Is there anybody out there who can honestly say that they have never been harshly judgmental? I thought not. Welcome to being human! Being judgmental is an easy way to protect yourself when you are feeling raw and vulnerable. It does a great job of pushing others away when you feel threatened. Good defenses are nothing to be ashamed of. You are not in control of these automatic pilot reactions anyway. They kick in unconsciously, protecting you from perceived danger whether you request them to or not. However, once you become conscious of what you are doing, you can get into the driver’s seat. Awareness of when you are being judgmental can allow you to modulate it and to detour quickly when you find yourself going there. This is good to know. Why? Precisely because while being critical may momentarily feel good as it allows you to puff yourself up and feel superior to another, it can have devastating long-term consequences. When you are judgmental too often, too much of the time, this can fuel negativity, isolation, resentment and bitterness. Furthermore, it is not a long-term cure for insecurity. So how does one head off criticism at the pass before it makes you into a curmudgeon? Getting in charge requires first understanding how criticism works.
The first thing to understand is that harsh criticism is a form of self protection and that you use it, not necessarily because someone else is lacking (though they may be) but because you feel threatened in some way. If you feel confident in yourself, there is no reason to be brutally critical of another. Many people make the mistake of thinking that if someone has criticized them, it must mean that there is something wrong with them. They get all bent out of shape when someone finds fault with them and they wonder what they did to deserve such disapproval. The psychological truth, however, is that being on the receiving end of criticism does not necessarily mean you did anything wrong. In fact, negative judgments reveal much more about the giver than they do about the recipient. If when walking down the street, I think to myself, “That woman could lose a few pounds”, actually you know little about her but a lot about me. She may be overweight and then again she may not. What you know for sure though, is that I am a person who has issues about weight. If you are out shopping with a friend and start thinking to yourself, “She sure does spend money frivolously”, believe it or not, what we know is that money is an emotionally charged issue for you. If you see a guy at the gym and you think “He sure could work out more”, we can deduce that in your world, being fit is a priority.
It is important for people to look at their own judgmental behavior and see it for what it is. Criticism operates as a potent protective device because it makes the criticizer feel powerful and pushes the other person away, keeping them at a safe distance. Being able to modulate criticism of others means acknowledging that you feel threatened, figuring out the source and finding some other way to cope with the vulnerability that has been triggered. The causes of harsh criticism can be varied and are often unconscious. For instance, you might become critical of another person because you feel envious of them. They may have achieved some success that you wish you had or they may have positive qualities that you feel deficient in. Then again, unwarranted criticism can be caused by perfectionism which leads to unrealistically high standards of others and the assumption that they are somehow lacking. Negative stereotyping is another underlying cause of judgmental behavior. Ignorance and prejudice can lead to extreme criticism and sometimes even hatred. Lastly, you might discover that you have become judgmental of another because they mirror back to you some quality that you dislike in yourself. In some spiritual circles, a tool for coping when you find yourself harshly criticizing another is called: “using the other as a mirror”. It means taking back what you have attributed to someone else and trying to understand what button has been pressed in you. Examining how your criticism of another may be due to seeing in them some quality or issue that you find disturbing in yourself, can be a very powerful tool for self growth. To do this, however, takes much more courage than bad mouthing someone else!
I was in a therapy group once of about twenty-five people. Few of us knew one another and we were thrown together for 21 days for the purpose of learning about how we related to others. In such a setting where no one knows one another, it is normal to be attracted to some personalities and turned off by others. At the start of our experience, we were told by our group leader to pay particular attention to whoever in the group irritated us the most. While many of us had difficulty believing it at the start, we were told that this person could probably teach us more than any other participant. Why? As the group unfolded, many of us discovered that the person we clashed with the most, was also the person who reminded us of the qualities we least liked in ourselves. So pay attention to the people in your life who irritate or repel you and you could learn more than you bargained for! Also, when that inner critic goes on and on preying on some real or imagined flaw in somebody else, consider finding out what button has been pressed in you rather than getting caught in the quagmire of negativity. In the end, judging others really is about our own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy and we can all benefit from understanding that and working to root out judgmental behavior whenever it rears its ugly head.