- Judgment is an important tool for thinking.
- Misapplying or overapplying self-judgment can keep you stuck in a bad situation.
- To change your behavior, consider causes instead of placing blame.
Bring to mind the thing that you beat yourself up about the most.
Maybe you procrastinate. Maybe you overeat. Whatever it is, consider for a moment the language that you use when describing your problematic pattern. Do you chalk it up to being “self-sabotaging,” or “lazy,” or “stupid,” as if these are actual explanations for your behavior?
Many of you have been counseled to dispense with judgments like these because they’re mean and they make you feel badly about yourselves. It is generally preferable to be kind to yourself, but that is not the main reason to avoid self-judgment. The most compelling reason is that this constant criticizing can blind you to the actual causes of your problems, and rob you of solutions.
The case for non-judgment
Psychologists usually insist that there is a reasonable explanation for thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. We refer to this stance as “Phenomenological Empathy” and we use it to help people change. The term refers to the preference toward nonjudgmental interpretations (Linehan, 1993, p.118). No matter how harmful or outlandish the behavior, we assume that it has its causes and that these causes are understandable. We seek to articulate the precise factors at play, and avoid moralizing or using labels. Skeptics like to attack this stance as oversimplified and naïve. Before we accept the criticism of a nonjudgmental attitude, however, let us consider the alternative.
When we judge, we mentally divide the world into categories of “good” and “bad.” We create shortcuts by summarizing complex information into handy labels such as “stupid,” “smart,” “ugly,” “crazy,” et cetera. This ability to efficiently create mental shortcuts is sophisticated and critical for survival. There is simply too much information in the world to pause and contemplate every individual data point that enters our senses. For example, we do not say, “That is the economically depressed four-block radius a half-mile down the street in which there is a 38 percent greater likelihood of getting mugged than in the surrounding area.” We just say a judgment term, “That’s a bad part of town.” This gets the job done and allows us to focus our attention elsewhere. By its design, judgment, not phenomenological empathy, is oversimplified.
Phenomenological empathy also does not render us naïve to potential danger. Nonjudgment is not looking down into an empty pool and evaluating it as safe to dive in. Using a nonjudgmental attitude does not mean sacrificing accuracy or accountability—you are simply trading in labels for specifics. To illustrate, in his book Assholes: A Theory (2014), Aaron James defines an “asshole” as someone who, “Systematically allows himself to enjoy special advantages…out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.” Here he uses nonjudgmental language to break down the term into its component parts. It would be inaccurate to say that the guy who literally wrote the book on assholes is naïve to their existence or appraising them as “good.”
Okay, so what do I do?
Notice when self-judgments pop into your awareness. When you self-criticize, stop and ask, “What do I mean by that?” Seek out the logic in your bad habits.
Take the near-universal example of procrastination. Procrastinators love to call themselves “self-destructive,” but nobody really sabotages themselves for the sake of it. They love to call themselves “lazy.” This is a lazy explanation. Stop and think. When you approach your dreaded task, what emotions occur? Frustration? Anxiety? Shame? The feelings are uncomfortable, but informative. Your mind is telling you that this activity is going to be unpleasant and it’s trying to talk you out of it. Why? What is unpleasant about the task? If you do the project, are you risking doing it badly? Is it easier to just keep it safely in the future? Do you feel as though you should know how to do the project but are at a loss for figuring out the first step? We can work with specific obstacles but we cannot work with judgments. The cause of the behavior may not be obvious, but know that the cause exists.
Finally, in the words of Marsha Linehan, remember not to judge your judging (2014). Everyone has judgment thoughts because sometimes a shortcut is exactly what you need. It is self-defeating to attempt non-judgment by telling yourself that judgment thoughts themselves are “bad.” At the same time, self-criticism is an ineffective tool for self-improvement. If you really want to change, you must first assume that the laws of cause and effect apply to you. Because they do.
Phenomenological empathy empowers you to take responsibility for your behavior rather than locking yourself in a cycle of blame. Don’t stow the self-judgment because it’s mean. Stow the self-judgment because it’s useless.
James, A. (2014). Assholes: a theory. Anchor Books.
Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Guilford Press.
Linehan, M. (2015). Dbt skills training handouts and worksheets. The Guilford Press.