How to be a little less judgmental, according to an expert | plmubl.com

How to be a little less judgmental, according to an expert

I won’t lie to you: I enjoy being a little judgmental. In my defence, I like to think I’ve found healthy outlets for my most critical thoughts, like hate-watching trashy reality shows and frequently reading r/AmItheAsshole. That said, I can’t pretend I always love the fault-finding voice in my head, especially when it pops up uninvited and makes me feel like kind of a jerk. And if you’re a person with a brain, I’m guessing you’ve had similar days.

Before we beat ourselves up about it, let’s remember that it’s very human to pass judgment. We’ve all had moments like side-eyeing a friend for a splurgy purchase after they complained about being broke or eye-rolling over a coworker’s sloppiness. In many ways, this is just another form of social comparison, a primal instinct. “Evolutionarily, we want to size people up to see if they’re a threat,” Andrea Bonior, clinical psychologist and author of Detox Your Thoughts, says. “Judgments are just the conclusions we come to when we ask, How does this person compare to me?”

But while there’s nothing inherently wrong with having an opinionated inner monologue, sometimes that voice isn’t so harmless — like when it starts to hurt you and your relationships. Dr. Bonior says it’s less about the judgmental thoughts themselves and more about how they make you feel and behave. Are they putting you in a super cranky mood? Do they affect how you treat people you care about? Has your perception of the world changed? “Judgment often begets more judgment and can start a cycle of negativity,” Dr. Bonior says.

When you don’t feel awesome about your judginess, “it can really impact your sense of self and exacerbate self-criticism,” Jor-El Caraballo, a therapist based in New York and the author of The Shadow Work Workbook, says. I mean, you’re here seeking out tips on how to break the habit, aren’t you? That might be idle curiosity, but maybe you, like me, occasionally feel icky when the devil on your shoulder snarks from the peanut gallery. “Those are moments to say, ‘Okay, maybe it’s worth exploring if there’s a change I want to make here,’” Carballo says.

If you do decide you want to curb your judgy tendencies, good news: It’s possible. “Often, it’s actually not a question of personality or character — it’s just learned behaviour and deeply ingrained thought patterns that we can change,” according to Caraballo. “It just takes practice.”

What does that practice look like, exactly? Here’s what our experts had to say about keeping judgmental habits in check.

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1. Pause to notice those judgy thoughts.

Passing judgment is usually more of a knee-jerk reaction than a conscious decision, so the experts we spoke with recommend slowing down to clock critical thoughts in the first place. “You don’t have to judge yourself for being judgy — it’s about the awareness that it’s happening,” Dr. Bonior says. It may be helpful to write down your negative thoughts in a note on your phone or in a journal so you can look out for patterns over time. But if that’s not for you, you can also just think, “Hey, that was a judgy comment.”

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“Pausing helps us recognise, ‘For whatever reason, I’m looking through my judgy lens,’” Dr. Bonior says. “Then you can remind yourself that’s probably not the most accurate or helpful perspective.’” Sometimes, you can just notice a thought and let it go — a core part of meditation — before moving on to some of the other ideas on this list. But if it’s hard to release, ask: Did anything trigger the critical response? Maybe your friend hit a sore spot or you were hangry. Or there might be a deeper issue at the root of your attitude that’s worth addressing — more on that later.

2. Follow up each judgment with something nicer.

Once you’re able to recognise the negative narratives as they arise, Caraballo recommends flipping the script — by balancing an insult with some mental props, for example. Say you catch yourself sniggering at a stranger’s “weird” dance moves at a wedding. “Even if that’s your first thought, you can still say, ‘Okay, human moment. But I have to give it to them — they have courage that I don’t,’” he says.

Caraballo emphasises that your follow-up should feel authentic to you, though. “You don’t have to convince yourself that your initial judgment is wrong,” he explains. Instead, he recommends finding a “better but believable” thought or action, a frame he credits to psychologist Jennifer Abel. So similar to how you’d commend the bad dancer’s bravery, maybe you’d recognise your partner’s cooking chops the next time their cleaning skills are lacking, for instance.

The more you practice this redirection, the more automatic it will become, according to Caraballo. Thanks to neuroplasticity — basically, the brain’s ability to change and adapt to new ways of thinking — you might soon fall out of the habit of knee-jerk negativity. “I tell clients this all the time: You‘ll probably feel a bit phony at first,” he says. “Even if it doesn’t feel natural, you’re still establishing a new, less judgy pathway in your brain that will become easier with time.”

3. Remember that you don’t know the full story.

If you’ve ever automatically blamed someone else’s tardiness on their time management skills instead of a possible alarm malfunction or bad traffic, you’ve fallen prey to what’s known as the fundamental attribution error. According to Dr. Bonior, this common bias is behind our tendency to ignore external explanations for someone’s behaviour in favour of more personal assessments of their character or personality. “We don’t give other people the same benefit of the doubt we often grant ourselves,” she says. “It leads to all sorts of errors in judgment when we size people up that way.”

To correct this “error,” Dr. Bonior suggests reminding yourself you don’t have all the information. For example, if you’re annoyed your cash-strapped friend found the money for a new iPhone but not your birthday dinner, consider: You don’t know what her budget looks like; she could’ve been saving for a long time; free upgrade deals exist, as do gifts. The point is — you can’t accurately judge what you don’t know.

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4. Let it rip in a journal.

While there are certainly benefits to exercising more positive thoughts and extending compassion when you can, you don’t necessarily want to censor yourself either. Exploring your judgments can help you unpack why you feel so strongly in the first place, and even if it’s not that deep, airing grievances and working through your opinions can be healthy.

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“We don’t have to stigmatise the thoughts themselves,” Dr. Bonior says. “There’s a huge difference between sharing a judgment to someone’s face and getting it out of your system in the privacy of a journal.” She recommends journaling because it offers a safe space to express yourself without hurting others or stirring up drama. If you can’t believe how your friend acted a mess last weekend, it’s probably not the best idea to gossip about it with a mutual friend — but why can’t you commit the wild story to your diary?

That goes for weightier topics too. Say your friend is having a baby, and your knee-jerk thought is, “Wait, you?” While you probably wouldn’t want to share that with them, writing through it might be a way of understanding your strong reaction, questioning your own ideas of parenthood, or giving yourself a nonjudgmental place to vent about your jealousy.

5. Pay attention to when you’re most judgmental.

When finding fault in others becomes more of a chronic habit — especially one you don’t feel great about — it’s worth digging into any patterns you notice. According to the experts we spoke with, here are a few common reasons you can’t turn down the volume on that critical voice:

  • You’re struggling with your mental health. “Could how you’re seeing the world be a reflection of how you’re feeling in general?” Caraballo asks. He notes anything from temporary stress (like when you’re hyper-critical of coworkers during an important project) to a mental health condition like depression or anxiety (which can make you irritable and negative) can lead to an extra-yappy inner judge.
  • You’re projecting your own baggage. “Our judgments often say more about how we feel about ourselves and our circumstances than anything else,” Dr. Bonior says. Maybe you loathe a certain quality in yourself, so you come down hard when you see it in others; you might be a perfectionist and hold others to the same standards; or perhaps you’re jealous, insecure, or sensitive about the topic in some other way (like when you grind your teeth through a story about your friend’s extravagant spending habits when you’re totally broke).
  • You care a lot about the matter at hand. It probably won’t be a surprise to hear that we have strong feelings about things we’re invested in. (If someone hated a movie that changed your life, it’s hard to resist questioning their taste.) On a deeper level, feelings of frustration, discomfort, and disappointment also flag what’s important. “It could point toward something meaningful to you, like a personal value,” Caraballo says. “Maybe you do feel really strongly that people should not do X thing for Y reason.”

There might not be One Big Underlying Cause, but getting curious about potential influences may open the door to next steps that can help address the issue. That could be anything from setting conversational boundaries around triggering subjects to seeking out therapy for a hand with those negative thought patterns.

No matter where it’s coming from, remember that sizing up the world around you is just part of the human experience, so don’t shame yourself, Caraballo says. Instead, keep catching thoughts that feel bad and practicing the ones that feel better — and don’t be afraid to stay a little judgy as a treat.

This article originally appeared on SELF.

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