We walk into a room full of people, and the first thing most of us do is start evaluating them. Much of this is just the mental process of taking stock of our social situation so we know how best to react to it. But a big piece of it is criticism.
That person doesn’t know how to dress; what an awful haircut; she laughs too loud; he’s an ugly slob; what an ignorant remark; how can she think that jewelry is attractive? At some point we realize that others are probably making the same sorts of judgments about us. So we struggle to make certain there is nothing about us to criticize.
We evaluate ourselves, and often come up wanting. Why did I make that stupid comment? I handled that presentation poorly. I drank too much at the reception and acted like a fool. I forgot his birthday. I forgot her name. My makeup looks terrible. My hair won’t behave. I feel like an idiot.
Judgments. Often harsh.
Some judgments are benign: I like the blue shirt more than the pink. I don’t care for Country and Western music. That picture would look better over the couch instead of in the hallway.
Some judgements are helpful: I’d best not have another cookie. It looks like rain; I ought to take my umbrella. That investment seems risky; I’ll pass.
But there’s a point at which judgments slide from sensible and intelligent into the realm of damaging and unhelpful: I am putting on weight. I ought to change some of my habits. Bad habits. I’ve made stupid choices. I can’t control myself. Look at how fat I’ve gotten. What a loser I am. No one is ever going to find me attractive or be able to love me.
Those are terrible things to say about yourself–or another person.
When you let this habit of judging get out of hand, it can make your mind an uncomfortable and unpleasant place to be. From the time you get up in the morning and critically appraise your face in the mirror, to your last waking moments as you lay in bed reliving all the mistakes you made during the day, you nag and worry.
Imagine living with someone who is always telling you what’s wrong with you, how you’ve failed, reminding you of your mistakes and predicting all the ways you might do as badly in the future. That person wouldn’t make you very happy, and your home would be an unpleasant place to be. You wouldn’t want to live there. You’d want to escape from it.
No matter where you go or what you do, your mind is where you live. There’s no escaping from it, although we have lots of temporary distractions and ways to numb ourselves from the noise of our thoughts and the suffering they cause. But no matter what we do, we have to live with ourselves. No divorce is possible. Better to find a way to make your mind a more safe and pleasant place to be.
So the first step is to back up a bit. Start listening to yourself, to the thoughts your busy, judging mind produces. Make yourself aware of it. Notice when it’s happening. Don’t just let it be automatic and business as usual. Realize what you are doing to yourself.
And here’s the tricky part: When you realize you are being judgmental, don’t criticize yourself for it. All that does is create an infinite regress. Instead, practice simply, and perhaps even with a touch of humor, thinking, Ah. I’m judging harshly again. Gee, there I go. Hmm. I’m being critical of myself.
Not beating yourself up for it. Not telling yourself you’re a bad person because of it. Just being aware that you are doing it. Seeing the line you step over when you go from observing that you need to change some of your behaviors to cursing yourself for not being perfect. Recognizing the difference between good judgment and harsh criticism.
That can be all you need to begin breaking out of the habit. That touch of objectivity. That bit of awareness. You can start making your mind a safer and more pleasant place to be.
And in the process, judging others less harshly, too.