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Judging Others Hurts You

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Seth J. Gillihan, PhD
September 10, 2019
From the WebMD Archives

Whether silently disapproving or openly criticizing, our instinct to judge other people rears its head in countless ways. Like me, you’ve probably found yourself judging a person’s clothing, or parenting, or driving, or perhaps their lack of discipline, political views, home décor, choice of car, grammar—anything that can be criticized.

It’s eye-opening to start paying attention to how often you judge other people, even in a single day. And while these judgments aren’t kind to others, they may be doing more harm to you than to anyone else.

Here are some of the common downsides of judging others:

It Harms Your Relationships

When people know you’re judgmental, it puts up a barrier between you and them. They may be afraid to reveal things about themselves out of fear that you’ll judge them or badmouth them to other people. At the same time, you miss out on the possibility of finding connection and a shared humanity that transcends your differences.

It Feeds Self-Criticism

I once worked for a famously difficult boss, who was never shy about expressing her disapproval to and about others. Then one day when she made a mistake I saw the same hammer come down on herself and saw so clearly that her words about others matched her internal self-criticism.

The more critical we are of others, the harsher we tend to be toward ourselves—it all comes from the same place. When you talk with someone who is constantly down on others, it’s almost a guarantee that they’re even more critical of themselves, at least internally. When we offer acceptance to others instead of criticism, we can more readily embrace ourselves.  

It Prevents Mindful Awareness

Practicing mindful presence involves not only being in the moment but opening to our reality just as it is—which includes letting go of judgments about others. When we’re evaluating people around us as “up or down,” good or bad, we’re stuck in a for-me-or-against-me mode. Thus we’re fundamentally judging this life, and telling ourselves it should be different than how it is.

As a result, we’re less able to step fully into the life we inhabit, and we miss out on all the benefits that come from mindful awareness, like less anxiety and greater fulfillment. Letting go of judgment can free us to experience presence more fully, with less unnecessary suffering.

It Blocks Personal Development

Criticism of others is often a substitute for acknowledging and addressing our own limitations, of which we’re at least partially aware. It’s hard to “clean up your side of the street,” as they say, when you’re focused on your neighbor’s. And whether consciously or not, that’s often our motivation for criticizing others—to escape, at least temporarily, our own negative judgments.

In a similar way, judging others externalizes your peace of mind, strengthening the common belief that the source of our happiness lies outside of ourselves. We’re unhappy, we tell ourselves, because of whatever we’re criticizing about the other person. But in fact, each of us is responsible for our own peace of mind, no matter what those around us may believe, do, or wear. As the ancient Stoics of Greece and Rome taught, true equanimity comes from focusing our energy only on things we can personally control.

It’s Just Not That Interesting

If you’ve spent much time with a constantly critical person, you know how tiresome it can get. It might be amusing at first, especially if the person is sassy and surprising in their criticisms (“No he didn’t!”). Then it quickly grows old, because no one likes listening to a steady stream of complaints about others. It’s wearying to the soul.

What’s much more interesting and attractive is the ability to find the good in someone that others might overlook.

Don’t Judge the Judging

Try not to judge yourself for being judgmental. It happens to everyone, and can even be automatic, arising as though with a mind of its own. When you notice a judgment, you can simply acknowledge it as a product of the mind, and then decide whether or not to identify with it.

For example, if you see a person’s dress and have the automatic thought, “Oh my God, that’s hideous,” you don’t have to buy into the storyline. You can choose instead to step out of that critical mode and open to a wider experience of the world around you. You can also decide not to give voice to that judgment; biting your tongue is probably discretion, not dishonesty.

Quieting the judgments also makes room for the powerful practice of extending lovingkindness and warm wishes to everyone around us (as in the Buddhist practice of metta meditation). Part of the beauty of this practice is that the glow of love that begins to emanate toward others also warms our own spirits. As we foster love for others instead of criticism, we can do the same for ourselves.

Here’s an invitation for you: What if, just for today, you decided in advance to practice seeing others with a loving eye, rather than a critical one? You might consider it an act of love not just for others, but also for yourself. (Adapted from A Mindful Year.)

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and host of the weekly Think Act Be podcast. He is author of The CBT Deck, Retrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan provides resources for managing stress, anxiety, and other conditions on the Think Act Be website.

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