How I Learned to Stop Judging Others
Every time I judge someone else, I reveal an unhealed part of myself. - Anonymous
Growing up, I was that kid who was repeatedly told, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Only it never really sunk in.
I came of age during the heyday of Heathers, where being cool meant being cliquey, judgy, and callous. A couple of years later came Beverly Hills, 90210, and then Melrose Place, where nasty but cool, crop top-wearing characters excelled at knowing exactly how to hurt someone. Brilliant in their insults, they would fire off dramatic one-liners and conjure up a biting burn on a moment’s notice.
While I had a sarcastic sense of humor before those shows ever aired, I think those programs gave me permission early on to be more reckless in my communications. Even if people didn’t like those characters (though weren’t they the characters you loved to hate?!), it seemed to legitimize shit-talking as a valid form of communication, making it somehow more acceptable and mainstream. Plus, I was a kid living in the Boston area, where you could become a smart ass just by drinking the water.
Honestly, in my pre-teen and teenage brain, I thought that more people would throw down like that if they had the skill and the nerve.
I mean, didn’t everyone secretly want to be Heather #1? Or Heather Locklear? Didn’t our inner bitches live vicariously through them and the other snide, snarky, and sinister drama queens? Weren’t they doing the world a favor by just saying what everyone else was thinking?
I proved to be a quick learner in the school of shit-talking, skillfully honing my ability to come up with punchy insults and cutting commentary. With the help of certain members of my family, who excelled at pointing out our various shortcomings and teasing us when we got things wrong, I integrated this trash-talking trait into my personality.
To be fair, it’s not like everything that came out of my mouth was toxic, but I certainly skewed negative, focusing more on what was bad about something or someone as opposed to good, particularly when there was something that triggered me and got under my skin. Sometimes I was just trying to be funny and get a laugh, but other times, I admit, I was just being mean-spirited and defensive.
Affirming the negative
This fall, for a variety of reasons, I decided that I was going to be more positive. My goal was to cultivate positive thoughts, which would hopefully result in positive speech or at least stop me from speaking from a small-minded, negative place.
I downloaded one of those affirmation apps and recorded a handful of affirmations to listen to while I brushed my teeth or drove to the grocery store. I started with sayings like, “I release all negative thoughts from my mind.” “I will refrain from saying hurtful and spiteful things to people.” I thought this one was particularly insightful: “I let go of judgment as it is merely a reflection of my own self-doubt.”
Thankfully, my friend pointed out to me that even my affirmations were essentially negative and just drew attention and energy to the very things I was trying to banish from my life. Go figure. It was like putting up “don’t run” or “don’t feed the bear” signs. You might not even have been thinking about running or feeding a bear, but all of a sudden, with that suggestion, feeding that bear sounds like it might be fun.
With my friend’s help, it occurred to me that I had framed my goal as getting rid of negative thoughts. But positivity is more than just the absence of negativity. Identifying and shooing away negative thoughts was pretty easy, but actually generating positive thoughts, especially as a first reaction, was a whole other challenge that I didn’t feel equipped for.
I tried a few things, like trying to channel the sweetest and most positive person I know (who happens to be my husband’s 93 year old grandmother) and seeing things through her eyes. She can see the silver lining in just about anything.
But that didn’t work. Turns out I just can’t assume the personality of a sweet old lady from the South, nor can I really be anyone else but me. I would need to understand what was at the root of my judgment and negativity and pivot my way of thinking.
A lesson in contrasts
In exploring what was perpetuating my judgmental mindset and my “sass mouth,” as someone once called it, I thought about the people who bother me, the people I am apt to judge. What was it that I had an aversion to? What drove me to judge them as lazy, stupid, dishonest, or otherwise lesser or worse than me in some respect?
One person who came to mind is a guy in my life who has the swagger and vocal drawl of someone who doesn’t take life too seriously or sweat the details—one of those “no worries” kind of guys. He’s content to let paint peel and the grass grow long. He stays out of neighborhood debates about the tint of the new sidewalks and doesn’t care who takes the parking spots in front of his house. He’s sometimes spotted hanging out with friends on his porch, laughing and telling stories, in the middle of what is a busy work day for most people, including me. Lest you think he is just a slacker, I’ll add that he started his own company and recently came home with a new BMW wagon.
Despite him being a nice enough guy, I just don’t like him. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say that. Let’s just say he evokes a negative reaction from me and seems to bother me more than he should, given that he really has no standing in my life. As you can imagine, that negativity I harbor manifests in how I interact with him, which strains our communications.
In meditating on why he prompts this reaction, I realized that he holds a mirror back to me, forcing me to confront what I’ve often wished I could change about myself. Whereas he seems laid back about pretty much everything, I often struggle with anxiety and OCD-esque behaviors and have difficulty letting simple stuff go. When I look at myself through his eyes, standing in contrast to him, I feel ashamed.
That internalized shame and self-criticism are what gave rise to my judgmental thoughts about him and my snarky remarks. They were my ego’s way of turning the table and making myself feel better by knocking him down. I also realized that the contempt I felt seeing him enjoy a warm weekday afternoon with friends was a repression of my longing to shift my life in a way that would give me the kind of freedom and peace he seemed to enjoy.
It is commonly said that what you don’t like about someone else is what you don’t like about yourself. As I zoomed out, I saw that this was totally true. None of my feelings had to do with him—it was about me and how I felt about who I was and how I was living my life.
In judging him, I was really judging myself.
Stopping the tape
The endless reels of negative self-talk, deeply rooted in self-doubt, often lead me to jealousy, judgment, and shame. Part of my journey is getting out of these loops and cutting the tape so I can see things as they really are. I realized that if I am jealous of someone, it may be because I am holding a belief that it is not possible for me to have what they have or succeed like they have. But in a lot of cases, that is just not true—the only thing really holding me back is myself. Sure, some people get lucky, but good for them. I have also had luck in my life.
With greater understanding of how I was fostering my own negativity and judgment, I set out to invite more positivity into my life and break old habits. In 90210 terms, I wanted to be less like Valerie Malone and more like Donna Martin. (I actually don’t want to be Donna, but you get my point).
I’ve been training myself to become hyperaware of when I feel myself closing and reverting to habitual ways of thinking and communicating. Now, when I experience an aversion to someone or an urge to switch on my inner-Heather, I use those moments as opportunities to practice compassion and patience. I use the pause to pass my thoughts through Rumi’s three gates of speech: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?
I have to really force myself to do this sometimes, but I thank those people or situations for the opportunity to learn something about myself and grow. By consciously focusing on the light and love within everyone, including myself, I cultivate a more fertile environment for positive thoughts.
As I become more aware and shift my thoughts toward positivity, those negative thoughts wither and naturally fall away. They no longer have the attention and nourishment they need to grow. Each time I practice a pause and choose positivity over pain, I give sun to the seed within me.
This doesn’t mean I will never utter another critical word. I most certainly will—I am allowed to voice my opinions and lots of things objectively still suck. I’m just trying to get better at flagging unproductive and ill-intentioned thoughts before I say them out loud. By speaking from a place of empathy, compassion, and objectivity, I hope to live with greater grace.
The ego’s last stand
I don’t want to give you the impression that cultivating a new, positive mindset was easy for me. It took and is still taking courage and discipline to show up as a better version of myself. There was part of me, my ego, that didn’t want me to change and worried about the discomfort that might arise.
My ego told me that if I am a “better” person now, then I must have been a worse person before, which didn’t feel good. The ego cautioned that becoming that “better” person would mean confronting the pain and shame that comes with realizing the impact my words and behaviors have had on others. It means facing those times I’ve chosen to dish out hurt and neglect instead of compassion and comfort. It means revisiting those times I wasn’t true to myself and went along to get along—one of the bitterest flavors of regret.
It also called upon my stubbornness, suggesting that if I change, some people will think I changed for them, that they were right and I was wrong. It suggested changing would be an admission of my guilt and invalidation of everything I’ve ever said, which sorely challenged my pride.
And there were my friends. My ego told me that I’d lose my connection with friends who don’t resonate with the new version of myself. At the same time, it warned me that other people will hold onto memories or expectations of me that blind them to who I’ve become, keeping me frozen in the past. Finally, my ego whispered, “And seriously, who do you think you’re fooling? You haven’t changed—you are the same anxious, defensive, and shit-talking person you have always been.” Ouch.
Brave enough to bloom
My ego didn’t win. I know that it’s all worth it—all of that discomfort, squirming, and sorrow. The risk of staying small, of clinging to the status quo, is far greater than the risk of opening up to who I really am. Yes, it’s been hard to make peace with the mistakes I’ve made and the people I’ve hurt. It’s been uncomfortable as I peel away a skin that no longer fits. It’s hard to show up as someone different than I’ve been and convince myself that I don’t care what other people think. But, the reality is that most people are happy for me and inspired by my transformation. For those that aren’t, I hold up the mirror and hope they too are brave enough to bloom.
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