Being judgmental can be a good thing. Our judgment is a survival skill, according to psychotherapist Joyce Marter, LCPC. It helps us stay out of danger.
For instance, you use good judgment when you don’t give your phone number to a man who’s “separated” from his “crazy” wife, or invest money in a hot new business started by your nephew who has a gambling problem, she said.
However, when we use judgment beyond its survival value, it can ruin relationships, “because nobody likes to feel they’re being scrutinized by a ‘Judge Judy.’”
Marter defined being judgmental as “placing your own values, opinions or preferences on others.” We do this about everything from people’s hairstyles to their husbands, she said.
“I think it makes us all feel less vulnerable to imagine that other people’s misfortune is the natural consequence of their poor decisions, rather than some random act of the universe to which we too are susceptible.”
Marter gave these examples: “She said she was laid off due to downsizing, but I think it is because she is lazy and not ambitious”; “He has cancer, but I do remember him having a couple of cigarettes in college so…”; and “They were robbed but I never understood why they lived in the city.”
Sometimes our judgmental tendencies may stem from cultural or religious teachings, which provide a moral compass, but may lead to a rigid view of right and wrong, she said.
Below, Marter, founder and CEO of Urban Balance, a counseling private practice in the Chicago area, shared four ways we can tame our judgmental tendencies.
1. Recognize your judgmental ways.
You might not even realize that you’re judgmental. Marter didn’t. “I remember years ago telling my own therapist that I was not judgmental and noticed her eyebrows shoot to her hairline in surprise. I took this as a nonverbal cue that perhaps there was a disconnect between how I saw myself and I how others experienced me.”
Since, she’s worked through her judgment. For instance, as she’s quieted her inner critic, she’s been able to accept herself and others and lead a happier and more peaceful life. (“Thank God for therapy!”)
Marter suggested becoming aware of black-and-white thinking. The words “right, wrong, bad or good” all imply judgment, she said. Also, notice when you feel “‘better’ than someone else, as this is a red flag that your judgmental nature is rearing its ugly head.”
2. Challenge assumptions.
Pay attention to the assumptions you make about others, she said. For instance, you might assume that someone who’s attractive and dressed well is superficial and materialistic, she said. You might assume that someone who’s homeless is uneducated or ignorant, she said.
Challenge your assumptions by asking yourself: “Do I know for a fact that this is true or am I making a conjecture?”
3. Be understanding.
Understand that people are doing the best they can to respond to their experiences, Marter said. You may not know their circumstances or “even be able to begin to understand” them.
Marter has seen firsthand how not being understanding can be damaging. She’s seen “friendships end between parents and even children as people choose sides in a divorce.”
She stressed the importance of reminding ourselves that “people are human, everyone makes mistakes, life takes unexpected turns and that doesn’t make somebody bad, wrong or a failure.”
4. Focus on the positives.
When you find yourself being judgmental, focus instead on the person’s strengths or the things you appreciate about them, said Marter, who also writes the Psych Central blog “The Psychology of Success.”
“As a corrective act, send them some good thoughts or give them a sincere compliment to make a positive shift.”
Being less judgmental is key to our relationships and more. “When we open our minds we open our hearts and create more accepting and loving relationships, which has a ripple effect in our communities and in the world around us,” Marter said.