Navigating Judgment


Often times, when we occupy the space of “I’m right and you’re wrong” it keeps us from seeing our own responsibility in matters. When we judge others’ foibles and personality traits, what does it really say about us? What can we do to identify and get rid of judgment in ourselves and in our lives?


What I hear in this question is a common concern for all of us: We want to be able to respond to our relationships with skillfulness and clarity. But when we critically examine, say, a conflict we might be having with a friend or family member, we often find ourselves judging others based on “right” or “wrong.” So to me the fundamental question comes down to this: “Is there a way of working with relationships without judging or ignoring?”

For me this question opened up a query into the difference between discernment and judgment. When we look at another human being—or ourselves—we see that we are not one way. Human beings are creative and destructive, cranky and kind, joyful and miserable … it’s impossible to pin down a human being. We are always a work in progress. So when we judge others (or ourselves) we are objectifying or seeing them in a one-dimensional way. There is a closing down around a negative idea, and simultaneously, there is a non-acceptance of the fullness of who they are. This is why, when we judge others, we experience first and foremost the negativity of our own mind.

One thing I like to do when I find myself in these situations is to try to remember at least two other qualities about the person whom I have just put in a box. For instance, aside from what is irritating us, we may acknowledge that she is a good mother to her children. We may remember that she brought us soup when we were sick. In this way, all of us move out of our tendency to judge them—to form a solid picture of them—which in turn moves us out of our own negativity. This helps us see this person more fully, which, if we are honest with ourselves, is more accurate.

This doesn’t mean that this person doesn’t exhibit habits that challenge us. Nor does it mean that we shouldn’t also find a way to work with or even communicate with this person, set boundaries, and so on … But

when we don’t shut down by making judgments, the atmosphere of our minds is open, gentle and non-reactive.

This gives us a greater capacity for clear seeing and how to relate to them skillfully in order to obtain a positive outcome.

I deeply believe that seeing the fullness of others, in all their pain and glory, allows us to express the greatest love and respect we can offer. It is an unconditional kind of love. And this kind of love has a profound effect on our own minds.

Not long ago a dear friend of mine lost her father. She told me that after his passing, her family and friends began to praise and deify him. Although she adored and respected her father, this was hard for her. She said that her father was many things: he was intelligent and kind, but also sometimes rough and gritty: “like a prickly pear cactus.” She had trouble listening to people describe her father in such a one-dimensional way. She felt that her love for her father included the fullness of his humanness.

I found this touching because her love for her father was inclusive … she didn’t have to forget or disregard him in any way. She could accept him completely for who he was. She was able to see him clearly and accept him fully, both at the same time.

We can have an inclusive stance that makes room for the full humanity of others. From this ground, we can respond to a parent, friend or co-worker without judgment.

When we realize that we can be both open and discerning at the same time, we experience freedom from negativity and meaningfulness in our relationship with the world.

Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is a Buddhist scholar and the author of the book, The Power of an Open Question (Shambhala Publications).