How to avoid falling into the judgment trap


You’ve firmly decided to break that bad habit. After acknowledging an area where you can be better, you’ve put yourself in a place of thoughtful humility. Bravo!

Now, with eyes and mind wide open, you embark on your journey — hopeful and determined and ever attentive to your progress. Naturally, you begin noticing things you never saw before, in yourself and in other people. How they act, how they react to you, what beliefs they have, whether their behavior agrees with your newfound way of doing things. And quite unintentionally, you might find yourself getting a little judgy.

Why can’t he do it this way? Doesn’t she have any awareness? I’ll never be as good at it as that person. And now your motives are getting confused: Are you trying to better yourself or compete with others?

Okay, we admit that casting judgment is part of being human. But when we’re working on ourselves, it can seriously hinder momentum. And who needs that? To help you sidestep judgment on your way to a better you, we’ve highlighted three ways judginess can creep into our brains and when it usually occurs. If you find yourself falling prey — we all do from time to time — use some of the judgment-neutralizing perspectives listed below to get yourself back on track.

Judgmental trap: You won’t reach your best unless you are the best.
Beginnings are bumpy, especially when we’re trying to change a habit or develop a skill. There are plenty of moments when motivation flags. That’s when we tend to look around and notice where others stand.

On the one hand, we might see people way ahead of us in the progress department, and we feel small by comparison. If we dwell on it, we get stuck in that diminished state, over-analyzing the mistakes we’ve made and worrying that we might look silly or wrong to these superstars who seem to have it all figured out. It’s deflating.

Or, if we’re in need of a pat on the back, we can’t help feeling a smidge better when we notice all the people who haven’t made it as far as we have. Hey, maybe we’re doing alright after all! It’s motivating, but we’re depending on outside comparisons instead of our own inner drive. Our focus drifts from getting better to beating someone. Left unchecked, we’ll develop a new competitive habit that needs to be broken.

Bottom line: A pile of judgment is not a stable surface to lean on.

Neutralizing perspectives to get out of the judgment trap:
• Everyone falters. Forgive yourself when you do so you can pick up where you left off.
• It’s all about your progress, no one else’s. We each move at our own pace.
• Your process will be uniquely challenging and uniquely rewarding when you rely on yourself for motivation.

Judgmental trap: You’re figuring out the right way and it seems like the only way.
Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. Our perseverance is paying off, and we’re growing attached to our system. Maybe too attached.

What gets us in trouble is when we believe other people should be following the exact same process we are. Look at that idiot. He obviously doesn’t have a clue. Nope, that guy’s never going to make it. Not like that. He’s doing it all wrong.

Without even realizing it, we’ve let our commitment give way to a rigid mindset. Our way is the (only) right way, and we’re feeling a little superior.

Neutralizing perspectives to get out of the judgment trap:
• What’s right for you isn’t always right for everyone else. What’s not right for you isn’t necessarily wrong. There’s always more than one solution.
• How we respect the choices other people make often defines how others will respect our own.
• Shutting out suggestions narrows our vision. Instead, summon up the open attitude you started out with.

Judgmental trap: You’ve reached the high ground and forgotten what it’s like to start out.
Our confidence is soaring and it feels great. Everything seems so clear now. We’re quickly forgetting the early uncertainty, mistakes, and fumbling we overcame to get here.

Sometimes, the farther the distance we’ve traveled, the blurrier it all looks in hindsight. It seems like we were almost there all along, that it just took a little polishing up. When we lose that connection to where we came from — how much we had to learn by trial and error, or sheer force of will — we lose our ability to understand where others are coming from too.

That’s when our personal peak can morph into a moral high ground. Our success can chip away at our empathy. It makes us more prone to picking people apart for their faults instead of identifying with their challenges. We get impatient with their imperfection. It’s neither fair nor productive for anyone. And it lessens the good work we’ve done for ourselves.

Neutralizing perspectives to get out of the judgment trap:
• Everyone falters. Forgive them when they do, and try to help them get going again.
• How is their story different from and similar to yours? How does that make their process uniquely challenging?
• Accepting someone’s story for what it is, without judging whether it’s right or wrong, is the greatest kindness you can do for someone (and for yourself). For more on this perspective, find out why empathy is the single best way to get unstuck.

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