I hope you are well. With all the weird thing going on in the world now like the Californian fires or US elections and Vietnam hosting F1 race, I don't know how to judge what's happening anymore.
Which is why this week, I'd invite you to join me in wrestling with this tricky word, "judgmental".
In more liberal, activist and spiritual circles, being judgy is nearly a sin. Stereotype is universally no good. When we judge someone, we limit the possible ways of interacting with that person.
Yet a limit doesn't just confine; it also defines. Or per George Clooney in the movie Up in The Air, "I like stereotype. It's fast" (scene).
On another hand, in the personal development space, making good judgments is key. Anyone who has taken on any leadership role knows the importance of picking the right person at the right time for the right job. CEOs get paid for making good judgment calls. Jordan Peterson, often seen as the public enemy of the left, writes "Eventually we want to be judged" in his latest book, 12 rules for life.
On top of this, the Western world also has the classic MBTI personality test that differentiates the Judging vs Perceiving tendency, thus complicating the matter even further.
"So what?", you ask. "How does this affect my life?"
A lot. As an example, our relationships with other people depends on how well we manage the judgments towards ourselves and other people. It's also the topic of this week's post, which came from an accidental laugh I let out that has made a friend of mine uncomfortable. You may find yourself in a similar situation, and I hope my reflection sprouts some thoughts for you.
Learning from a leaked laugh
A dear friend was recently telling me a story about a friend of her who had a frustrating pattern of chasing one relationship after another without taking much time in between to reflect. At one moment, I let out a laugh, which my friend perceptively picked up: “I don’t know where that laugh is from, but it made me very uncomfortable.”
You probably have been in a similar situation. It’s not nice on either end. Worse, keeping the discomfort inside may lead to resentment, while expressing out loud causes tension.
The comment got me wondering. Later I realized the laugh sounded condescending because it came from my judgmental side.
I’m usually an introspective guy who likes to sort things out by doing inner work, so as a bias I do feel that way to be more superior. It comes from an assumption that if one’s life has been about chasing after external stuff, then maturing often means caring and doing more inner work too. It’s an assumption, so it may or may not be true.
Imagine being my friend and you can understand where the discomfort comes from. On her end, my laugh provokes a few questions: “Who are you to say this? Everyone has his or her own lesson to learn” or “I didn’t ask you to comment, why do you say it?”
On my end, I thought I laughed out of an ironic sense of human folly (“Sigh… We humans keep making the same mistake”). I know I’m too just another human, and I’m no exempted from such folly. Nevertheless, it probably has come off as condescending.
Reflecting upon it gave me a chill on my spine. If I was calm, measured and still automatically let out such a laugh, then how deep must the habit of judgment be? Worse, if a moment like that can already make someone uncomfortable, then how many times in my life have I unintentionally done so?
More importantly though, where does that laugh come from?
As I sat and contemplated on this, the answer became clear: it was the result of some unprocessed suppression. Let me explain.
I have been taught from young to not judge, or at least withhold judgment, to “live and let live.” Later on, it turns into a self-image of someone who’s accepting, kind and non-judgmental. Overtime, I got over-identified with this persona, which for the most part has been useful. I stay contented, I do no harm, I am welcoming. At least I believe so. 😅
Yet any single self-image will eventually leak, for we are never that plainly good. For each seemingly kind, open, accepting self-image there is an equal and opposite shadowed side that is mean, judgy and pretty darn closed off.
The unexpected laugh was another incident where the shadow leaked out. When that happens, there are often two responses.
The first is to freak out, get confused or angry about your own shortcomings. “How on earth could I do that?” More generally, “why do good people do bad thing?” The previous self-image is too small to hold this new, unacceptable behavior.
The second response is to do a bit of gentle self-inquiry “How might I see myself in a larger way to make sense of such contradicting behaviors?” Indeed, many modalities of healing from IFS to Satir to Systemic Constellation etc.. address this. This is a riskier approach that can lead to further confusion, so don’t try it at home without proper supervision. Unless you are like me.
“Live and let live”?
Let’s try using my example again by revisiting the childhood lesson of “live and let live”.
It comes from a desire for security and safety. “If I don’t touch you, hopefully you will not touch me”. That’s a genuine hope that many people, including my mom, do indeed share. But as a story to tell oneself, it no long makes as much sense for a few reasons.
First, when we play too safe to avoid the bad, we tend to lose chances for the good too. It maybe fine to apply that once in a while, but as a core philosophy it just doesn’t sound right to me. This motto, “If you want to have something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before” make more sense. We need good judgments, which mostly comes from making bad ones and learn from them.
Second, we will be touched anyway. Sometimes it’s from other people; other times it’s from the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Remember the story of the Buddha, who used to be the pampered Prince Siddhartha? No matter how much his father king tries to shield him from the knowledge of “negative” things like sickness and death, he eventually discovers them and cannot stay within the illusion any more. Disengage is important for recharge, but as a stance it is not realistic.
Last and perhaps most important, deep down we do want to be touched… Our usual selves just don’t like that idea, for it often is misunderstood as weakness and dependency. This is the one that trips me up the most, which shows how deep I’ve bought into the “live and let live” philosophy.
I’ve been avoiding a truth that I do want to be seen, to matter, to be missed when I’m gone.
It maybe true that much harms have been done by over-inflated egos. Yet, I believe that far more important is to foster a healthier ego AND remembering the larger spiritual reality beyond it. Our task is to do both. “To stand strong in this life and stay humble in the next” as the Sufi saying goes. It’s not easy, but certainly worthwhile.
Sharing is sprouting.
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A small ask: quick interview
I've been encountering many cases of amazing people doing great work, yet often judge themselves rather harshly. Are you also finding yourself in an environment you consider judgy, which feels stifling to you? If so, I'd love to interview you to hear more about how this pops up in your life as I'm developing a solution for this.
Please send me a note and set up a time on my calendar. I think what I'm working on can help, and your feedback would help make sure that I’ve got it right. I'll be really grateful and will share some resources in exchange for your time!
Quotes I'm contemplating this week
Honoring Anger " If we have anger and do not make proper clothing for it, but make it live in the closet or else let it run around naked screaming at everybody, that means that we are failing to honor our anger." - Robert Bly in the Little Book on Human Shadow, a very profound book that inspires this week's post. Much of civilized Western society treats anger by either repressing or expressing it, which is too black and white for such a powerful emotion.
Time and Money. "They deem me mad because I will not sell my days for gold. I deem them mad because they think my days have a price." - Khalil Gibran. A good reminder of different perspectives in what matters in life.
Becoming the Airport "In a sense, one does not go 'through' the airport; one BECOMES the airport. We are part of its furniture - those of us that travel. We become 'aerodrome bodies', part of an ecosystem that racializes access and emphasizes security as a survival value. We feel rewarded when we join the queue, and then guard its integrity by politely reminding intrusive others that "there is a line, you know?" And when we pass through the gates, an unvoiced sigh often escapes our lips: the initiation is complete. We can claim our seats in the metal bird that bends time and space." Thought provoking rant by Bayo Akomolafe on rethinking humans as a relational bodies. Bayo is one of my favorite thinker, writer and person!
Lastly, a short rant on accepting apology. Please take it (read the post for the pun, hehe)