I’m walking down the street when I overhear something that bristles my senses. Anger flashes across my consciousness. Then guilt and shame. “Man, I should really stop judging people so much…”
Prefer to listen to an audio version of this article?
Judgements. We all have them, often floating around our heads for a good part of the day. Either we’re judging others, or we’re judging ourselves internally.
- “Who the hell are you to say that to me?”
- “What right do you have to call me lazy? Look at you!”
- “Wow, you have got to be one of the least motivated people I’ve ever seen.”
They don’t just have to be negative, either.
- “Jane is a great little worker.”
- “My sister is a loving and kind person.
Just how useful are these judgements, though? Do judgements lead us to happiness and contentment? To answer that, we might first start by looking at why we judge in the first place.
Judging evolved with the brain
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter our brain releases to make us feel good. You may have heard of it.
Back in the days of Grok, our forebearers learned that respect and social position lead to food, shelter, comfort and reproduction. Our limbic system has been trained to release serotonin whenever we feel dominant or respected by others.
On the other hand, the limbic system releases cortisol (the stress hormone) when you’re feeling like an underachiever or lower on the social pyramid, causing us to feel bad. You feel unhappy. You want to do something about it to not be unhappy anymore. So you make some kind of judgement.
When we judge someone, we’re trying to get rid of this cortisol and strengthen our own social claim by damaging the other persons. The serotonin released will help mask the cortisol making us feel bad. If we do this often enough, neural pathways in the brain are created (i.e. it becomes a habit) and it becomes our default response, even if it’s not actually making us happier.
I’d recommend Loretta Graziano Breuning’s book, Habits of a Happy Brain, if you’re interested in learning more about this topic.
There were a lot of scientific words there, so here’s a brief summary.
- Our ancestors realised social standing and respect were important to reproduction.
- Our brains used judgement as a “cheat” to think we’re better respected than we are.
- A habit formed to judge people regularly.
This is definitely not the only explanation behind why we judge others so often. I prefer chemical response and evolutionary explanations over psychological ones. That’s what you’re getting. I also see the neurochemical and evolutionary perspective as more of a “root cause” to judgements.
In any case, the more important question to be asked of judgements is: “How useful are they?”
Is judging useful?
We know (or at least have some explanation for) the origins of judgements. The world has changed an immense amount since the days of Grok, and we no longer need to be at the top of the pile in order to get fed and reproduce.
Even for those of us that do reach the upper realms of society, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re happy. There are countless news stories about celebrities having it all but happiness. There have also been studies which show money doesn’t buy you happiness, past a certain threshold.
There’s even been a trend in the reverse. Our judgements (or lack thereof) affect us. What you say about others says a lot about you.
“You can tell more about a person by what he says about others than you can by what others say about him.”
– Audrey Hepburn
I’m not saying that judgements are bad. (That would be a judgement itself.) Judgements of other people often lead to defensiveness, pain and discomfort. Judgements of things or events, on the other hand, can be a useful way to convey a large amount of information in a concise way.
Perhaps a better word for these objective judgements would be conclusions. Conclusions based on specific facts. These are not perfect, but I understand their utility and think there is minimal harm with a judgement of this type.
Opinion-based judging has to go
I’m sure I don’t have to convince you of the benefit of judging other people less. You might even have a common line running through your head: “Yeah, I know I should judge other people less.”
That’s the first problem. We’re also judging ourselves.
The more we judge ourselves internally, the more we judge others externally and vice versa. It’s a bit of a chicken vs. the egg scenario.
Tips for judging less
By now you understand where our judgements come from, which ones are okay, and which are potentially destructive. What do you do about it? It’s not easy, and there are no shortcuts.
Can you stop judging every single person you encounter? Probably not. Doing so takes patience and time, two things we don’t have a lot of. What I’ve found though, is that taking just a little time each day makes a huge difference.
- Notice your judgements. When you hear an internal dialogue judging someone (including yourself), the first step is to just stop and notice the judging. This can be quite difficult at first since it involves forming a new habit of awareness. At this stage, you can still express the judgement afterwards, but first, you pause to observe it.
- Don’t pass them on. Once you’re comfortable in observing your internal judgements, the next step is to just enjoy the show going on in your head and keep it to yourself. This is not the same as repressing our emotions. Judgements can give us clues to our emotional state, but they are not emotions. In any case, we’re not repressing them, we’re simply letting them air out in the comfort of our minds. You’re building a bit of self-control here and choosing not to express them to the other person. Choosing, because they are probably not useful and will cause harm.
- Understand the person. After watching your judgement show, try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine their life story or what motivations are behind their actions. If you can, talk to them. Would you have reacted the same way if the person was your best friend or partner?
- Acceptance. When you have an understanding of the other person and their situation, it becomes much easier to accept things for what they are. You’re not trying to change the person (you can’t change what’s out of your control), simply seeing them as they are right now.
Those four simple steps are a guide not only to avoiding judgements but also to increasing your happiness and growing your relationships with people around you.
As always though, you are what you consume and what you do. If you constantly surround yourself with judgemental friends, watch episodes of Seinfeld daily and read celebrity magazines, then maintaining the consciousness and presence to avoid judgements will be difficult.
I want to hear from you: did you find this post helpful? What are some judging thoughts you commonly have? Leave a comment below or drop me an email. Your judgements are likely shared by many.
P.S: Owlsight has undergone some changes in direction the past few weeks. I’m pretty excited. This new direction means a wider range of topics in more depth, providing more useful information to you! Check out the Facebook update here.