“He’s a stupid idiot,” “I’m a total loser,” or “I’ve just had a horrible day” are common statements we make when we are frustrated, tired, overwhelmed or embarrassed. Such statements often serve to express intense feelings after difficult events. So what’s the harm?
In general, the main issue is that judgmental statements tend to increase our emotional upset. But there are other concerns as well.
Judgements Hide Consequences
We label events and actions as good or bad as a shorthand way of talking. We say getting a traffic ticket is bad or not paying the rent is bad. We say getting a raise is good. But we forget that we’re using shorthand. What we’re really saying is that events and actions have consequences that are desirable or not desirable.
When we say “John’s drinking is bad,” one meaning might be that John is drinking and driving and we are worried that he might have an accident and hurt himself or someone else. If we give the full statement, then the meaning of “bad” is clear. When we give the full statement, the consequences of the action and what could be done differently are more obvious.
When we don’t give the full statement, we can lose sight of both the consequences of actions and what could be done differently. We also tend to use judgements as being about people instead of being about actions and consequences. That can lead to feeling angry and perhaps alienated from others.
Judgements Hide Our Pain and Possible Solutions
A willingness to be vulnerable is necessary to have close relationships and to communicate accurately with others. Judgmental statements often don’t really express the feelings we are having and in fact may hide our emotions, usually the emotions that are more difficult for us to experience. “He’s a stupid idiot,” might be said when someone cuts in front of you in traffic. When you make such a statement you are focusing your emotions on the other person when the primary emotion is about yourself and the situation you were in.
But making a non-judgmental statement such as “he cut in front of me in traffic,” doesn’t really convey the emotion in the situation. Those words aren’t satisfying–they don’t really fit what you are trying to communicate.
What you really might be feeling is scared because the other person’s driving almost caused you to have an accident. Expressing your fear is a more vulnerable statement to make. “I was so scared when he cut in front of me–I was sure I was going to have an accident” might better communicate your experience.
Maybe you are angry because the other driver scared you. Plus, with the latter statement, you have a better idea of what you need to do in the situation. Finding a way to not feel so scared or perhaps driving even more defensively are possibilities. If you say the other driver is a stupid idiot, then the action implied is to get back at the other driver. That probably isn’t the most effective action to take.
Let’s look at another example. Imagine that your friend had a first date with a man she was interested in. Afterwards she calls you and says, “I’m a total loser.” There is little information in this statement that is helpful. If she says, “I spilled my wine all over his white shirt,” you have more information, but you still don’t know what emotion is involved.
Is she sad, angry, hurt, or disappointed? “I spilled my wine all over his white shirt and I feel so embarrassed. I know he won’t ask me out again,” offers a better picture of what happened. It’s a more accurate expression of what she is feeling and you know better how to support her or help her problem solve. See how the judgement hid that information?
Letting Go of Judgements
When we judge ourselves and others we keep ourselves upset. We add suffering to the pain of life. We also block ourselves from seeing the underlying issues and solutions in a clear way. I suggest you try an experiment. Choose a day to look at your judgements. Re-word your judgmental statements so they are more complete – giving what happened – the consequence and your feelings about what happened. See if it helps you decrease your emotional upset and better understand what to do next.
These ideas are based on the work of Dr. Marsha Linehan.
Note to Readers: My sincere thanks to everyone who has completed our second survey. If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on our new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post.
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Last reviewed: 16 May 2012