One of the biggest things I've recognized on this path of mindfulness is how judgmental my mind tends to be. It judges people, things, experiences. Basically, whatever it encounters, my mind tends to slap a label on it. And I'm not talking about objective labels here -- I'm talking about the reactive deeming of whatever the object of my mind's attention is as "bad" or "good." "Wrong" or "right." "The worst" or "the best." Or some variation in between.
In other words, I'm talking about labels that judge.
In my daily life, I've been paying close attention to negative judgments that my mind generates, doing my best to catch them when they arise -- and gently noting them (judging, judging) to help let the judgments go.
This technique has been effective in helping me catch -- and, in turn, start to reduce my negative judgments. But, I recently had an "aha" moment where I realized I've only been working on half the "judgment issue."
The "aha" moment happened when some friends and I were chatting at our monthly mindfulness group. I was sharing how I'd noticed that I was experiencing a particular set of negative judgments lately -- and how my mind tends to be overly critical, in general. And then one of my friends says:
"We don't really think about this much, but judgments can come in the form of praise, as well..."
Cue needle scratch/time freeze moment.
My mind immediately flashed to a handout that my partner and I received from our son's school (now hanging on our refrigerator) listing "words that judge." It was the first time I'd ever seen what I'd considered a list of positive words labeled as "negative." And I remember thinking... How could praising someone possibly do any harm?
The truth was, I'd actually experienced how (first hand) but it hadn't fully registered until that moment...
You see, growing up, I'd heard my fair share of negative judgments. Mostly from my dad -- and mostly about the government, the boys I was dating in high school, and the people who used to cut him off while he was driving on the highway. Most everything and everyone was fodder for dad's judgments. And hearing them never felt good.
On the flip side, dad was also in the habit of telling me how incredible I was at this or that, and how pretty much everything I managed to do was always, in his words, "the best!" (even if, on a more objective scale, it was only mediocre).
And although I know dad genuinely intended to be kind -- to express his love and support in an effort to help me feel "good" about myself... The fact is, his "praise" often felt just as crappy as hearing his negative judgments -- especially because I was never given any comfort or reassurance of his love (and my worthiness of it) when I failed.
Case in point -- I remember taking French horn lessons when I was in junior high. I was okay. Not great. Not bad. Just okay...
At my first recital (my first and last), I sat down next to the piano accompanist and tried to take a deep breath to play my first note. But I couldn't inhale any air -- I was hyperventilating so badly from nerves and the pressure to be "good" that I could barely breathe (let alone play the instrument). I tried and tried. But I didn't manage to blow one note out of my horn that evening. My recital was deemed a "failure."
And the message I got from both my parents that night was that I was one, too.
Because the next thing I remember after rushing off the stage is the ride home in the backseat of Dad's car -- staring out the window as my parents sat up front in complete silence. Neither of them said one word to me. No comfort. No reassurance that I was okay and that they still loved me, despite my poor performance.
Looking back on it now, I'm guessing this is when I decided I "needed" to achieve if I wanted my parents' attention and affection. I'm also fairly certain my "good girl" and perfectionist tendencies sprang out of these types of interactions with my parents when I didn't meet their expectations...
These days, however (and thankfully!) I'm slowly learning that my worthiness isn't predicated on my performance.
I remember shortly after my partner and I fell in love a few years ago... I was doing a public reading of a comedy script I'd co-written, and I was a basket-case about it -- nervous that nobody would laugh or find it funny. And worried that she might judge me if the reading was a flop. I'll never forget what she said.
"I'm going to love you no matter how anyone reacts to your script, baby. I love you for who you are. Not for what you do or how you do it."
Cue needle scratch/time freeze moment number two (with some heavy waterworks this time).
You mean, I can "fail" and still feel loved?!
This was a whole new concept. And holy crap, did it kick off a tidal wave of healing that I'm still in the midst of integrating.
So, what's my takeaway after all this introspection?
Being mindful of my judgment -- both negative AND positive -- is critical.
This week, I invite you to join me in being mindful of judgments -- keeping an especially close eye on any "good" judgments that might arise. Because "good" judgments can set up unfair expectations. And I'm fairly certain the last thing any of us want to do is have our loved ones thinking they need to "perform" in order to receive our love and encouragement.
Here's a helpful list that can help you spot the "good" judgments and replace them with words that encourage, instead:
Labels that Judge:
Words That Encourage:
Look at that!
Tell me about it.
Show me more.
How did you do that?
How do you feel about it?
That looks like it took a lot of effort.
Are you pleased with what you did?
What do you plan to do next?
A version of this blog post was originally published on TheMindfulnessDiaries.com.