Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How can we tell when we’re being judgmental?


This was submitted to me by someone who wishes to remain anonymous.  The points made have really resonated with me, so I felt it was important to post it.

Some recent events in my family have presented me with a front-row seat and even a participatory role in troubled relationships and after pondering (i.e. stewing and obsessing over) what happened, trying to understand where I went wrong, and trying to separate that from what others have done to hurt me, I’ve begun to realize the wrong I did happened because I have been judgmental.

Sometimes it is really hard for us to tell when we are being judgmental.  We can see pretty well when other people are doing it, but when we are doing it, we would bristle if someone else told us we were.

Thankfully, I remembered President Uchtdorf’s talk “The Merciful Obtain Mercy” in April 2012 conference, the one in which he gives that two word instruction, “Stop it.”  I didn’t remember him saying much about being judgmental, but I checked the rest of his talk and found just what I needed to know.  In fact, he laid it all out for us so we can tell when we are being judgmental. 

“When we feel hurt, angry, or envious, it is quite easy to judge other people, often assigning dark motives to their actions in order to justify our own feelings of resentment.”

There it is—being judgmental is to assign dark motives to other people’s actions.

“But when it comes to our own prejudices and grievances, we too often justify our anger as righteous and our judgment as reliable and only appropriate.  Though we cannot look into another’s heart, we assume that we know a bad motive or even a bad person when we see one.  We make exceptions when it comes to our own bitterness because we feel that, in our case, we have all the information we need to hold someone else in contempt.”

There’s how it happened—I assumed that I had all the information I needed to assign those dark motives, even though I can’t look into another’s heart.  (To really look into another person’s heart requires discernment, which is one of the gifts of the Spirit and comes from God, and it therefore will be exhibited with charity, not hostility or contempt.) 

That’s how every judgmental thing I’ve said or did has happened.  And here’s another thing—I’ve realized I’ve frequently been judgmental of myself, assigning dark motives to myself, which is really strange.   You’d think I’d know my own heart, but often I fail to take all circumstances into account when I judge myself—like failing to take into account my own ignorance, or ignoring the forces and influences that exert pressure on me, or expecting that if everything I do doesn’t come easily there’s something wrong with me, or expecting more of myself than I’d expect of another person in my circumstances. 

I’ve learned through personal experience that we can’t reach out to rescue the lost if we are simultaneously judging them for being lost.  We can’t lift and inspire the people around us if we hold them in contempt for breaking commandments of which they know little to nothing. 

A number of years ago when road rage was becoming more and more talked about, I heard someone share what they did to try to keep from getting angry at aggressive drivers.  They said that when an aggressive driver cut them off to an exit or tail-gated them, they tried to make up stories about what circumstances might be leading the aggressive driver to feel like they had to drive like that.  Maybe the aggressive driver just found out their wife had been taken to the hospital.  Maybe they had a job interview to go to.  Maybe they were late for a plane.  That advice stuck with me, and it is one reason I’ve been able to avoid road rage. 

At the heart of that advice is the principle that the stories we tell ourselves about why people act the way they do plays a big part in the way we think about them and guides us in choosing the way we treat them.  And as President Uchtdorf said, we hardly ever have all the facts about what they did, why they did it, what they know about right and wrong, and so on. 

Moral decadence is increasing in our society, which means that not only will we be tempted by it, we will be tempted to be judgmental of it.  To carve a safe place for ourselves when moral decadence is increasing means we will have to develop the ability to communicate our values without being judgmental.

Here are some judgmental assumptions we may make, which will definitely color our communication:
·      They’ll get mad if I ask them to stop.
·      They won’t care if I ask them to stop.
·      If I try to tell them why we think it is wrong, they won’t understand.
·      If I try to explain, they won’t want to listen.
·      Even if they do understand, they’ll do it anyway, just to make me uncomfortable.

Instead, we must assume bravely:
·      They’ll be curious and want to understand particulars if I am kind and show concern for them.
·      They’ll be willing to listen.
·      They’ll try to understand if I communicate well enough.
·      If they understand, they will care enough to help me and want to change what’s wrong.
·      If they can’t or won’t stop, there must be something that makes it very difficult for them that I don’t know about.

Let’s take some examples of different cases when there is a temptation to be judgmental and examine the assumptions that bring this about. 

We just had an election and President Obama was re-elected president.  It is tempting to form some kind of conclusion that the majority of Americans are choosing evil instead of good.  But that would be formed on a number of assumptions:
  • President Obama is evil. (But he’s not.  He’s human just like anyone else, and he has a lot of pressure on him.)
  • The Americans who chose Obama over Romney are bad.  (But they’re not.  There are a variety of reasons Obama won.  Christian Science Monitorcompiled a list of twelve reasons they saw for it, some were Obama’s positives, some were Romney’s negatives, and some were additional factors you wouldn’t expect.)

The stories that we tell ourselves about people who have different political ideologies and priorities are going to impact the way we treat them.  Are we going to let disappointment about Romney’s loss color how we treat our fellow Americans, most of whom we don’t know?  Romney’s loss does not equate to a rejection of the gospel of Christ, rejection of the church, or rejection of Latter-day Saints as a people. 

Another example: When I visited my parents two weeks ago, I learned that my parents were having troubles in their marriage.  The atmosphere in their home seemed emotionally cold.  My parents’ conversation with each other felt strained, even when they expressed affection for each other.  The first week I was helping my dad around the house.  Somehow he seemed to withdraw from me and I felt many of my suggestions to him were ignored.  I didn’t know why, but I felt that he was treating me just like he had when I was a teenager when I had done something wrong that he didn’t approve of.   When I helped my mom the next week, she unloaded on me a lot of things that she was frustrated about with my dad.  Because I had just experienced being ignored by my dad, I found myself identifying more with her issues than I had before, and I began to ascribe to him an insensitive and uncaring nature, one that was only concerned about protecting his own ego.  In the heat of my agitation, I said some very judgmental things to my dad, thinking that I was doing my mom a favor by expressing things I thought my mom would want said.   I look back at it now as an epic failure, when judgmental-ness won. 

Also while visiting my parents, I learned from one of my brothers that he didn’t believe in the church any more.  It hurt to know that he rejected something that was so dear to me.  But having just been working through President Monson’s biography To the Rescue, I felt that I should at least try to reach out to my brother.  I didn’t know how to do it.  I got the idea to ask him the question, “Even if you don’t believe in the church, what do you believe in?”  I didn’t know what to expect, and I suspected I would have to do a lot of listening, and I just hoped that I could keep from feeling threatened enough to keep listening.  I suspected that he needed to feel heard.  So I asked him, and that started a conversation in which he told me things that he said he had never told anyone else, and he allowed me to share gospel principles that would help him.  In one way, it was just as disturbing as the situation with my parents, but from the perspective of avoiding being judgmental, it was an absolute triumph. 

There have been times I held back from sharing the gospel with somebody because I assumed they wouldn’t listen.  I’ve realized that was a judgmental assumption to make.  I also recognize this has become kind of a thought habit for me and instead I will need to practice assuming people will be curious about the gospel.

I’ve felt the need to stand up for my standards, but looking back I can see the difference between when I did it in a judgmental way and when I did it with respect and kindness.  Speaking judgmentally rarely went over well and when rebuffed (as I probably deserved), I went into a bruised hunker-down-it’s-us-against-the-world mentality of defensiveness.  On the other hand, when I made my concerns known with the assumption they (whoever they were) would understand, feel the same way, and help, then I had a lot more success.  For instance, when I object to a magazine cover in a grocery line, I assume that the clerk had no control over its placement and I let him or her know the revealing clothing of the magazine model makes me uncomfortable.  I ask him or her to let the store manager know.  When I have expressed myself this way, without fail the clerk has confided to me that same magazine made them uncomfortable too!  They promise they will pass my concerns along and I know that I have not alienated them.

Throughout life there will be many times when we see people do wrong things.  Sometimes we will be in a position to correct them and even have the responsibility to do so, in which case we will have to communicate very carefully, reproving clearly, with persuasion and meekness, showing an increase of love afterward.   Most of the time, however, we will not be able to do anything about it.  It will be very tempting to be judgmental, but we can’t do that without condemning ourselves for judging unrighteously—judging without any of the facts.

Our tendency to judge others often takes us by surprise. If we see a teenager boy with orange-dyed hair spiked in a mohawk, almost without thinking we say to ourselves, "Oh, he must be rebellious." It is up to us to recognize what we are doing, remind ourselves of our ignorance, and begin constructing a more favorable mental narrative on their behalf.  There are other explanations for the hair that might make sense if we knew what they were.  Perhaps that orange-spikey hair is a loud plea to be noticed.  Perhaps it represents a soul so bruised that he wishes to intimidate people so that they will not bully him.  We don't need to excuse the hair, we only need to understand it.

Here are some steps I’ve thought of to help avoid being judgmental:
1.     When you find yourself making a judgment about someone, ask yourself what assumptions you are basing your judgment on.
2.     Examine your assumptions about that person.  Are you assuming good things about the person or bad things?  Are you assuming they have good motives or bad motives?  Assigning dark motives and evil intent leads to being judgmental.
3.     Remind yourself that you do not know all the facts.
4.     Remind yourself that the person may not understand that what they are doing is wrong.  (Ask yourself, “How easy does our culture make it to learn right and wrong?”) 
5.     Remind yourself that you do not know the person and the struggles they are going through.
6.     Try to imagine what combination of events or process of inner struggle may have brought that behavior out, or try to imagine what inner drives are at work.
7.     Remind yourself that the person is a beloved child of God just like you.
8.     Realize that the characteristic you judge in someone else is something you fear within yourself, something you hope you never have to deal with, or something you hope you got over.
9.     Forgive the person and pray for them.
10. Accept that the person just is who they are, a complex being.
11. Love them.  Remember that just as you deserve to be loved, so do other people deserve to be loved.  It is unreasonable to expect a person to be perfect before you can love them.

What experiences have you had in which you were able to overcome the tendency to be judgmental?

4 comments:

Reid Litchfield said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Reid Litchfield said...

Great insights. Life requires us to make judgments about things and people as soon as our feet hit the floor every day of our lives. The challenge is to judge righteously, and with love and kindness--like the Savior did. It's a learned skill to judge without being judgmental.

See also JST Matthew 7:1-2; John 7:24, D&C 11:12 and Dallin H. Oaks in Aug 1999 Ensign.

Becca said...

Amen to Reid's comments.

We discussed something similar to this in our RS lesson on Sunday. We were talking about not saying unkind things about people, and we talked a lot about gossiping.

Say you are having a problem with a friend, Susie. You may not know her very well, but maybe she said or did something that was offensive. You might go "vent" to a friend, saying something like "Ah! You will never believe what Susie did! etc etc etc" or, you might go to a mutual friend, perhaps someone who knows Susie better than you, and you might say to that person, "Susie did such and such thing, and I'm wondering why she might have done such a thing. It really hurt my feelings." And the friend may say something like, "Susie is going through a tough time right now, etc etc" or something similar. Now you might be more likely to have compassion on Susie, and perhaps reach out to her in a way that she needs right at that moment.

If you are good enough friends, you might be able to talk to your friend specifically about it. But I have used this tactic with teens occasionally, since teens can be a bit belligerent if confronted, even in a kind way. When we know more about the situation it helps us to know how to express kindness and mercy.

Michaela Stephens said...

Reid, so true about it being a learned skill.

Becca, forgive me but somehow I'm not understanding what tactic you use with teens.