As a college student, I attended a conservative university — in both religion and politics. I fit in with my own conservative preferences; however, I had friends and acquaintances who often felt that they stood out like a sore thumb.
If they had slightly more liberal political philosophies, different sensibilities of clothing or dress, or other ways of being ‘non-conservative’ they felt like an outsider. The judge, jury, and executioner of peer social acceptability marked them as ‘different’ and they felt it keenly.
I had a conversation with a professor who indicated that he had similar feelings. However, what made his situation interesting was that he recalled his graduate school days at a much more liberal institution of higher learning. In that situation, he was the conservative one being judged critically against the more liberal philosophies of his peers.
He was a conservative among liberals and a liberal among conservatives — all without changing viewpoints!
While I wish I could relegate this feeling of being judged to the realm of schools and young people, I have learned that it is a nearly universal occurrence.
A parent taking a crying kid through the store — eyes turn in disbelief. Judged!
A newly divorced man, socializing with friends. Judged!
A teen moving to high school from a different state or country. Judged!
A person of one race among a peer group of a different race. Judged!
And we don’t need to get started on social media. Clothes, family pic, hair, profile, credibility, smile, and witty comments. All judged!
What’s this article about?
Perhaps you think this is another article telling you to not judge others. I think articles, blog posts, and stories about being non-judgmental are invaluable.
However, I want to talk about how to deal with being judged every day.
Always Being Judged
Despite all the encouragement in the world, it’s impossible to avoid being judged. It can happen at any time.
I ran through a thought experiment the other day — what would happen if I got a tattoo with “I love Jesus” written across my forehead? What if I did it as a deep expression of religious devotion? How would people react?
I’m sure there would be a select few who would appreciate my devotion. Some might find it funny and make a joke about it. Some would say nothing, and then talk about it later in quiet whispers with their friends.
Many would find it ‘preachy’ or ‘odd.’ My mom would certainly ask why in the world I made such a decision. (Don’t worry mom, if you’re reading this, it’s only a thought experiment!) A few, but not many, people would ask me why I decided to do it and listen with an open mind.
I admit, if I saw someone else with a Jesus forehead tattoo, I probably would have a multitude of judging thoughts go through my mind. Really, there would no way to avoid being judged. Most of us would have a hard time not making a judgment.
So, unfortunately, when it comes to judging there’s only one person we can control — ourselves. While we continue to work on our own non-judginess, we still have to deal with all those other judging people.
What do we do?
Here are three ways that I’ve found to cope with judgment from the minor to the harsh.
First, you can accept that others will be judging you. If you want to live in a world where you’re never judged for the decisions you make, the clothes you wear, or the things you do, then you need to pick a different world! Or at least move out of society and become a hermit.
This does not mean that we need to accept the judgments that others make about us. We don’t have to accept or believe what others think about us. However, if we want to accept reality, we will have to accept that others are going to think about us; they will process our appearance, words, and actions through the lens of their own limited knowledge and experiences.
We want others to accept us as we are. What that also means is that we will have to accept others as they are, which will involve most people judging us.
Yes, it’s not always a pleasant fact to accept. But like death, disease, and taxes, once we accept reality for what it is, we can move on and start to make some progress.
The other part we have to accept is that judging bothers us. Congratulations if you’re in the 1% of the population that doesn’t really care what others think about you. For the other 99% of us, though, we have to accept that being judged makes us uncomfortable.
Once you accept that you will be judged and that it will bother you, you can move on to getting past the judgment. It might still bother you, but you don’t have to let it hold you back.
2. Tell my story
One of the painful parts of being judged is that it rewrites our life story. Instead of being the hero, we become the villain. Or maybe the comic side story.
Feeling like you’re on the wrong side of the story narrative can be emotionally painful. Emotions are not easily dismissed.
If dealing with painful emotions is difficult for you (i.e. that should be everyone), I recommend considering how to handle unpleasant emotions with some of the tools used in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (also see Russ Harris’s book The Happiness Trap). In short, ACT teaches how to accept both the positive emotions and negative emotions. (Aside: I also find taking cold showers is a great way to prepare for negative emotions).
One of the principles I appreciate from ACT is that you recognize a thought or emotion for what it is — a thought or emotion. Although thoughts and emotions can be painful or difficult, they are still just thoughts and emotions. They do not have to unceasingly dominate our minds or control our actions. Part of the way to have our thoughts and emotions relinquish control is by recognizing them for what they are.
The same goes for the judgments of others. When we feel judged, we can feel ‘hooked’ by the emotions of the moment. We fuse with what others think of us — or what we think others think of us. We start living in the story we think they’re telling.
However, we don’t have to cede control of the story! By recognizing that you’re responding to a story, you can let it release its hold on you. That doesn’t necessarily remove the unpleasant emotions, but it does help you to ‘unhook’ from the story.
For me, writing down my thoughts helps me recognize what is really bothering me and helps me to process the thoughts and emotions. Am I bothered because of what they said? Do I think it’s true? Will this impact me in the future?
Because my mind can cycle on unpleasant thoughts for a while, I created a flowchart to help me think through critical judgments in a productive way (see A Way to Escape the Criticism in Your Head).
Whatever technique you find works for you, it is important to find ways to tell your own story. That includes trying to understand the person judging you and having empathy for them.
3. Look in the mirror
It can be painful to accept, but sometimes when we’re feeling that others are judging us harshly, it might actually be us doing the judging. Back to my thought experiment, if I went to church with my ‘I love Jesus’ tattoo, I would certainly be judged. But did you catch the irony — I’ve already decided who will be judging me and how they will do it. And, yes, I already judged my mother for judging me!
Now all my judgments from my thought experiment may be correct — but isn’t that the problem in judging others? We always think we know what people are thinking. We assume we know their minds and hearts. But we’re not often as right as we think we are.
I’ve not only seen this happen in my thought experiment, I’ve seen it play out in real life.
I’ve worked with individuals who are at a rough stage in life. They worry about what others think of them and their problems. And as soon as any individual says something unkind or insensitive, they feel validated in their suspicions of others.
More often than not, these comments are made in ignorance rather than maliciousness. Furthermore, even the intentionally malicious comments are not representative of all other people. However, the allure is strong to assume that if one person has a negative opinion, then everyone must have a negative opinion.
Here’s another example, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with many teenagers and adults in my church ministry and discuss how they’re feeling socially. I’ve learned that it’s very common for people to feel like ‘outsiders’ in a group setting.
On more than one occasion, I’ve talked with an individual who is certain that another individual doesn’t like them and doesn’t want to include them or be associated with them. They would love to have a relationship with the other person, but the other person just doesn’t want it. When I talk with this “callous” other person, more often than not I find out that they feel the same way. They would like to have a friendship or relationship, but feel like they are being judged by the other person.
For both people, it’s the other person’s fault they are not friends!
Both judge the other on impartial information, but neither one takes the time to really stop and empathize and understand the other person.
Certainly there are times that another person is genuinely critical and malicious. It’s OK to set boundaries with someone who is verbally or psychologically abusive.
However, most relationships would benefit by taking time to listen and understand each other. Sometimes all the other person needs is to have some of their own ‘psychological air’ by being heard, valued, and listened to.
Practice, Practice, Practice
As you know by now, judgments and criticisms from others will not be going away. However, by staying curious rather than critical, we can help ourselves to make the kind of progress we want in life despite the thoughts and feelings of others. We can accept that others judge, tell our own story, and offer empathy and non-judgment to our judging acquaintance or friend.
While this a nice, tidy 3-step article claiming to hold the secrets to handling judgment, the truth is that just reading this article won’t do much good. Instead, it takes practice to change mindsets and habits and to gain empathy for others.
We extol the virtues of practice for sports and music and physical endeavors. We remind others the importance of studying and learning to understand new concepts. But we often forget that emotional and interpersonal skills take just as much practice.
Will you join me in practicing? I guarantee you’ll find someone who will judge you — today and every day.