When and How to Use Judgment
By Matthew Joyce
“I can’t stand my neighbor!” said a friend as she pointed over her back fence. “Look at him with his spread of concrete patio. Before he moved in that yard was filled with trees, flower beds, and lawn.”
“His TV is on all day and he walks around in his backyard in his bathrobe,” she fumed. “He has barbeques with so many guests that their cars line the streets.”
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
“My previous neighbors were so much better,” she said. “He drives me crazy with everything he does.”
“Sounds like he’s just living his life.”
“I know I’m never supposed to judge, but I can’t help it,” she sighed.
Actually judgment is a very good thing. But it’s only helpful when you use it in the proper way. My friend wasn’t making that distinction and it was causing her unnecessary angst. So we started talking about when and how to use judgment.
When Judgment Is a Good Thing
Judgment is a powerful tool when you use it to determine the types of experiences you want to have for yourself. You use your power of judgment when you decide never to burn your hand on a hot stove twice. Judgment is how you decide not to drink and drive. It’s how you decide to avoid walking down that dark alley at night.
But judgment isn’t only about avoiding negative experiences. It’s also about choosing positive ones. Judgment is how you decide whether you want to take that job offer, accept that marriage proposal, or go on that vacation you’ve been dreaming of. It’s how you decide you’ll have a second piece of that delicious German chocolate cake or how you decide to skip dessert so you’ll feel better about the upcoming swimsuit season.
Judgment is the indispensable tool we use for evaluating every single experience we have. Without it we can’t decide whether we want to enjoy or avoid similar experiences in future. Without judgment we can’t learn and grow. But judgment also has a flip side.
The Flip Side of Judgment
My friend was making herself miserable by constantly judging her neighbor. She prefers to read books and tend her garden in solitude, while her neighbor has a different agenda. Every time she saw him doing something she didn’t approve of she began to grumble and put herself in a bad mood, sometimes for hours at a time.
I asked her if she knew him very well. She admitted she didn’t.
“Would it change your opinion of him if you knew he is a young widower whose wife died in a car accident and that the constant TV and parties are ways to avoid feeling so alone? Maybe his body is in too much pain to tend to a yard and garden,” I said.
“I hadn’t considered it,” she admitted.
Sometimes when we place our observations in a new context our judgments change.
But does it really matter?
The Trap of Judgment
Suppose we changed the context again and the neighbor was a 35 year old single man with a love of barbeque parties, who works out of the house so he can watch sports, soap operas, or the news all day. That scenario might be a less sympathetic one. Unless perhaps we then learned that he has a fear of being alone and works from home because he was laid off of this previous job and he can’t afford to rent an office space to work in.
And that’s the trap of using context as a means of judging others.
It’s a trap because the act of considering context when rendering judgment causes you to focus your awareness further and further afield. This makes your judgments dependent upon an ever shifting set of variables over which you have little or no control. Taking this path means your judgment is likely to change with each new piece of information you receive. And, as my friend discovered, it’s a path that leads to considerable frustration and potentially wasted energy.
Fortunately, the path of judgment runs two ways, and you can turn around and walk it back to its source of personal power.
The Power of Judgment Resides Within
Judgments are personal decisions that you make about the types of experiences you want to have. Within the privacy of your own mind they are exceptionally powerful, but that power dissipates like steam from a kettle as soon as you extend it beyond yourself.
It generally doesn’t take people very long to discover that you can’t make a decision for someone else. You can talk with them, convince them, coerce them, and even force them to do something, but you can’t make up their minds for them. And that’s a good thing because no one else can make decisions for you either. That power resides within you alone.
When you acknowledge that source of power with yourself and you maintain your focus on the types of experiences that you want to create for yourself, then you keep your judgments within appropriate bounds.
Of course, it is human nature to observe the world around you and to render judgments about it. So keeping your judgment within bounds can be a bit of a trick as my friend was discovering.
That trick is the key to unlocking the power of judgment.
Unlocking the Power of Judgment
The trick is to recognize that while it is natural and even appropriate to judge the decisions and actions of others, it is inappropriate to extend those judgments beyond our own place of power. So how do you make judgments without extending yourself?
You keep your judgment in the context of your own experience. And all that takes is a slight shift in the way you think or say things.
When my friend noticed her neighbor watching TV all day she told herself, “He’s wasting his time with TV.” When she saw him pouring concrete in the flower beds she cringed and told herself, “He’s killing the plants and has no love of growing things.” Accurate or not, these were judgments that extended beyond her personal source of power, and they set her up for feeling in a bad mood.
However, if she had reworded them slightly to keep those judgments about herself she might have had a different experience. For instance, if she told herself, “I don’t want to watch TV like that. It takes away from my reading time,” or “I love flowers too much to pave them over,” then she would have kept her judgments within her own sphere of power because they would have remained focused on the choices she wants to make about her own experiences.
When and How to Use Judgment
So the next time you find yourself rendering a judgment try to make it one that is relevant to you.
Phrase your thoughts as “That’s an experience I’d like to have,” or “That’s not an experience I chose for myself.” When phrased this way, you exercise the power of judgment while limiting it to your own field of experience.
As my friend said at the end of our conversation, “I’m going to rephrase what I said about never judging people. I’m going to stay within my personal power and keep my judgments relevant to myself.”
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