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How to be a little less judgmental

Being critical all the time is exhausting. Here’s how to dial it back.

An illustration of a referee blowing a whistle and holding a red card. Denis Novikov/Getty Images

Casting judgment on others has never been so easy. Social media gives onlookers the opportunity to scoff at a person’s every choice, from how they dress to what they feed their children. How people have behaved during the pandemic has inspired plenty of judgment in its own right: At the height of restrictions, adherence — or lack thereof — to masking and social distancing measures practically became barometers of people’s characters, indicating a lack of personal responsibility and empathy or an abundance of hysteria and over-caution, depending on your views.

While it gets a bad rap, in pre-modern times, judgment helped keep people safe. Judgments were alarm bells allowing humans to distinguish between toxic and harmless food, trustworthy and untrustworthy tribe members, and hardworking and lazy kinspeople, explains psychologist Carla Marie Manly, author of Joy From Fear: Create the Life of Your Dreams by Making Fear Your Friend.

Judgment is also a signal that someone’s behavior is unusual or out of context to your particular in-group, says Adam Moore, lecturer of psychology at the University of Edinburgh, who studies judgment and decision making. “The role that automatic judgment plays,” Moore says, “is social signaling, social norm reinforcing.”

But in today’s mobile, digitally facilitated world, judgment can take on new, toxic forms, Moore says. When you silently cast judgment on someone from afar based on an Instagram story, you don’t get feedback from other people — or even the subject of your judgment — and you don’t learn how to make comments or critiques in a constructive way. “Normally in a social situation, you judge somebody’s behavior, and their response to you helps to calibrate your interaction with them, and also the responses of other people around you,” Moore says. “Because so much of our lives are disconnected from each other … we don’t perceive that body language and we don’t perceive that social feedback anymore.”

Digital platforms also incite and prioritize outrage and conflict, making it easy to look down on others from your moral high horse. When people are constantly sneering at others on public platforms, the perception of what “normal” social judgments should look like is skewed. “In normal communities and in normal, functional families, passing judgment on other people’s behavior, it functions very well,” Moore says. “Families rarely break up because somebody says, ‘Hey, you’re acting like a jerk’ at a Fourth of July party.”

While judgments help signal social norms and allow us to identify our people, mean-spirited critiques are unproductive. Discernment, on the other hand, can help you identify unhealthy and toxic behaviors, Manly says. In today’s polarized world, it’s important to detect when someone’s attitudes and beliefs pose a threat to others’ rights and well-being. Unless someone’s behavior is actively harming themselves or others (in which case, you should name the behavior, tell the other person how you’re feeling, and set boundaries on how you’d like them to act moving forward), learning to curb petty moral righteousness is possible, but requires slowing down your thoughts and having some empathy.

Look inward

If you’re motivated to stop hurtful critiques, you have to evaluate their source. When you feel a twang of annoyance when a friend impulsively books a vacation despite constantly complaining about money, ask yourself why you’re upset by this behavior or what purpose your anger or annoyance serves in this instance. Anger is often a signal that another person isn’t taking your well-being into consideration or there’s a conflict, Moore explains. Does your friend’s last-minute trip conflict with upcoming plans the two of you have or is it simply something you wouldn’t personally do?

“Do I have any reason to demand that other people in this situation care more about me than whatever signal they’re trying to send?” Moore says. “Even if the answer to that question is yes, having to stop and think about it often turns the volume down on things.”

In order to reframe judgmental thoughts, you need to catch them in the act. “We have to pull back and go, ‘I’m being judgy, I don’t really want to do that,’” Manly says. If you find yourself whispering a snide remark to your friend about a stranger’s shoes, try to reframe the judgment by complimenting the person’s confidence, for instance. Just as being judgmental is a practiced habit, so is stopping thought patterns that lead to hurtful observations and assumptions. “If we come to notice we’re doing something that is unhealthy and pause and stop it, then we are far less likely to go down that path,” Manly says. “That’s why I like compensating because if I do catch myself doing something that’s comparative, rather than just noticing, I give myself other positive hits [like] ‘look at their beautiful smile.’”

Manly also suggests looking back on previous moments of judgment and thinking about what you could do better next time. Recall a moment you made a judgmental remark. What was the response? Would the statement make someone feel better about themselves if they heard it? Do you feel better about yourself having remembered it? If not, allow these reflections to guide you so the next time you see someone talking on speaker phone on the subway, for example, you can instead internally marvel at their interesting phone case instead of scoffing at having to hear their entire conversation.

Practice curiosity, compassion, and empathy

When people buck social conventions, those casting judgments are often quick to be offended before considering a reason why someone else is engaging in that behavior. Say your colleague is quitting their job before landing a new one and you’re outraged at their irresponsibility. Instead of jumping to conclusions, get curious and ask them about their reasons for resigning or what they hope to accomplish during their time off. “Curiosity is the antidote for judgment,” Manly says. Manly suggests meeting those you’re unjustly judging with compassion: hoping they’re happy and doing well.

When it comes to differences of opinion, it can be easy to assume that someone who doesn’t share your beliefs is “evil or stupid,” Moore says. Instead of reacting aggressively in an attempt to change their mind, Moore suggests thinking of a good-faith reason why someone would think this way as a means to slow down the judgment process. What does the person you’re judging know about their behavior or beliefs that you don’t know?

For example, when it comes to relatives with differing political opinions, Moore suggests thinking about how the loved one ended up believing what they believe: the media they consume, the people they surround themselves with. “I find that helps me to not make toxic judgments about other people’s motivations,” he says. “It’s really, really easy and very, very tempting to assume that people who disagree with you about something that you believe in very strongly or have very strong beliefs about are evil or stupid.”

Of course, you should never compromise on important moral and social issues, Moore says. Relationships with people whose views are antithetical to your own will have to be renegotiated and you’ll need to decide how to move forward if you want to maintain contact. But you can control your initial assumptions of them based on their beliefs. “What function is expressing those judgments serving right now?” Moore says. “Am I trying to build consensus about an issue or am I just trying to wave my flag and say I’m of the red tribe or the blue tribe or the green tribe?”

Stay in your lane

There are very few things you can do to convince people your way of thinking and living is ideal. Save for the occasions where someone’s behavior is dangerous and harmful, Manly says to focus only on what you can control. “We can only control our behaviors, our thoughts, and our actions.”

Many human behaviors are actions signaling to others what kind of person you are or what groups you belong to, Moore says. Instead of criticizing your aunt for constantly sharing bizarre Minion memes on Facebook, consider she’s just vocalizing her membership in the coalition of Minion-lovers. Understanding actions’ underlying meanings can help you avoid pointless arguments trying to sway someone to your side of an issue.

Instead of judging and attacking and hoping others see your way, sympathize with others’ reasoning for their actions, don’t feed into toxic thoughts, and lead by example.

“You can’t make somebody value the things that you value,” Moore says. “All you can do is try to gently demonstrate that valuing the things that you value makes the world around you better and people will want to move there in some intellectual or moral sense.”

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