The words “judge” and “judgment” have negative connotations and tend to place people in a no-win situation. You don’t want to be judged, yet you want to be able to tell if someone is judging you. Even when we know discovering the truth might hurt, curiosity wins.
Judgment, however, is not necessarily something to worry about. There are positive, neutral and negative forms of it. Whether it’s therapy or an actual courtroom, the key is understanding which one you are dealing with and learning how to respond.
Defining Judgment: The Good, The Bad and The Meaningless
When you cross the street, you look both ways and decide whether to continue walking. That’s a judgment.
At its core, a judgment is an opinion or decision based on thoughts, feelings and evidence. We make hundreds of them every day.
“Within the first seven seconds of meeting someone, our brain makes 11 different decisions about them including their intelligence, socioeconomic status, education, competence and trustworthiness,” said corporate image consultant and personal brand strategist Anna Hinson.
This is a subconscious process people cannot control. You most likely won’t be able to detect many signs during these seven seconds.
There are positive judgments, too. If you saw someone give food to a homeless person, you would instinctively make a positive judgment about his or her character. Judging only becomes a problem when we make unnecessary, hurtful or unfair judgments based on little evidence.
Things That Make People Feel Like They Are Being Judged Negatively
When people make you question your character, intelligence, beliefs, decisions or preferences in a way that causes shame, they can make you feel judged in a negative way. They might not intend it, but the feeling of judgment is still hurtful. Looking out for these common situations will protect you.
Tons of Advice and No Empathy
Receiving far more advice than empathy makes people feel judged, said therapist Bradley Foster.
People often believe talking about what you are doing wrong and how they would handle the situation differently is helpful. In reality, it makes you feel inferior. It’s better to begin with acknowledging the person’s struggles and conclude with concise advice that doesn’t involve “I would have done it this way.”
Therapist Carrie Krawiec suggests people watch out for an excess of “should” language as well.
Most people think they know the right way to do things, Krawiec said, but they don’t consider factors unique to the individual.
With an attitude like that, it’s easy to drop “should” a dozen times before offering any empathy.
Their Opinion is Different
Sometimes a simple difference in opinion can make people feel judged. Maybe the person talked about their opinion in way that made yours seem silly by comparison.
People often do not have an objective sense of what judgment is, said therapist Jeanette Raymond. This is especially true when dealing with people they are emotionally attached to.
“Client’s often mistake a lack of acceptance as ‘judgment,’” Raymond said.
It’s important to remember people are capable of disagreeing without disrespecting. Someone can express their opinion without belittling yours.
When People Are, Without a Doubt, Judging You
There’s a big difference between accidentally judging and going out of the way to judge. People use the latter to deliberately make others feel shame.
Here are some examples of things people might say when doing this:
- You’re going to have another doughnut? Really?
- It sounds like you didn’t try hard enough.
- You’re going out in that.
And then there are the visual cues or actions to look for:
- the “head to toe” glance followed by a glare or frown
- seeming uncomfortable and wanting to leave
- a sigh or groan in response to something you’ve done
There are hundreds of these visual cues, but you will not pick up on most of them. They occur too quickly or outside of your periphery.
Before you start looking for them, think about whether they matter. Do you feel like what you’re doing is wrong? That question is usually more important than what other people think.
Judgment in Therapy: The Big Worry for Prospective Clients
Therapy is one of the most common environments where people are terrified of being judged negatively. It’s natural to worry when you’re revealing your fears, trauma and secrets.
Nonetheless, therapists are trained to refrain from judging clients in a way that is not productive or unnecessarily hurtful.
Therapist and professor Nikki Martinez teaches courses where she helps therapists in training learn to manage their instinct to judge (they are human, after all).
Therapists cannot be effective until they own their biases and prejudices, Martinez told Talkspace, but this should not change the experience of therapy.
“I break the ice by using humor, normalizing, and letting them know there is nothing they can say to me that will change my opinion of them,” Martinez said.
When these efforts fail and clients feel judged, Martinez recommended they take one of three options:
- Let the therapist know you feel he or she has judged you in a negative way. Try to work through it and come to an understanding if you like your therapist and want to continue.
- Find a new therapist by asking for a referral or doing the research yourself.
- In extreme situations, you can file an ethics complaint.
As humans, we judge. Therapists are no exception, but a good therapist will keep their thoughts of judgment from interfering with making progress.
Redefining Judgment in Therapy and the Benefits of Forms of Negative Judgment
Like judgment outside of therapy, judgment in the context of therapy is not innately negative. Depending on the definition, it is necessary and crucial for the patient to make progress.
Therapist Paul Hokemeyer defines judgment as an “educated decision that leads to a reparative outcome” for the client. A diagnosis is a form of judgment, and diagnosis is necessary for the therapist and client to make progress.
Therapists need to judge themselves too, although not in the way you might think.
“In other words, I need to judge how I feel in their presence,” Hokemeyer told Talkspace. “Am I excited and overstimulated? This is evidence the patient is suffering from mania or anxiety,” he said, offering an example of judging his feelings to work towards a diagnosis.
Then there are times when judgments that might temporarily make the client feel bad are actually furthering progress.
“The goal of psychotherapy is not to coddle patients but rather to challenge them to become better, higher functioning human beings,” Hokemeyer said. “The purpose of moving them towards discomfort, however, is not to make them feel bad but rather to guide them into new experiences and insights.”
Discomfort, however, is different than shame. Any judgment that makes clients feel shame has no place in therapy. And any judgment outside of therapy that makes you feel shame is something you should confront or talk about.
Dealing with Judgment: What to Do After the Verdict Comes In
Even the harshest forms of judgment do not have to cripple you. The therapists we spoke to had several recommendations on how to respond to negative judgment.
Ask Them to Spell It Out
When people judge you in a hurtful way, it’s usually indirect. Maybe it’s some backhanded comment or expression they think you don’t see. They don’t actually tell you they’re judging you.
One of the best ways to take your self-esteem back is to confront them by asking whether they intended to judge you. If they didn’t intend to judge, you can resolve it and let them know it still hurt you.
If they admit to judging, you can ask why they need to do that. This puts them in a position where they have to question these negative behaviors and reduces the chance they will judge again.
When people judge you in a hurtful way, they threaten your identity. The key is being open to helpful feedback while believing there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you.
“Own your identity and don’t let someone else define what is acceptable.” – Kristen Lee Costa, Therapist, Author and Speaker
Accept the Judgment and Move On
When people worry about judgment, they often make the mistake of believing they can prevent it from happening. Maybe they can reduce the chance of judgment to zero by dressing conservatively and staying quiet.
This doesn’t work because human nature is to judge, fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen told Talkspace. Here’s the attitude she recommends:
“I will be judged. What can I do about it?”
If you keep the wisdom from these experts in mind, knowing when someone is judging you — positively or negatively — will become an opportunity to grow stronger and fortify your mental health. That’s the only judgment we have.