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Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW Headshot

Negotiating the Paradoxes of Nonjudgment

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We are living in very confusing times. On one hand we are expected to be nonjudgmental (as in accepting, respectful, compassionate and not rejecting in demeaning way) in personal, social and politically correct settings. On the other hand, our increasingly diverse world implies that we are constantly bombarded with unfamiliar faces, new situations, and newly arriving set of cultural values that threaten our sense of security and offers compelling reasons for judgments (what may seem like vigilance, discrimination, stereotyping).

On one hand, there are two good reasons why the nonjudgmental and non-rejecting way seems to be a perfect model for creating a world that is stable and prosperous, yet allows for individual freedom: 1) To promote harmonious co-existence in our increasingly diverse world and 2) to allow all types of individual potentials to be maximized. This means that in the political arena, we are expected not to pass any moral or value judgment on any particular community, and we watch over any discrimination, racial profiling, or stereotyping. On a social level, it requires us to allow all different styles of lifestyles: dressing, hairstyles, food habits, accents, curse-words, beliefs, religions, disabilities and behavioral patterns, as long as this is not proven to violate our laws. As we believe in encouraging individual potential to flourish, we are required to hold back judgments in our personal life as well -- against choices made by our own spouses and our own children, and the values chosen by our friends. Being nonjudgmental and compassionate seems to be a perfect foundation for personal relationships to flourish.

However, there is one big problem with this very attractive principal. Our brain is not supposed to be nonjudgmental! It is structured to make judgments at all times for the sake of safety: emotional and physical. When we are faced with a person or situation that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, our brain will check the stored database: group classifications, similar past situations, personal experiences, and then it will put the unfamiliar person or situation into one of these familiar categories. This judgment may be based on purely personal experiences or it may be based on a scientific study we have read. Either way, it seems very real, very convincing to us and we take an action based on our own training in ensuring our safety. It may mean either rejecting the new person or situation in a harsh or blunt way, or simply disappearing away, or taking a legal action invoking a rule.

Here are some real questions raised by real people in which one could judge the validity of being nonjudgmental.

If I am nonjudgmental about the actions that are against my values, will I be condoning them? Will my spouse and friends repeat them and not care about if those actions hurt me? If I am nonjudgmental about my kids' misbehavior, is that opposite of "disciplining?" Will that mean anything goes and they will have a nonchalant attitude? If someone hurts my family, how is it possible to hold any compassion towards the perpetrator?

If I am nonjudgmental, how will I know if the homeless person asking for money for food is really for food or for substance use? Unless I judge, how will I know if I am being taken advantage of? I may be viewed as a gullible simpleton who can be used. Unless I am vigilant about certain characteristics that a person exhibits, although they may be viewed as stereotyping, how will I keep myself out of future trouble? If I see a person with Mohawk and tattoos walking towards me, should I be crossing the street or quickly dashing to my car? By being nonjudgmental of teen behavior, are we allowing our teens to be self-centered and unmotivated?

Is noticing a "good" characteristic of a group, such as "brahmins from the state of Tamilnadu in India are typically very bright," also prejudice? Is stating a study about early child development that shows that on the average, girls do better in languages and boys do better in math, being prejudiced, even when such observation may lead to more efforts in changing the environmental factors? Is it okay to be critical about your daughter choosing a college dropout husband, because of studies that on the average educated people are more likely to have better income than the uneducated ones? Without putting people in categories, how can we ensure that terrorists are sorted out? Without "racial profiling," how do we begin to look for possible suspects?

We are frequently being judgmental and retraining our brain is hard and not so obviously desirable in all situations.

Here is the best answer to the confusion about being nonjudgmental I have heard. While describing his conversation with the Dalai Lama, Dr. Dan Siegel presented the following answer: Being nonjudgmental means not taking your own judgments too seriously.

This is what I suggest. When your brain makes a judgment, you do not need to take it as "that is that," but consider that there are at least three possible mistakes your brain may be making.

1) Although your judgment is evidence-based for a group, the person you are facing may not fit the description, so it is helpful to be open and accepting towards finding out more about this person.

2) You may have wrong information about a group, based on your own incomplete personal observations, which will not withstand more methodical testing.

3) Your judgments may be for the need for superiority, need for "I am better than that." In either one of these cases, if you take your judgments "too seriously," you may reject and demean a person inappropriately, losing out on a chance to create a more harmonious world. Train your brain to question it's own judgment before taking action.

At the same time, do not be too judgmental of your poor judgmental brain. She is just doing her job!