Why And How We Define Judgmental Affects How We Experience Our World
By Toni Hoy
Updated February 13, 2020
Reviewer Chante’ Gamby, LCSW
Your perspective on the best way to define judgmental can have an incredible impact on your life and the lives of those around you. Few people like to think of themselves as being judgmental. As the Bible says, 'Judge not lest you be judged.' There's also a societal pressure not to be judgmental.
At the same time, we make judgments every day. We must do this to avoid being swept away by whatever wind is blowing through at the time. Even if we refuse to make direct judgments, we are in fact judging that it's okay to go along with whatever's happening. So, what does 'judgmental mean?' That depends on how you choose to use it.
Ways To Define Judgmental
The subtle meanings we place on the word 'judgmental' often seem to indicate that being judgmental is about the kind of judgments we make rather than the simple fact that we're making judgments. The most popular way to define judgmental is 'judging harshly,' as in 'I wish you wouldn't be so judgmental about the way I dress!' It can also mean 'having a habit of judging harshly,' as in 'He is a very judgmental person.'
There is another way to use judgmental, although this usage is less common. In this case, it means 'to make a judgment.' This use of the word refers to a much less emotionally-charged concept. Rather than making a harsh or unfair judgment, you simply concluded or made a decision. You might have judged too harshly, or you might have been too accepting. Or, you might have made a judgmental decision about something neutral, such as judging whether to purchase one sofa or a different one.
Judgments always contain some form of uncertainty. If you're judging, you're deciding what to do based on incomplete data. If you knew absolutely everything that could be known about the situation and how to get the outcome you want now and will be happy with in the future, you wouldn't be judging at all! Instead, you'd simply be following a set course that couldn't be changed.
Ways To Use Judgmental
People use the word 'judgmental' in a variety of different ways. The way you use the word says a lot about how you intend it and what you think of the person who's making the judgments. Some of the most common phrases are 'judgmental people,' 'judgmental attitude,' and 'judgmental error.'
When we talk about judgmental people, we're usually discussing someone who has judged us or someone we love in the harshest way possible. People who are judgmental, we may think, love nothing better than to tear down others. We see them as uncaring people with superior attitudes.
People who make unnecessary and overly-harsh judgments about people can certainly cause a lot of emotional pain to others. They can diminish the other person's self-esteem or make them feel like an outsider.
Adopting a judgmental attitude is nearly always considered a negative thing. Because we rarely use this phrase except in its connotation of 'judging harshly,' it makes sense that we would want to avoid it.
We may like or love a person very much, but we may still see that there are certain times when they adopt a judgmental attitude. Maybe they're very accepting of most people, but they get a judgmental attitude if they meet people who aren't clean and well-dressed. Our loved one's judgmental attitude may be unreasonable, especially if they only know the person in question in his job as an auto mechanic, for instance. In such situations, our judgmental attitude can have more to do with our past experiences than with what is happening at the moment.
If we don't consider a question thoughtfully, we may make an error in judgment or a 'judgmental error.' Because there are very few situations in life where we know every important detail and are guaranteed of a certain outcome, we're all going to make judgmental errors sometimes. There are several ways to reduce the uncertainty, though.
What Happens When You Write People Off As Judgmental
When you decide that you can no longer have anything to do with someone because they're too judgmental, your decision affects your life. You may improve your life dramatically by writing off people who are too judgmental. On the other hand, your judgment may come with a price.
You Choose Self-Protection Over Wider Experience
There are certainly times you need to get away from judgmental people to protect yourself. If someone is overly critical of you, it can damage you emotionally. If they abuse you because of their judgments, it can threaten your physical well-being or even your life.
Consider this, though: If you choose to protect yourself by dropping everyone who judges too harshly, you may end up with a very small network of social contacts. You might cut yourself out of new experiences that you'll only have if you're in contact with that person.
There's nothing wrong with protecting yourself. Overprotection can be as damaging as being overly judged. This decision is always a judgment call, so it's a good idea to think it over before you decide either way.
You Choose Self-Compassion Over Compassion For That Person
It would be great if we could always choose to help both ourselves and others. If that were possible, the world would be a different place. And, in many cases, you can choose both. Often, we only need to change the way we look at the situation. For instance, leaving a dysfunctional relationship may seem like you're choosing yourself. If leaving frees the other person to live a better life if they choose, then your leaving can benefit both of you.
Sometimes, though, it's best to choose yourself rather than getting too caught up in helping others who hurt you. Many abusive relationships carry on year after year because the person who is being abused feels sorry for the abuser. Maybe they excuse their behavior because they know they are stressed at work or had a horrible childhood. They don't want to hurt that person further. So, they continue in the abusive relationship when getting away may be the only way to save their own life.
The best rule of thumb is to be judgmental enough to protect yourself always but open enough to show compassion to others when you can.
You're Probably Hypocritical
We make judgments all the time. What's more, we elect people to make judgments for us concerning criminal punishments and civil court cases. So, we know that it's important to be judgmental sometimes. You can't get around it. Decisions have to be made, and it's usually better to be consciously judgmental than just to let whatever is going to happen, occur.
What Happens When You're Judgmental
So, what happens when you're judgmental? There are both problems and benefits of being judgmental.
Here are some of the negative things that might happen if you're overly and harshly judgmental:
- You hurt other people unnecessarily.
- You might have fewer friends.
- You decrease the diversity of your social network.
- You might spend more effort on judging others than on working towards your goals.
When it comes to making sound judgmental decisions, there are benefits as well:
- You gain power by moving deliberately towards your goals.
- You can make the choices that make you the most happy.
- You can avoid being hurt by abusive people.
What Can I Do To Be Less Judgmental Of Others?
It's very easy to judge people too much and too harshly. It seems that everyone has become a critic, disparaging others for trivial reasons and shunning them for minor faults. If you're concerned about being too judgmental of others, consider making the following changes.
Be More Open To New Experiences
When you're open to new experiences, it's easier to be more accepting of others. The excitement that comes with exploring our world tends to make us less fearful. By decreasing your fear, you decrease your feeling that you need to be overly judgmental.
Develop Your Sense Of Compassion
If you often find yourself being too judgmental of others, you might need to work on developing compassion. Showing empathy to someone in need is a good way to start. Listen without judging them and let them know you are there for them. If you don't recognize the need for empathy in your friends, volunteer with a local charity. Your experiences there can help you become more aware of what others are going through and learn the best ways to show them compassion.
Reserve Judgment For As Long As You Can
The most important thing you can do to be less judgmental is to judge more slowly. Rather than making a snap decision on what you think of someone, let your understanding of who they are unfold over time. Certainly, you will have a first impression. But, that impression might be so far from the truth that you might judge the person as a bad person without giving them a chance to show who they really are. When you do that without sufficient data to consider, you could miss out on a beautiful, life-long friendship.
Is It Possible To Be Completely Nonjudgmental?
The truth is that sometimes we need to make judgments about a person or issue. For example, if you're a hiring manager, you have to judge who is best for the job. In other words, you have to combine what you know, such as their background or references, with what you can only guess from the clues you get during the interview, such as whether they can think quickly and act appropriately for the job.
Another instance of having to judge someone is when you're considering a relationship or already have tied your fate to someone else's. Perhaps you're dating someone and thinking about moving in with them. You have to judge what kind of person they are based on what you know from your dating experiences along with what you can guess about how they'll be after you're living together.
If there are things you don't like about someone you're in a relationship with, you have to make a judgmental decision about whether they or the situation can ever change. When your supervisor at work is cruel to you constantly, you have to come to a judgmental conclusion about whether they're the kind of person you can win over.
All these judgmental decisions, if made carefully, can protect you from people and situations that can harm you emotionally and physically.
Is It Ever Okay To Be Judgmental?
There's never really a time when it's okay to make overly harsh judgments. However, if you define being judgmental as 'making reasoned decisions based on sufficient data,' then it's okay. More than that, it's a way to take charge of your life and accept responsibility for your choices, your actions, and your happiness.
How To Make Wiser Judgments
Okay, so you have to judge. How can you do that without being too 'judgmental?' The following tips can help you make wiser judgments.
Look For The Most Accurate Information
Always look for reliable information. It can be difficult to assess what's reliable, but there are certain sources to avoid. For instance, the gossip you heard at the water cooler at work may not be the most accurate information. A first impression only tells one moment's story. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a poorly-posed picture may give you the wrong impression.
When you overgeneralize, you make specific judgments based on what you know about a broad category. One problem with this when judging people is that you won't know how to categorize them until you've already made a few judgments. Besides that, many of the categories we tend to put people into have nothing to do with the reality of who they are as an individual.
Knowing your prejudices and preferences can help you see people more accurately. By being self-aware, people usually become less judgmental. Consider the person not just from the perspective of who you are, but also try to see them as they appear to others. Your own opinion is most important to you, of course, but changing perspectives may change your opinion, too.
Recognize The Complexity Of The Person Or Issue
No person is all good or all bad. People are too complex for that. Most situations are complex, too. When you recognize how many parts of an issue or person there are to consider, you might be inclined to take longer in concluding.
Don't Rush To Judgments
Rushing to judgment isn't usually necessary. Of course, in an urgent situation, you may have no choice. When you can, though, take your time. In the end, you may decide that there's no benefit at all in labeling someone or writing them off. Taking your time gives you the opportunity to learn as much as you can, see different perspectives, and think it through.
Why Does It Matter How You Define Judgmental?
So, what's the bottom line? Does it matter how you define the word 'judgmental?' It can make a difference. If you define judgmental as someone else's harsh judgment of you, you're always going be in victim mode. Whether you're resenting someone for judging you or beating yourself up for judging someone else, that definition may make you feel worse instead of better.
However, if you think of being judgmental as making a sound, reasoned assessments based on incomplete data, you may find it easier to be understanding when others are doing the best they can. More importantly, you can own your power to make decisions based on the best judgmental abilities you have.
What To Do When You Need Someone To Listen Without Judging You
There may be a time when you need more than anything to be listened to without judgment. If you do, you can talk to a friend or family member who seems nonjudgmental most of the time. Talking to a counselor is always an option, too, and may be the best choice for you if you fear being judged by your loved ones.
Choose your listener wisely. Tell them that it's important to you that they don't judge you. If you prefer to talk to a counselor, you have the added benefit of knowing that all your secrets are safe and will never be shared with anyone unless you authorize it. And, if you need to learn to make sound judgments, your counselor can help you with that, too.
Counselors are available at BetterHelp.com for online therapy where and when you want to talk. Your judgments are yours to make or not make. Best of all, when you understand the most optimal ways to be judgmental, you can live a healthier, more purposeful life.