Maybe you silently sized up a person at the grocery store based on the outfit they’re wearing. Or talked some trash about the idiots who can’t seem to figure out how to keep the school pickup line flowing smoothly. Or rolled your eyes at the dude at the playground who’s lecturing everyone about positive discipline.
Whatever the case, it’s all too easy to fall prey to judgmental thoughts. And while, sure, it’s sometimes helpful and, let’s face it, fun to cast judgment or create a simple narrative that raises you above other people or offers clear reasons for minor inconveniences, you know that kind of thinking is overly simplistic and unhelpful. Plus, it’s not a good example to set for your kids who are learning from your behavior. So how do you prevent yourself from doing it so often? Can you even train yourself to be less judgmental?
According to psychiatrist and author Grant Brenner, M.D., the answer is decidedly yes. And the first step is specifying when being judgmental is a liability and when it’s beneficial.
First of all, it’s important to note that making judgments is normal. It’s one of the reasons we evolved in the first place. A wise ancestor thought, Huh, Groc says we should all consume this random berry he found. But he’s pretty dim. Better not. Judgment calls are critical to well-being, and our minds are wired to make them about any number of things, on the fly or not.
“Sometimes we need to appraise ourselves and others in many situations,” says Brenner. “So while we don't want to be quote-unquote, judgmental, there's nothing wrong with being judgmental since it may help us keep ourselves and those we love safe or help us to excel professionally.”
Assuming the message is packaged respectfully, judging someone’s work while doing employee evaluations is okay. And it’s perfectly fine to go out of your way to avoid a questionable individual while walking your kid to school as long as you don’t mutter something about them looking sketchy as you cross the street.
In Brenner’s experience, when people say ‘I don't want to be judgmental,’ what they actually mean is ‘I don't want to be a jerk,’ or ‘I don't want to jump to conclusions.’ That’s a good thing. A desire to be less judgmental of other people is a desire to be kinder and more understanding.
So, the question remains: how can you be less of a judgmental jerk? The bad news is that sheer force of will won’t keep that shadow side at bay in perpetuity. According to Brenner, lasting change requires growth in mindfulness and emotional presence. The good news is that there are five clear tips to help you reign in that impulse.
1. Ask Yourself Why You’re Being So Judgy
External factors could exacerbate how judgmental you are. A work environment where pithy and sarcastic communication is the modus operandi will make it tough to catch yourself from offering judgmental barbs in other contexts. Or a social media algorithm that’s turned your stream into a scroll of snark could predispose you to a similar outlook on life.
But Brenner points out that underlying many judgy dispositions are wounds people are unwittingly compensating for.
“If someone’s sense of self is organized around insecurity, they may defend against that — or compensate for it — by devaluing others to feel better about themselves temporarily,” he says. “It’s a little bit like an addictive or compulsive behavior because it doesn't fix the underlying issue with their sense of self.”
Ask yourself why you’re being judgmental — and really dig for the answer. In all likelihood, it’ll be more revealing than you think.
2. Note What Triggers Your Judgmental Words And Thoughts
As you reflect on the day, consider one or two instances where you levied unfair negative judgments on someone. What was it about the situation or the specific person that got under your skin? Was there something about the situation that made you more likely to be unfairly critical? Or it could be that you felt less than your best during those moments?
Our physical state can affect our ability to regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions. It’s natural to be prone to more judgmental thoughts when stressed, hungry, or exhausted. Listening to what your body needs for you to remain mindful and emotionally present even in times of stress can help you cultivate healthier responses to others in those difficult situations. Chances are, you’re more of a dick when you’re hangry. So keep a protein bar on hand.
Brenner also suggests engaging in as little as ten minutes of reflective mindfulness practice daily, be it journaling, meditation, or other guided activities to keep yourself centered.
3. Practice Mindful Self-Compassion
If insecurity is at the root of an unhealthy judgmental attitude, Brenner advises practicing mindful self-compassion and suggests The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook as a guide. Written by self-compassion experts Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, it includes guided meditations, practices people can do anytime and anywhere, and other exercises that act as a roadmap for those looking to build their self-compassion toolbox.
And according to a recent study published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences, becoming less judgmental toward oneself may be a matter of self-preservation as researchers found that a judgmental attitude towards one's inner experience predicts depression and anxiety.
But it’s a slow process to change those deeply ingrained thought patterns, which Brenner likens to a computer operating system.
“If I’m going to upgrade from a cycle of blame and self-criticism, it’s going to take my mind time to patch that code,” he says. “So you have to be patient and nonjudgmental with yourself at first because you're going to mess up before the new cycles become fully integrated.”
As people recognize on a deeper level that failure and mistakes are part of the shared human experience, it will hopefully open the door toward a more empathetic stance toward others.
4. Distinguish Between Actions and Character
Being judgmental often occurs when people conflate what someone does with who they are. It’s easy to see a stranger yell at their kid for not obeying and assume they are a horrible parent. But that interaction may have just been a moment in time and not indicative of their core beliefs and typical behavior.
As a matter of self-preservation, we tend to get especially judgmental when people’s behavior is directed at us. This is not to say we would let others run roughshod over us because we believe doing so makes us less judgmental. Brene Brown contends that appropriately boundaried individuals are more compassionate and less judgmental because they don’t emotionally overextend themselves.
“But there’s an important distinction between ‘I didn't like the way you acted toward me,’ versus ‘there's something wrong with you as a human being,’” says Brenner. “With the first statement, I'm expressing my needs. And with the other, it is more like I'm assassinating your character.”
5. Pair Compassion With Curiosity
Ted Lasso may have misattributed the saying “Be curious, not judgmental” to Walt Whitman, but it’s still a great adage to live by. When you’re unsettled by someone’s behavior, and the negatively judgmental thoughts pop to the front of your mind, pause and ask a question like “I wonder what happened earlier in the day that caused them to act like that,” or “I wonder how they’d their behavior would change if they know how their actions made other people feel?”
It may sound like a cliche but looking at a situation from someone else’s point of view is one of the building blocks of empathy. That’s a start. But Brenner contends that empathy must be paired with compassion to help someone mitigate unhealthy judgments.
“Empathy can allow you to see that someone is hurting,” he says. “Compassion is the motivation to act to reduce that hurting. And so I think to really move in a nonjudgmental direction, the concept of compassionate empathy is one of the keys to unlocking that deeper change.”