When Judgments Get In Your Way
When I teach DBT mindfulness skills, what’s typically one of the hardest things for people to try and apply is the skill of being non-judgmental. We all judge things that happen, we judge other people, and we judge ourselves. Judging is perfectly human, and we all use judgments for a good portion of the time.
There are certain advantages to judging: When we judge things as “good” or “bad”, this helps us organize our experience and perception into categories. Judging something as "bad" may keep us in line and prevent us from doing something that's harmful. It is also a way of reducing ambiguity in life. Ambiguity is often anxiety-provoking and can be hard to tolerate. Most people don’t like it when things are ambiguous, up in the air, or not clearly defined. Therefore, judgments can help us feel safe in some ways, by making the world seem orderly (categorized in “good” or “bad”), and by it making it seem as though the anxiety-provoking ambiguity is reduced.
Judgments are also a way of expressing a preference, and of using a short-cut in order to communicate. I could say “This movie is bad”, or I could say “I didn’t like the movie, because I felt that it did not accurately reflect the synopsis of the book it was based on.” I could say “Drinking alcohol is bad”, or I could say “When people drink alcohol, it makes them intoxicated and tends to make people act more impulsively.” The first statement is a judgment, the second statement is a non-judgmental description of facts and of consequences. Notice the difference?
There are downsides to being judgmental, though. When we are judgmental of other people - that is, when we are critical, demeaning, or contemptuous - these sorts of judgments can affect our relationships with others. Very frequently, in one way or another, people can pick up on the fact that we’re judging them. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone judging you, you probably have experienced how uncomfortable it is to feel judged by someone else.
Where judgments tend to get us into the most trouble, though, is typically when it comes to judging ourselves. Most of us tend to be extremely harsh and judgmental with ourselves. The ways we talk to ourselves, our internal dialogue, can be so very critical and often rather mean. Some examples of common judgmental ways in which people think to themselves are things like: “I am such an idiot!”, “I can never get it right!”, “Why can’t I just grow up and get over it!”, “I really shouldn’t be such a lazy coward!” Have you thought similar things to yourself? Then you can probably relate to how talking to yourself in that way would just make you feel lousy? Most of would not talk to a friend in same critical and demeaning way in which we often think to ourselves...
So, this is where using the skill of being non-judgmental can be really valuable. The idea is that instead of judging ourselves and other people so harshly and critically, and instead of categorizing things into “good” and "bad”, “terrible” and “wonderful” - where this gets in our way - we would unglue the facts of the situation from our opinions. Instead of saying “Spending too much money is a very dumb thing to do and you should not be doing this!” (stating my opinion in form of a judgment), I would talk about the facts and the consequences: “If you spend more money than you have, this can get you into trouble, can cause problems with your partner, can affect your credit history, and could even lead to bankrupcy.” Notice how I take a stance that it less harsh and critical, and I stick to talking about facts and consequences of a behavior?
This leads me to another important point: Being non-judgmental about something does not mean that I agree or approve. It also does not mean that I don’t think about the consequences of a situation or behavior, and I most certainly will still try to avoid consequences that I don’t like or that will cause problems and pain or suffering. The point is also not to expect that you will never, ever be judgmental again, or to feel like you’re doing something terribly wrong when you catch yourself being judgmental. (As they say in DBT, don’t judge your judging!). The idea, though, is to be mindful and to catch yourself when you are being judgmental - in a sense of being demeaning, contemptuous, harsh and critical of yourself or someone else - when it gets in your way. The idea is to notice when this gets you into trouble and causes problems, and to try to work on that. One way of getting out of such a harsh and judgmental stance is to rephrase your judgmental statements by taking out your opinions and by sticking to talking about the facts—the “who, what, when and where” of a situation- and the consequences instead. For more information on using the skill of being non-judgmental as well other DBT skills, please refer to Marsha Linehan’s book “Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder”.