"He's an idiot," my father would snap when someone didn't do something the way he wanted. It didn't bother me then. But now I realize my dad’s name-calling was more about his inability to manage frustration than it was about anyone else. Why consider judgments? 1) Becoming more self-aware has a positive impact on our relationships and wellbeing. 2) People who judge others tend to be even harsher on themselves.
"She has a superiority complex!"
I’ll never forget the hilarity of a friend of mine, "Kathleen," reporting matter-of-factly to a group of people around a dining table that her psychoanalyst accused her of having a superiority complex. As she reported this, she turned to us with a contemptuous look on her face and said in earnest, “And he’s the lowest!”
We erupted in laughter at the irony!
We all make judgments without thinking or getting curious about the underlying emotions that drive these thoughts. Emotions like fear, anger, sadness, and disgust are no-doubt precursors to our judgments. It's in our best interest to become aware.
All it takes is a little curiosity in our emotional world to uncover what we are experiencing on a deeper level. As I listened to Kathleen, I wondered what emotions her therapist was having just before he had the thought, “You have a superiority complex!” Was he feeling diminished by her words and/or body language? Did Kathleen trigger the therapist's insecurities? Was he angry? Was he anxious for her, perhaps concerned her self-confidence wasn’t serving her? Was he triggered to feel small or ashamed of himself for any reason?
And what about Kathleen? What emotions drove her amusing yet hostile quip at dinner? "And he's the lowest!" Was she hurt, angry, ashamed, or a combination of many emotions?
There are no right or wrong emotions to have. Emotions just are! Yet, we all benefit from being able to name our emotions, experience them in the body, listen to them, think through them, and use them in ways that uphold our values and long-term goals.
There is nothing that helps a relationship more than when both parties value and strive for emotional awareness. It's through awareness that each person owns and is accountable for their feelings and reactions and can talk about them together to find common ground and resolution of conflicts.
Judgments and The Change Triangle
The Change Triangle is a practical guide that shows how defenses and emotions work in the mind and body and teaches us how to work with them. Judgments are defenses on the Change Triangle as they block underlying emotional discomfort brought up by differences between us.
The Change Triangle reminds us to name and tend to our core emotions. As a result of working the Change Triangle every day, we learn how to best navigate life's challenging moments by taking into account our emotions as well as our thoughts. That balance between head and heart or mind and body is what allows us to thrive and feel well.
For example, Kathleen's therapist might have gotten out of his head and into his body to notice he felt small and diminished by her. He could have used his own feelings to get a clue about hers. What was happening between them that triggered her arrogant defenses? In lieu of accusing her of having a superiority complex, he might have helped her better understand the emotions driving her haughty demeanor. He might have asked: What emotions are you feeling right now? Or, what's happening in your body as you are sharing?
What's your goal?
In another quick example of a judgment by a parent, Warren was mad at his adult son for blowing him off. Should Warren indulge his desire to judge his son and say, "You are so ungrateful!" Answer: It depends on Warren’s goal.
If Warren had the ability to notice his judgmental thoughts before reacting, he’d notice he wanted to say, “You are such an ungrateful son!” Then he would be able to consider his goal of having a good relationship with his son. Working the Change Triangle, he'd notice that he was angry and sad. Applying emotions education tools and techniques, he would validate and soothe his emotions, not bury them or insult his son.
This ability to notice his thoughts allows room to respond in a way that improves his relationship with his son in the future, which is what Warren wants, as opposed to creating guilt and resentment by calling him ungrateful for canceling a plan.
Warren decided to say, "OK. I will miss seeing you. I hope we can catch up soon." His son said, "Thanks for understanding, Dad. I love you."
It's through emotional awareness that we learn to wait and make a space to turn inward and notice our emotions and impulses before something destructive comes out of our mouths. As they say, it’s a practice not a perfect.
If my father had seen and worked the Change Triangle, he might have said, "I am so annoyed that the carpenter put the shelves in the wrong place" instead of saying "He's an idiot!" That would have taught me better as a child.
No doubt, the human mind will always make snap judgments. However, by noticing the emotions that fuel our judgments, we grow and improve our self-understanding and thus our relationships. Do you want to reach beyond your defensive judgments to respond in a more openhearted way?