Friday, March 27, 2009

Fundamentals of Emotional Intimacy: Learning Not to Judge

For me, these past couple of weeks have been dominated by the theme of judgment. It just seems to be coming up everywhere in my life. Because of the economic situation, we have an environment of uncertainty and absolutely unavoidable budget-cutting at work, and this week I listened to one of the leaders of our institution telling me, almost tearfully, how very hard it is for them to make those tough decisions and be considered "incompetent" because of it (it's a college, not a financial firm, in case you're curious). I also was quite a bit annoyed with my husband yesterday, an annoyance primarily caused by my strong belief that he shouldn't be the way he is--in other words, an annoyance caused by my judgment of him.

One thing that's becoming much clearer to me is that people, including me, use judgment as a way of reducing anxiety. When you're in a situation where something unpleasant or painful is happening to others, it's very natural for your sense of empathy to kick in, and you start to feel their emotions. If you don't want to go down this path, you can stop it with a thought that separates you from the other person. Typically, such a thought is like, "This (bad) thing is happening to them because of something they did, and since they essentially brought this onto themselves, they don't deserve my sympathy. I'm not like that. I don't do those kinds of things, so the bad thing won't happen to me too." In other words, when you judge, you categorize someone else as "not like me", and you make yourself feel protected. Then, having created this sense of separation to protect yourself from the discomfort of really understanding their feelings, you turn around the next day and wonder why you feel so lonely and isolated.

So, the impulse to judge really arises from the desire to avoid pain. This is one of the things that make close personal relationships really challenging. When you're intimate with others, and you expand your self-identity to include them, you get an emotional stake in the events of their lives. Then, when they become involved in a difficult situation, the desire to pass judgment may intensify for you because their pain is your pain. The intimate relationship prevents you from disengaging from the emotional connection, so you try to reduce the pain with the limited tools that are available to you, including judgment. It's often easier for us to listen to acquaintances vent about their problems than it is to listen to our most beloved friends and family. With a casual acquaintance, you know that at the end of the conversation, you can get up, go home, and be comfortable again. It's much easier to willingly let yourself experience someone else's pain if you know it's for a limited time, and you feel like you're free to break away when it starts to get rough.

But, here's the good news. If you commit to the practice of accepting, allowing, and fully feeling your own emotions, even the unpleasant ones, without resistance, then you are also practicing the skills needed for a fulfilling intimate relationship. When you can allow yourself to experience your own discomfort without turning away from it, then you also have what it takes to allow yourself to fully empathize with the pain of others without passing judgment. When we refrain from judgment, as John-Michael so eloquently wrote just a couple of days ago, we create "an open and receptive Space that welcomes" others. Being able to offer that kind of precious space, where people feel free to reveal their vulnerabilities and imperfections without fear of being judged or labeled, will deepen your relationships in ways that are amazing and beautiful.

As you make judgments today, can you go deeper and see what emotions you're trying to protect yourself against? Can you be courageous enough to experience those emotions just as they are?


  1. Speaking of eloquently written...

    This is wonderful and so timely. I have been spending a lot of time recently in the city (San Francisco)and have caught myself doing a little more judging than I would like.

    My wife and I enjoy spending much of our free time when we are there walking and exploring all the little shops and streets that make it such an interesting place. We are also prone to looking for the little family run restaurants that often require a stroll through some of the more unsavory parts of town (daytime only).

    Each block seems to offer a new confrontation with someone asking for money. At first it is easy to dig out a dollar or loose change and hand it over to the ones who truly seem desperate. Sometimes it is the safest thing to do.

    After a while I have to keep reminding myself that regardless of why each person arrived in this state, they are suffering a great deal. It would be easy to turn away thinking "why don't they just get a job or at least some help".

    I do not feel the need to give to every person with their hand out, there is no way I could, but there are some that I just feel have fallen so low, even a small token might lift them up just a little. I can't imagine how hard it must be given the competition for a handout.

    I agree that most judgment comes from anxiety. When we are uncomfortable within ourselves for whatever reason, our minds tend to look for something or someone to transfer some of our discomfort to. It is up to us to stop it when we recognize it.


  2. Wow, Roger, you’re describing one kind of situation in which it’s very difficult for us to suspend judgment, that is, when we’re being asked to give something, and we know almost nothing at all about the person who is asking us. It’s sometimes tempting to think we can regard everyone who wants a handout in the same way, but like you say, they are each unique individuals and have their own stories. It is very challenging indeed to reply in a way that feels compassionate while still allowing ourselves to remain uncertain about whether we’re really helping or not.