In Defense of Judgment

Your judgments have value and purpose

When I grew up in spiritual groups, I was taught that judgment was forbidden, and wow, was that a colossal mistake. This no-judgment rule is still infecting a lot of communities, however, so it’s worth looking at again.

This essay is from my 2010 book The Language of Emotions.

Book and audiobook covers for The Language of EmotionsWhen I refer to judgment, I refer to your capacity to react as an individual and use your discerning intelligence freely. If you have good judgment, you can disagree with others, go off on your own mental tangents, and strike out on your own path of discovery. This is an important set of skills; however, this solid, adult capacity to judge has been treated as a problem.

The theory is that judgment stops you from experiencing life completely, because you’re too busy categorizing and thinking about things to be fully present in each unfolding moment. This no-judgment rule has had some positive effects, but it has also created a great deal of turmoil.

This call for non-judgmentalism comes from nearly every spiritual teacher we could name (including Jesus, Buddha, and Lao-Tzu), but its application in the everyday world is deeply confused.

This confusion isn’t an unusual occurrence (think of the trouble humans have in deciphering any sacred text or rule), but when people forbid themselves the faculty of judgment, they take the intellectual part of their wholeness and throw it out the window.

We need to rescue our much-wronged ability to judge from its forced exile and bring it back to a place of honor at the very center of our lives, because we need to be able to rely on our intelligence if we want to be wholly intelligent and intelligently empathic.

Why do we forget that the word ‘judgment’ is a synonym for ‘intelligence?” When we say someone has poor judgment, that’s not a compliment!

I understand, of course, that by referring incorrectly to judgment, spiritual teachers are referring to name-calling and the tendency to place people or experiences into simplistic “right” or “wrong” categories.

And I agree that name-calling is usually a bad thing, but because the idea of judgment has been so distorted, many people have become bewildered. They believe that all facets of real, mature judgment are forbidden to them, and unfortunately, this makes working with their emotions nearly impossible.

Instead of moving gracefully away from the simplistic right/wrong thinking that can hinder their awakening, many people stop using all of their judgment, when in reality, only a partial suspension of certain aspects of judgment is ever necessary.

The proper use of judgment

Judgment, in its truest sense, simply tells you what a thing is and whether it works for you or not. Healthy judgment is a combination of your airy intellect and your watery emotions coming together to form a measured opinion. Healthy, mature judgment isn’t bad-tempered name-calling or simpleminded good/bad categorization of the world. It’s just an internal decision making process about what a thing is and whether it suits you or not.

If you try to emote without thinking — without judging — you may fly off the handle. But if you try to judge without feeling your way through your decision, you won’t ever be able to decide. Thoughts and emotions are partners. They’re not enemies.

Healthy judgment helps us define ourselves in the world, and it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff. This process of definition keeps us focused and centered. Healthy judgment helps us decide between this idea and that, and between this option and that. Healthy judgment does not need to trash the path not chosen; it just needs to be free to make decisions and engage with its environment.

Healthy judgment is a natural process of making intelligent and competent decisions with our hearts and minds acting together, and with our logic and our emotions respectfully communicating with each other. This is very different from bad-tempered name-calling or labeling.

What’s the difference?

Let’s look at the difference between judging and name-calling by focusing on something simple.

Let’s imagine a rug that doesn’t work in the room we’re in. We can judge the rug and see that its pile is too high for the traffic it gets or that its color is so light that its shows more wear and dirt than it should. Let’s agree that the rug isn’t ideal for the room.

Trying to squelch judgment is futile, because we’re active, reactive, and responsive beings. We’ll always have our own thoughts and feelings about events, and we’ll always judge and process our environments independently — no matter how many rules we ingest or how authoritarian our teachers are.

Perhaps we feel sad that so much money was wasted, perhaps we think about putting runners over the traffic areas, but we freely process information about the rug and add that information to our skill set. That’s judgment. It’s not name-calling; it’s an intelligent, awake, decisive process. We have a problem with the rug, we have feelings about it, and we’re definitely judging it, but we’re not doing damage to our minds, our emotions, ourselves, or anyone else. Therefore, we move forward with more knowledge about rugs and rug care and about purchases in general.

Now let’s get into name-calling about the same rug: “Why would anyone buy this rug? What kind of fool puts a pale, fluffy rug in a public area? Look at the way those colors clash; it looks like someone ate a box of  crayons and then threw up on the floor! How can anyone think that this wretched excuse for a carpet . . . ”

With name-calling, we get personally affronted and belligerent, which means it’s not about the rug any longer; it’s about the chip on our shoulder, our childhood issues, or our unlived emotions. With name-calling, we throw blame all over the place, and we don’t internalize any useful information about the rug.

In both of these examples, we don’t like the rug. But with name-calling, we fly off the handle and make wild assumptions and accusations.

These sorts of attacks damage us. They damage our emotions by lobbing them all over the room; they damage our intellects when we use them against others; and they damage us as individuals because our behavior is embarrassing to us and everyone around us. This name-calling doesn’t make us smarter, stronger, or more aware — it just pits us in futile opposition to a floor covering.

When we judge appropriately, we restrict ourselves to the decisions we can make with the information we have, and we process our emotions coherently. Healthy judgment helps us choose what works in our lives. It helps us carefully evaluate situations and people with our minds and our emotions, and it helps us connect to our honest reactions and opinions. Healthy judgment helps us become more intelligent, and it helps us identify and articulate each of our emotions, from its free-flowing state to its most intense level of activation.

The intellect is exceedingly important and useful, but it was never meant to perform the Herculean tasks we’ve forced upon it in our airy, logical-intelligence-only society. Emotions are vital and necessary parts of everything we think and every decision we make.

Conversely, the intellect was never meant to be thrown out with the trash as it has been in so many spiritual communities. The logical intellect has very specific functions and very specific properties, but most of us try to bend and mangle our poor intellect into something it’s not and can never be. If we want to be intelligent about the intellect, we need to understand that it can’t function well without our emotions — or without healthy judgment.

Be wary when judgment is forbidden

I’ve noticed that when judgment is forbidden, there is usually some form of social control being exerted to keep people quiet, uncomplaining, or trapped. Many spiritual groups (or groups of any kind) may not realize this, and may have forbidden judgment because they heard someone else do it. Forbidding judgment is not always done with bad intentions.

But it always ends up causing far more trouble than it’s worth.

If you want to restrict name-calling, abuse, attacks, or black-and-white thinking, then state that clearly. But don’t ever restrict judgment; you don’t have that right.

Judgment is a synonym for intelligence, and restricting other people’s intelligence is a form of thought control. 

Defend your judgment; you have every right to think your own thoughts, feel your own feelings, understand the world in your own way, and judge as you see fit.

Celebrate your judgment; when you can understand your emotions and add their genius to your logic, you can change your life, and then you can change the world.


2 Responses

  1. Olivier
    | Reply

    Judging is the capacity to notice differences. I value efficiency, you value cleanliness.
    Moralistic judgments are about making others wrong for having different values. People who don’t value cleanliness are slobs. Moralistic judgments are about “who IS what.”
    “You are immature, you are irresponsible, etc”
    Judgments may be a sign of intelligence, but moralistic judgements are toxic in intimate relationships. The person using moralistic judgments to imply they’re right is (unconsciously) actively creating a power struggle, and power struggles are poison in intimate relations.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Aha Olivier! Thanks for that.

      What you call moralistic judgments is what we call abusive shaming messages. It’s not the judgment that’s the problem; it’s that the person is using shame and abuse to try to control another.

      A great deal of work that we do in our Burning Contracts practice is ferreting out and destroying the abusive contracts and messages we’ve picked up from others (or had forced upon us).

      This post about Burning Contracts may be useful!

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