“Judge tenderly, if you must. There is usually a side you have not heard, a story you know nothing about, and a battle waged that you are not having to fight.” – Traci Lea Larussa
I find it difficult to relax in yoga studios. While I am exceedingly careful not to evaluate the actual teaching methods of other teachers, I find it extremely challenging to take off my physiotherapist hat. I know that most yoga instructors do not come from a background similar to mine, and I believe wholeheartedly that they have their students’ best interest at heart. Yet, I constantly find myself thinking things like Don’t teach it that way – someone is going to get hurt!
Everyone judges. It is the means by which we make sense of the world around us. Humans are inherently inquisitive beings and when we bear witness to social behaviours, we naturally want to be able to explain why they occur. The word judgment is laden with negative connotations, but not all judgment is bad. We need to make appraisals on a daily basis to determine to which people, situations, and causes we should lend our energy, and which are best to avoid altogether.
However, with judgment comes an important caveat: We have two types of attributions at our disposal, situational and personality.
When we ascribe a person’s characteristic or behaviour as situational, we are assuming it has been influenced by their current circumstances, whereas with personality attribution, the underlying assumption is that what we observe is an innate part of their character. While the latter tends to be more reproachful, the key issue with both is that they involve the act of assuming. And as Oscar Wilde famously stated, “When you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.”
By nature, the act of passing judgment involves fabricating parts of another person’s story. When we don’t know something, our brain naturally fills in the missing pieces in a process called confabulation. It is impossible to know all the chapters of anyone’s story apart from our own, even the stories of those to whom we are closest.
Personality attributions are much more harmful than their situational counterparts because they attribute questionable behaviour or undesirable characteristics to intrinsic flaws in the individual’s character instead of environmental factors. And sadly, research has shown that people tend most often to lean toward personality and away from situation when making attributions, especially while judging strangers.
We see a child climbing all over the shelves at the grocery store despite his mom being a few feet away and we roll our eyes and immediately conclude That woman has no control over her child. She is a terrible mother.
A neighbour yells at the local kids to stay off his lawn and our gut reaction is That old man down the street is so mean!
The little boy on our child’s playdate refuses to share his toys and we instantly deduce That kid is such a brat!
We look at the severely overweight woman and label her as lazy, wondering How did she let herself get to that point?
A friend always turns down our invitations to hang out and we think She’s such a snob. She never wants to do anything with us.
But people are like icebergs – what we actually show the world is only a small fraction of who we are, but what lies beneath the surface constitutes our true nature. And what we don’t know about other people could potentially change the entire narrative.
That mom at the grocery store who seems oblivious to her misbehaving child is at her wit’s end from working two jobs to make ends meet, and is preoccupied by the concern that there might not be enough money in her account to cover the basic necessities in her shopping cart.
That grumpy old man down the street just buried his wife of 50 years.
That possessive child is being bullied at school.
That overweight woman has a thyroid condition that makes losing weight extremely difficult despite her herculean efforts to shed the extra pounds.
That friend who never wants to hang out is terrified of upsetting her controlling and abusive boyfriend.
Context is everything.
We often don’t know the full context, and if we were actually privy to the motivations behind the actions of everyone we encounter, most of us would be much less likely to make hasty judgments about their choices.
And yet we have all been there, as both judger and judgee.
The most notable example of judgment on the receiving end of which I have repeatedly found myself revolves around my decision not to have children. For the life of me, I will never understand why this specific choice rubs so many people the wrong way, or why they always seem to feel the need to express their opinion to me despite not even really knowing the person I am.
It is perfectly fine to ask a woman if she has children, but if she says she does not, it is incredibly inappropriate to then fire back the most common response I receive: Don’t worry, you just haven’t found the right man yet. I mean, What?
A person has to go through so many assumptions to arrive at that conclusion. First, they must presume I am single (most of the time they don’t even bother to ask, and sometimes I am, but other times I am in a perfectly happy relationship). Next, they have to decide that men are my partners of choice (in fact they are, but that is far from a given in today’s society). Then they have to rule out that I actually did find the right man but am no longer with him (perhaps he left, or worse, maybe he died). Finally – and this is a big one – they must assume that I am able to have kids (even I don’t know the answer to that because I have never tried to get pregnant).
On those occasions when I actually get to explain that I simply have never wanted children, I am often met with incredulity. One woman even told me I was selfish because of my decision. But the most infuriating response I ever received was from a young man when he overheard me saying I was never going to have children. He actually told me to bite my tongue, assuming I was joking. He then said some women don’t have the luxury of deciding, so don’t put that out in the Universe. Uh, dude – do you know if I have that luxury? And do you mean that I should have children simply because some women cannot? W in T actual F?
Interactions like these continue to transpire, yet my mind becomes a little more boggled with each one.
I feel for the younger generations of today who are constantly assailed by social media posts and the Internet trolls who can make whatever comments they like, no matter how hurtful, from the safety of an anonymous username. Reality TV takes this to a whole new level. In fact, the whole reality show thing is a bit of a misnomer. In actual reality, we are the ones who get to decide which parts of ourselves we share with the world. On reality shows, there are producers who get to decide what gets aired and how to portray each of the contestants. We view these shows from the comfort of our couches and make judgments about the “real” people we watch based on the characters into which they are edited.
I admit Reality TV is one of my guilty pleasures. I use my brain all day at work, so when I get home, I enjoy watching something mindless – usually with a nice glass of wine. But these days, I’m a little more aware about the way things work behind the scenes, so I try to just enjoy the show and reserve judgment about the people on it.
A few years ago, I auditioned for Big Brother Canada and made it further than I ever expected. While the overall experience was unlike anything I have ever done, and I would happily do it again in a heartbeat, I realized very early on I was being groomed to take on a specific role. I was asked very leading questions at each stage of the process, and quickly learned to answer in the manner I knew would most likely bring me closer to being part of the final cast. When I actually watched that season of the show, the cast member to whom they had been comparing me became immediately apparent, as she had been groomed to assume the same role.
I knew viewers would never have seen the Real Me. And because of that, I am acutely aware of any pre-conceived notions I might entertain when it comes to the contestants on these shows. I also know how awful people can treat them through the channels of social media. Thankfully, I didn’t make it that far, so that was something I didn’t have to endure.
It is a difficult thing to swallow when we find ourselves judged by others, but it cuts even deeper when it is delivered by the hands of a friend. I once confided in a good friend that I no longer enjoyed drinking with friends because of the anxiety it provokes. I have spoken about The Weirds in previous posts, but suffice it to say that my Brain On Wine tends to treat me poorly after one too many glasses, leading to harsh self-judgment. The friend in question assured me I was in a safe place with him, and that he wanted me to relax and have a good time, free from my usual worries.
Fast forward three hours after that conversation. My friend and I got into an argument over something so insignificant that I can’t even recall what started it. But in about 30 seconds flat he said, “maybe you should stop with the drinking.” Dagger to my heart. I had not had very much to drink, but I had taken him at his word and had more than I usually would have allowed myself. He took the one thing about which I had been open and vulnerable and immediately shoved it back in my face. He made an instant judgment that I was overreacting to what he had said, and that my overreaction obviously had to be the result of me having had too much to drink.
Despite my efforts to the contrary, I still carry the weight of his judgment, and his words resonate in my ears whenever I am out with friends and am presented with the option of a top-up to my wine.
Judgment is so prevalent in today’s world that kindness has taken a back seat. But we cannot judge others without first judging ourselves. In fact, as Mark Manson posits, “the way you measure others is the way you measure yourself, and how you assume others measure you.”
There’s that word assume again.
We all have a set of standards to which we hold ourselves. They are the benchmarks we have spent a lifetime establishing as important, and therefore, either consciously or unconsciously expect them to be important to everyone. But we are all shaped by our genes and the environments in which we find ourselves, and as such, have vastly different ideals.
I believe this is the source of all the hatred in our world. It stems from genuinely believing our way is the best way. When we see someone who behaves in a manner that doesn’t jive with our personal beliefs, we naturally judge them as deficient in some way.
When we don’t have access to a person’s entire story, we form stereotypes from what little information is available to us. When enough people with similar belief systems share those stereotypes, impressions are formed, and negative judgments are passed.
We all know people who are prejudiced against a group or groups of people. And if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us have some kind of judgmental pre-conceived notions about other races, religions, or sexual orientations. And that list goes on and on.
If we all took the time to see groups as the individuals who make them up, and stopped long enough to realize every single one of those people is an iceberg with a personal story that goes way beneath the surface, we might stop passing judgment on things we don’t understand, and much of the hurt and hatred we know now could be obliterated.
My brother calls me a social justice warrior. I’m not entirely sure whether he means it as a compliment or an insult. I do try extremely hard to always be open-minded and exercise tolerance with all humans. This may all sound very noble, but while my heart is in the right place, I have become humbly aware that my exuberance can come across as self-righteousness. In attempting to impress upon others the value of practicing non-judgment, I have, in actuality, been judging them. Not everyone who says something that is politically incorrect is making a judgment against a person or group. Sometimes they genuinely don’t know better. I can be a little over-zealous in the way I correct them. Just because I mean well doesn’t mean they mean harm. I am learning that a polite explanation as to why something might be seen as offensive goes much further toward creating actual change than brutal admonishment.
In yoga, part of embodying ahimsa, or non-harming, is engaging in Upeksha, or equanimity. When we experience or witness an injustice, the goal is to process it through methodical and unbiased inquiry. This does not mean we are meant to turn a blind eye to a non-virtuous act. It merely entails taking a step back and really thinking about how we want to respond, so we may do so from a place of compassion instead of anger. This prevents an off-the-cuff reaction which may escalate the situation rather than rectify it. Ultimately, the majority of injustices are perpetrated by people who are coming from a place of lack and are acting out in an attempt to fill that void.
Anger causes great harm, but its primary victim is the person feeling it. It robs us of our own good judgment and when we experience it regularly, it puts us at risk of developing serious health problems. Every act born of anger predisposes us to another and sets us up for a life of bitterness, which is a far cry from a constructive way to bring about the change we want to see in the world.
Being aware of how we judge ourselves and others is nine tenths of the battle. If we are cognizant of what we bring to the discussion table and how our own narrative influences how we see and judge the stories of others, we can start to bring about significant positive change to the world.
Be unapologetically you, but be kind. Do not judge someone’s story by the chapter on which you happen to walk in.
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