. We get tight and defensive. This is a normal first reaction. The key is to pause before we act out of this mode.
- Be mindful. Although judgment is a natural instinct, try to catch yourself before you speak, or send that nasty email and do any potential harm. You can’t get your words back. Pause. See if you can understand where the person may be coming from. Try to rephrase your critical internal thought into a positive one, or at least a neutral one. After all, like that dog in the trap, we really don’t know the reasons for someone’s behavior.
- Depersonalize. When someone disagrees with us or somehow makes our life difficult, remember that it’s typically not about us. It may be about their pain or struggle. Why not give others the benefit of the doubt? “Never underestimate the pain of a person,” Will Smith said, “because in all honesty, everyone is struggling. Some people are better at hiding it than others.”
- Look for basic goodness. This takes practice, as our minds naturally scan for the negative, but if we try, we can almost always find something good about another person.
- Repeat the mantra, “Just like me.” Remember, we are more alike than different. When I feel critical of someone, I try to remind myself that the other person loves their family just like I do, and wants to be happy and free of suffering, just like I do. Most important, that person makes mistakes, just like I do.
- Reframe. When someone does something you don’t like, perhaps think of it as they are simply solving a problem in a different way than you would. Or maybe they have a different timetable than you do. This may help you be more open-minded and accepting of their behavior. The Dalai Lama says: “People take different roads seeking fulfillment and happiness. Just because they’re not on your road doesn’t mean they’ve gotten lost.”
- Look at your own behavior. Sometimes, we may be judging someone for something that we do ourselves, or have done. For example, the next time you find yourself yelling at someone while you’re driving, ask yourself, “Have I ever driven poorly?” Of course, we all have.
- Educate yourself. When people do things that are annoying, they may have a hidden disability. For example, some people with poor social skills may have Asperger’s syndrome. So if someone’s invading your personal space (as someone with Asperger’s might), remember again, it’s not about you. Albert Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
- Give the person the benefit of the doubt. Someone once told me, no one wakes up in the morning and says, “I think I’m going to be a jerk today.” Most of us do the best we can with the resources we have at the moment.
- Feel good about you. Brene´ Brown says: “If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because were using each other as a launching pad out of her own perceived deficiency.”
And finally, remember that judging a person does not define who they are, it defines who you are.