04/17/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

To Be or Not to Be Judgmental -- That Is the Question

There appears to be a naïve imperative reverberating in personal growth circles suggesting that being judgmental is bad. We are bombarded with exhortations not to be judgmental. Of course, the urgency behind the imperative only applies to negative judgments. I can't remember ever hearing a prohibition placed upon being judgmental when the judgments pertain to positive states -- such as beauty, success, courage, intelligence or holding compassion. Imagine telling someone that your judgment is that he or she is very kind, with the retort being, "Stop being so judgmental!" Obviously, we do typically appreciate folks being judgmental when their judgments compliment us, even if we feel shy and embarrassed.

Besides judgments that offer praise, it may be helpful to explore two other forms of being judgmental. The first I describe as judgments implying hierarchy, and the second as judgments implying diversity.

Judgments implying hierarchy have several distinguishing features:

  • Someone is up and someone is down. (Up suggesting that person is OK and down suggesting that person is not OK.) When we are judgmental placing ourselves up and the other person down, we massage our self-loathing, allowing us to temporarily feel good about ourselves. ("I feel okay in the presence of this person whom I judge as not OK.") If we elevate the other person, then we may be excusing ourselves from taking risks we fear. ("I don't possess the skills and talents that this person does, and therefore, it would be foolish for me to embark upon some new and challenging endeavor.")
  • We emotionally distance from the other person when we are down or up. The hierarchal lens makes it less likely we will deepen our connection to the person we either elevate or diminish.
  • Self-righteousness is a common outcome when we vault ourselves up and put others down.
  • We postpone learning about the acquisition of authentic self-love as feeling OK about ourselves is dependent upon judging someone as not OK. Our self-worth becomes enlivened by self-righteousness rather than authentic self-valuing and self-compassion.
Judgments implying diversity have several distinguishing characteristics:
  • The purpose of these judgments is to deepen our capacity for discernment, which allows us to clarify what we desire and prefer.
  • These judgments can give rise to personal values.
  • They can yield the kind of action allowing us to live in integrity -- where our actions are congruent with our values.
  • They do not necessarily distance us from those holding different beliefs. This allows us to learn from diverse positions and opens us to collaboration and co-creation.

If we are going to avoid getting stuck in judgments implying hierarchy, we will need to commit to living consciously and compassionately. Whenever our self-worth dips, it is easy to lose consciousness of what is going on inside of us. Distractions such as busyness and focusing on the lives of others become seductive as we attempt to avoid feeling the loss of our personal value. We also run the risk of getting entangled in the hierarchal net that helps to inoculate ourselves with a shot of feeling okay about ourselves. We will need to remain aware of the status of our self-esteem as well as holding compassion for others and ourselves. We can then find our way out of the knots of hierarchy, honoring of our uniqueness and the uniqueness of others.