One of the country's most popular gyms, Planet Fitness, calls itself a “judgment-free zone,” and while cynics may doubt that this claim is valid, the sentiment appeals to many people high in body self-consciousness. But as unpleasant as it can be to have your body judged, having your psyche judged is even more difficult to tolerate.
Perhaps you’ve got a friend who makes you desperate to please. You say or do something and then look anxiously at him to see if your behavior meets with a smile or a frown. After a brief pause, your friend either gives you a nod and pronounces, “I liked that,” or frowns disapprovingly and announces, with equal weightiness, “That was terrible.” This is bad enough when it’s your friend, but far more gut-wrenching if it’s your boss. At a meeting, your boss sits back listening to all contributions and then proclaims at the end whose idea “I like” and whose “I don’t like.” Now it’s not just friendship on the line, but potentially your career.
Let’s go to the opposite extreme: You’re late for an appointment with your hair stylist due to a misunderstanding about the time. This is definitely your fault, and your stylist is now at least somewhat inconvenienced. You’re usually a punctual person, and this lapse makes you feel terrible. Much to your surprise (and delight), though, your stylist is understanding and doesn’t give you a hard time. You wonder: If the roles were reversed, would I be so gracious?
As these examples illustrate, a high-judgment zone is much less pleasant than a no-judgment zone. Being accepted for who you are, flaws and all, makes you feel that it’s okay to make mistakes now and then. On the other hand, being constantly scrutinized by someone offering pronouncements about your self-worth makes you anxious and insecure.
Humanistic psychologists such as Carl Rogers put acceptance by others as the Number One way to achieve self-acceptance. The cornerstone of the client-centered therapy Rogers devised is that the therapist provide “unconditional positive regard.” Rogers believed that people develop anxiety and low self-esteem when parents place “conditions of worth” on children, meaning that children feel loved only when they meet certain achievement standards. It’s because of this theory that we advise parents to praise the behavior and not the child—or vice versa. Theorist Albert Ellis, known for his rational-emotive approach, maintains that, as adults, our negative self-evaluations reflect irrational beliefs. To improve your self-esteem, Ellis believed, you need to challenge and change these beliefs.
Following from this approach, then, we can see why establishing a no-judgment zone for adults is so important. The boss who makes your self-worth contingent on whether he or she likes your ideas makes you worry about coming up with suggestions that meet with personal approval. It’s not whether the idea is good or not, but whether it (and you) are liked.
If you’re going to build harmonious relationships with others and achieve higher self-acceptance, you need to learn the ropes of setting up no-judgment zones. Fortunately, there’s a test for that.
Romanian psychologist Daniel David and his collaborators (2013) developed the “Unconditional Acceptance Questionnaire" (UAQ) to test both your “philosophical” and “psychological” acceptance. They defined philosophical acceptance of the self and others as your desire to avoid any evaluations of someone’s (and your own) self-worth. David and his team propose that any evaluation of the self, according to this definition, is an irrational generalization (as in the Albert Ellis model).
Psychological acceptance of self and others is the recognition that although you have flaws, you’re still a worthwhile person. Instead of evaluating yourself as bad in general when you make a mistake, you can still feel good about who you are as a person. This is a more rational approach, David and his colleagues maintain, because it keeps you from over-generalizing from one mistake to a flaw of your entire character.
These ideas were the basis for David et al.’s UAQ. They tested their measure on nearly 600 young adults with an average age of 27. Out of a list of 35 questions, David and his collaborators winnowed the scale down to the 24 that fell into the two factors of philosophical and psychological acceptance. To make things simpler for you below, I’ve eliminated items that are simple reverses of each other.
Now, for your evaluation, rate each statement on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree):
1. I do not evaluate myself as a person based on my performance, but unconditionally accept myself as a worthwhile human being.
2. I cannot accept the fact that I am not as smart as others.
3. I do not evaluate others based on the good or bad things they do, but unconditionally accept them as worthwhile human beings.
4. I do not think I should evaluate my worth as a human being based on my performance.
5. I do not evaluate others based on the way they look, but I unconditionally accept them as worthwhile human beings.
6. I know I am not as smart as others, but I accept myself, and feel good about myself just the way I am.
7. Even if life is unfair, I can accept it just the way it is.
8. I cannot accept the fact that I am less attractive than others.
9. Even if the others have negative personality traits, I can accept them the way they are.
10. I cannot accept my negative personality traits.
11. It is normal to evaluate others based on the way they look.
12. I do not think I should evaluate others as worthwhile or worthless human beings based on the good or bad things they do.
13. I do not think I should evaluate myself as a person based on the good or bad things that I do.
14. I know I have some negative personality traits, but I accept myself just the way I am.
15. I cannot accept people who have negative personality traits.
16. I do not rate life as good/fair or bad/unfair, but unconditionally accept it just the way it is.
To score yourself:
Because self-esteem reflects the tendency to judge your self-worth, you’ll be happier, then, if you don’t engage in extensive self-scrutiny about whether to “like” yourself or not. This doesn’t mean you go about life without evaluating what you do, but it does mean that you’ll be happier if you don’t stop to judge yourself (or others) at every turn.
All of this begs the question of what to do when you encounter people who judge you. To the best of your ability, you need to bat off their judgmental stares, questions, and comments. When you're in a similar position, instead of reacting to others by saying that you “like” or “don’t like” their ideas, rephrase your response to indicate. whether the idea is useful or not.
In keeping with the idea of acceptance and self-acceptance, recognize that people who are constantly judging you are probably judging themselves as well. They may have a history of having been overly judged by parents or others, and it’s difficult for them to see the world any other way. Once you understand where they’re coming from, not only will you be able to avoid undue self-criticism by internalizing their reactions, but you’ll also be more empathic to them.
We can probably never completely avoid judging ourselves and others and, in the process, forming negative impressions. The more sensitive you are to this tendency in yourself, though, the better you can feel and more positive your impact will be on others.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014.
David, D., Coteț, C. D., Szentagotai, A., Mcmahon, J., & Digiuseppe, R. (2013). Philosophical versus psychological unconditional acceptance: Implications for constructing the Unconditional Acceptance Questionnaire. Journal Of Cognitive And Behavioral Psychotherapies, 13(2A), 445-464.