We all say we don’t like to be judged by others, and yet, let’s face it, we all judge others. Does this make us hypocrites? Not necessarily. It depends on what you judge and how you use judgments.

There are a couple of different ways to judge and to be judged. There are also different ways we experience being judged. I guess it depends on who is doing the judging, and why. If you ask your friend for their opinion about something, and then they give you their honest opinion, even if it also includes within it a judgment about something you’ve said or done, you probably won’t feel too bad about it. It might hurt to hear it, but you also recognize you needed to hear it and appreciate your friend having the courage to say it. Even if you conclude your friend is wrong in their opinion (and judgment), you did ask for their opinion. And you probably have enough trust in them to know that their response is well-intended, whether valid or not.

On the other hand, if someone else (not your friend) gives you their opinion and judgment, and you didn’t ask for it, you will likely feel at least some resentment, or a great deal of it, depending on the nature of the judgment and how removed they are from your “circle of ethical regard” (the people whose opinions you trust). We might also resent an unsolicited judgment when we rightly conclude they don’t have sufficient information about our situation or who we are to make the judgment, which is part of the reason they are not in our circle of ethical regard. They are jumping to conclusions and accordingly, we don’t trust those conclusions.

What is a judgment? In its simplest terms, a judgment is a thought or position about the value we attribute to a thing. For the purposes of this blog entry, I am not referring to financial, intellectual, artistic, or historical values. I am restricting the discussion specifically and only to moral value judgments. A moral judgment is a way of seeing something as good or bad, a little good, a little bad, or really good, or really bad, or not that big of a deal either way. When we make a moral judgment about someone else, we can be making a value statement about that person, their behavior or both. I strongly believe it is important to make a distinction between these two kinds of judgments. The reason is simple, and very powerful: people who do things we think (judge) are wrong, are (almost) always still good people who did a bad thing. When we judge people, as people, based solely on something they did, we are likely “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Let me illustrate this point. When I was working in the prisons, I had a rule of thumb for the “Healthy Relationship” classes I taught there: I did not restrict attendance by the nature of the prisoner’s conviction. I didn’t ask and didn’t feel I had the right to know the nature of the act that brought them into the prison system. I didn’t want my students to feel judged in my class. I wanted to take all of them at face value, as individual people, based on what they said in class, how they acted, how they presented themselves to me, right then. I wanted them to know I respected them as people, and made no judgment about them, based on previous behavior, at least for the purposes of the class. One time, as the class was ending, and the prisoners were leaving the room, a prisoner (I’ll call him Jeff) stayed behind to check on an administrative issue he’d been having with one of my staff (in addition to teaching classes in the prisons, I was also running a program to help prisoners and their families). Jeff didn’t like my responses and started to become hostile and threatening, moving closer to me, despite my telling him to back off. One of the prisoners who’d just walked out the door came back into the class (I’ll call him Andrew). Andrew walked up to Jeff and asked, “what’s going on here?” Jeff told him, “its none of your business.” Andrew said, “I’m making it my business, so get out of here.” Jeff left. Here’s the kicker, Andrew had previously told me he was serving his last year of prison after having been there for many years and we both knew if he’d gotten into a fight with Jeff, which he was clearly prepared to do, several years could have been added to his release date. A few weeks later, I asked Andrew why he had risked extending his prison sentence so close to his release date for me, a person he didn’t even know. This is what he said: “You were the first person here to ever treat me like a human being, a real person, with respect. I owed you for that.” As he said this, tears welled up in his eyes. Think about this. Here is a hardened prisoner, who’d been judged by everyone he’d encountered for years. He risks having substantial prison time added to his sentence to protect me, solely because I refused to judge him for whatever he might have done in the past. Good thing I’d given him the benefit of the doubt. These many years later, I still feel deep gratitude for the nobility he showed me that day.

In addition to wanting others to refrain from jumping to wrong conclusions when they make judgments about us, we also don’t want others making judgments about whether we are good or bad people solely based on what we do. We know we are good people but we sometimes make mistakes, just like everyone does. I think we also instinctively know that when others judge us based on our mistakes, there is something inherently hypocritical about it—that they have no right to judge us because they too have made plenty of mistakes.

There’s a great song that gets to this point really well. It’s called, Help Me Somebody (on the album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts by Brian Eno and David Byrne). Part of the song says:

“Talkin’ funny and lookin’ funny,

talkin’ ‘bout somebody judge me,

you make yourself look bad.

You need to take a good look at yourself

and see if you’re the kind of person God wants you to be.

Ain’t no big thing.

It’s a small thing.

What! People! Think!”

We need to be free to be who we are, without fear of being judged. I think it is a good thing to not want to be judged, especially when the judgments of others are unwarranted or when they come as judgments, not about what we do, think or say, but about the kind of person we are. If we know we are basically good, decent, and honorable people, we should not have to put up with being told otherwise by anyone. If we are subjected to this kind of judgment, we should be careful to avoid internalizing it, which can become a powerful and debilitating source of shame.

Judgments can also be used as a form of subtle or not so subtle manipulation. A moral judgment can be used to imply the following: “You shouldn’t do that or be that way (insert trait or behavior the person dislikes and wants you to change) and you would be better or more likeable if you did it this way (insert their preferred version of you).” This kind of judgment is used to make you feel bad about yourself in order to get you to change something about yourself or the way you do things solely because the person making the judgment wants you to change. Their desire that you change is not sufficient by itself to warrant a moral judgment. Clearly, this is an inappropriate and harmful use of judgments, whether it is someone else or we ourselves who are doing it. A direct statement like “I do not like it when you do (insert issue)” doesn’t imply that you or your behavior is wrong. It just states that you are doing something the other person doesn’t like. There is no moral judgment involved. It is one thing for a parent to tell their teenager to stop stealing money to buy pot (an obviously warranted moral judgment). The parent has an outright obligation to tell their child to stop doing this. It is quite another thing for one partner to tell another they are wrong for wanting to spend time out with friends because they have a duty to stay home with their family (see below).

The issue of using judgments to influence or control others sometimes comes up during otherwise legitimate conflicts between couples. In my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, I discuss this issue in the chapter, What is Verbal Abuse. I distinguish between saying something about your needs (which is good) and saying something intended to hurt the other person (which is verbal abuse). Recently, a client and I were discussing this issue and came up with a way to think about it so she and her partner could remember it during an argument and avoid using hurtful language indicating a moral judgment which is not appropriate. For example, if one person says to another, “you are a terrible father,” this is a moral judgment about the person, and it is probably intended to hurt their feelings, which makes it verbal abuse. If that person instead said to their partner, “when you do (insert problematic behavior), you are acting like a bad father,” although not ideal language it is at least judging the behavior, not the judging or defining the person as essentially bad. It also allows the person to change. Can someone who is a bad father become a good father? Maybe, maybe not. Can someone whose behavior as a father is not acceptable change his or her behavior? Much more likely.

Are all moral judgments bad? Definitely not. As I said above, when we ask for someone’s judgment about what we have done, we might need to hear we have done something that should cause us concern for our moral health, to help us avoid doing similar things in the future. In fact, you could argue that this is the most vital part of a trusted friendship. It allows us to turn to others as a kind of moral mirror, as long as we make good decisions about the kind of people we allow ourselves to trust for these kinds of opinions about us. As I’ve said in other places, we don’t learn from our experiences, we learn from reflecting on our experiences. Moral judgments are a powerful teaching tool for us to look at our behaviors and make changes.

In the same vein, I think it is necessary and sometimes very important to give ourselves permission to judge others for their actions, especially when those actions have a direct impact on us. Amy found herself in long-term relationship with someone who was very possessive, who tried to control her in many ways, limiting her social contacts, criticizing her often for wanting to be successful in her job, demanding she spend as much time as possible at home. She began to think (judge) her partner was insecure without her, and was projecting that insecurity onto her, making her responsible for being around so her partner wouldn’t be insecure without her there. This judgment about her partner’s behavior and the possible reasons behind it allowed her to decide to leave the relationship when she determined it was not going to change. Amy was able to look back and accept that her partner was a great person in many respects and didn’t deserve her lasting animosity, but that she was not happy in a relationship that ended up feeling so confining. Amy could judge her partner’s behavior without making a blanket judgment about her partner as either good or bad.

Let’s go back to the beginning, where I discussed the potential hypocrisy involved in judging others while not wanting to be judged. If we know we don’t like others judging us for who we are, we should do the same and limit our judgment of others to their actions without making a judgment that those actions define them, unless in those extremely rare cases, when their actions are so unacceptable or deeply engrained that they really do define them as people unworthy of our moral acceptance. Judgments can be fine, and healthy and helpful, but can be so easily overstated and hurtful, if we are not careful how we use them. So let’s use moral judgments, but carefully and with kindness when possible.