Sam Holstein

How Judgmental Thoughts Can Keep You Mentally Ill

How Judgmental Thoughts Can Keep You Mentally Ill

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional. I am merely a longtime patient looking to summarize and practice what they’ve learned. My blog articles are no substitute for professional mental health care. 

“Love is the absence of judgment.”
Dalai Lama XIV

The topic of judgmentalness is interesting because I think when most of us think of the phrase “being judgmental,” we think of someone who is prejudiced. Maybe we picture our old and slightly racist grandmothers, or we picture the father who never approved of what we were wearing when we were young. You even probably have a few cherished unfair prejudices, like prejudice against everyone who walks in the street when there is a perfectly good sidewalk right there ?

Our typical understanding of what it means to be judgmental is actually a narrow understanding of a much larger area mindfulness practices call nonjudgmental thinking.

According to the tenets of mindfulness, a judgment is any thought in which you compare your present circumstances to an imaginary, idealized world.¹

For instance, people who slow down on merge lanes are assholes is clearly a judgment. But so is I should be studying right now. So is Trump is bigoted. After all, in a decent world, you would study responsibly and Trump wouldn’t spew racial hate on the television. The real world doesn’t measure up. 

One way you can know if you’re having a judgmental thought is if it refers to some kind of opinion or belief of yours. Chocolate is best is a judgmental thought because it’s referring to your opinion. Phrases like “should,” “shouldn’t,” “good,” and “bad” are also sure signs of judgments. 

Descriptive labels like “lazy,” “selfish,” “mean,” and “bigoted” are also judgments, even if you think they’re true. They’re labels you’re applying to the situation, not a description of the facts themselves. Trump has an orange tan is a fact. Trump said he would build a wall is a fact. Trump is bigoted is a judgment.²

Judgments Damage Our Mental Health

Judgments are useful mental shortcuts. They help us compose our thoughts to ourselves and communicate with others. But when we get in the habit of leaping to judgments so quickly we forget to check the facts, we’re in trouble.

The facts of a situation are what you can sense about that situation with your five senses. You can see Trump’s orange tan with your own eyes. You can listen to him talk about his wall on YouTube. 

Many college students are in the habit of thinking judgmental thoughts like I should be studying, my grades should be higher, I’m not smart, so on and so forth. These judgments are often made with little to no reference to the facts of the situation. I have an exam tomorrow is a fact. My chest feels tight is a fact. My attention keeps wandering from studying is a fact. Self-deprecating judgments are not facts, regardless of how true we may feel they are.

Judgments can be damaging when we apply them to ourselves — which many people do enthusiastically and with great frequency. 

Here is a small fraction of the judgments many people apply to themselves every day:

All any of these judgments do is add suffering. The judgment I should be in better shape is just the thought I want to be in better shape dressed up in an emotional guilt trip. 

As soon as you stop judging, you’re able to go easy on yourself and on others. When you stop judging yourself for how little money you make, you’re emotionally freed up to pursue the income you actually want, not the income you think you should want, and you are able to stop judging others for their income level as well. Double whammy.

There are some people whose suffering is almost purely because of constant judgment. The student on the edge of a nervous breakdown because she thinks she should have better grades comes to mind. So does the husband on the edge of a breakdown because he thinks his family should be more wealthy and picturesque than they are. If people like these relieved themselves of the burden of judgment, they’d feel a weight lifted off their back nearly instantaneously.

How to Practice Nonjudgmentalness

Asking you to leap right in and practice nonjudgmentalness when arguing with your partner or talking politics is like asking someone who just learned how to swim to cross the English Channel. You’re going to need some practice.

Start by noticing something in your immediate environment, like a potted plant. Practice noticing things about that plant. It’s green. It’s sitting in the sun. It’s leaves are yellow near the bottom. The dirt underneath it looks dry. Notice judgmental thoughts — I should water it — and label them “judgmental thoughts.” Then move on to more nonjudgmental thoughts. It looks like it’s dying.⁴

That’s really all there is to it! Like many aspects of mindfulness practice, nonjudgmentalness requires simply sitting with your thoughts regularly until you get the hang of things.

Practicing a nonjudgmental perspective is, like anything that has to do with mindfulness, significantly more difficult than it seems. It’s been months since this concept was introduced to me and only now am I really beginning to be able to adopt a nonjudgmental perspective without it feeling tremendously forced. 

But that’s to be expected. It’s a skill, and it takes practice, just like anything else.

1: My source is Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, which lists nonjudgmentalness as one of the essential Mindfulness skills of the program. Linehan has explained the Mindfulness section of DBT is directly based on her experience as a Buddhist monk.

2: One a fair number of people would disagree with, actually! Many people don’t think Trump is bigoted. But it’s a fairly universal judgment on Medium, so I used it because I knew it would be an evocative and relatable example.

3: Please refrain from passing your own opinion on whether my judgments are true or not. I did not give you enough information about this fight for you to form your own conclusions, and anyway, the whole point is that it doesn’t matter if the judgments are true. 

4: I’ve been outed as someone who doesn’t regularly water my plants. ?