Most people have heard of the psychological concept projection, a defense mechanism that allows us to transfer our unwanted feelings or behavior onto another person. For example, a person who is highly self-critical may constantly feel (or fear) criticism from others.
When we judge people around us—either positively or negatively—we may simply be projecting things about us onto them. We are seeing the world only through our personal filters—unless we become aware of when we are doing it.
I had my first personal insight into this phenomenon a few years ago, after I emerged from a severe depression and burnout. While I was deep in the abyss, I experienced an endless barrage of negative self-judgments. With repetition they imbedded deeper and deeper into my brain until they became my “story,” my identity. All I wanted was to have a few positive thoughts about myself—any positive thoughts.
A few years after my life turned around, I realized that positive self-judgment could be as disruptive to my peace of mind as negative self-judgment. Like negative thinking, it prevented me from experiencing the present moment. That realization was a major shift for me. After I had worked so hard to be successful and to acquire the things that would allow me to view myself in a more positive light, I realized that any judgment is still judgment.
Judgment can turn into vindictiveness. With repetition, we can so strongly imbed into our brains a story we believe about some person or circumstance, that it becomes real for us. In light of the current political polarization in our country, we are witnessing more of this tendency. When each side holds a rigid opinion of what is right or wrong, when a person cannot believe another person would even think that way, the labeling begins.
Anthony De Mello, in his book, The Way to Love, points out that as soon as you have labeled anyone—either positively or negatively—you have lost awareness. You can no longer see who he or she is. A comment, appearance, or opinion has triggered a reaction in you, and your response has little to do with who the person really is. How well do you know them? What is going on in their life? What reasons do they have for feeling the way they do?
Even going back to the first century BCE, the Greek philosopher Epictitus observed that it is different to call someone a drunk, as opposed to saying, “This is a person who drinks too much.” One is a disparaging label while the other is merely a description.
One century earlier, Lucretius, in his famous poem On the Nature of Things, pointed out that all each person can do in his or her lifetime is to enjoy it, regardless of circumstances. The Roman poet and philosopher lived in a time and place of great upheaval and civil war. How he figured out what he did is a mystery, but a challenge each of us should consider.
It is impossible to experience joy when you are being judgmental. If you really stopped and took stock while you are judging someone, you will notice how tedious and joyless you feel. You are merely projecting the same view—your view—onto others.
Yet, judgment is and always has been necessary for our survival, to assess safe vs. dangerous. So judgment is here to stay; you cannot stop judging. What can you do to keep judgment from robbing you of the joy that is your birthright? Become aware. De Mello’s solution is simply to become aware of the effect your judgmental nature is having on your quality of life and relationships. I have done an exercise where I write down what I think about a specific person; and then in the next column note how I feel about me on that that same topic. It’s pretty humbling.
Not being judgmental
Another exercise that I offer my patients is to think about someone they really dislike. (It usually does not take long for them to come up with someone.) I say, “Look, you have been thinking about this, and you no longer want to judge this person. What happens when you try to stop being judgmental? You suppress your thoughts, which will make you even more judgmental.” They look at me, perplexed. I remind them that, in addition to cultivating their awareness, they can write down their judgmental thoughts and destroy them. Then the thoughts aren’t suppressed; but you realize they are just thoughts that you can separate from. Although you still may dislike that person, you have opened possibilities for more careful listening and greater understanding of their perspective. At the end of the day, you are not trapped by your thoughts, and you have allowed more joy into your life. There is no greater joy (and relief) than finding common ground with someone you regarded as an adversary.
The great majority of us want peace in this world; but peace is improbable unless each person takes responsibility for his or her contribution to the collective consciousness. Is your consciousness one of peace or war? No matter how justified you feel about your position, anger is still anger and labeling is still labeling. Those behaviors are far more combative than merely liking or disliking a behavior.
Why am I writing about being judgmental? If you are constantly agitated, you adversely alter your body’s chemistry, and subsequently you experience unpleasant physical sensations. Ask yourself: “How is all that affecting my quality of life – and pain?”
Let it go…