Is judgment always harmful or can it be helpful at times? Have you ever wondered what judgement actually is? If it is just harmful, then how can we know right from wrong and legitimately express our preferences in life and in our relationships? In this post I try to briefly address this important question which I hope can also be of support for healthier relationships with ourselves and with others. I hope it offers a basic understanding and a helpful tool for being able to live a more mindful life; and being more responsive and less reactive to life.

“Don’t judge me!” could be both a powerful liberating statement and a misguided one creating misunderstanding, frustration and distance. Many of us might have a conflicting or ambivalent understanding of judgement and I believe that gaining a clearer understanding of judgment can be quite helpful and empowering in our relationship with ourselves and with others.

Judgement in and of itself is not harmful or unhealthy, in fact it is necessary for us to know and differentiate things. But there are two types of judgements: “preferential judgement” and “value judgement”. Preferential judgement is useful and necessary, whereas value judgements are usually unhealthy and can lead to creating suffering for ourselves and others.

Is judgement helpful or harmful?

Preferential judgement: As the child’s mind develops, she learns to conceptualise, forming concepts and thoughts. This requires discrimination and comparing one thing to another. “This is bigger than that. This takes longer to do compared to that. This is closer, that is farther away. …”. Simple comparing forms the basis of knowing as we discern and contrast one thing against another; and it is neutral in itself. Even when we add our preferences to this simple act of comparison, for instance when we might say: “The red toy looks nicer than the black one and I like the red one.”, or “This feels good and that feels bad, and I don’t want the one that feels bad., these are still preferential judgements resulting from realistic comparisons. They are mostly neutral because we do not have a negative attitude towards the one that we wish to move away from. We can simply have a preference without harsh feelings against the one we don’t like, for example one can like chocolate ice cream but won’t resent vanilla ice cream, they just don’t like it.

Value judgements on the other hand, are loaded with a collection of rules and benchmarks that one has accumulated while seeking value and self-worth outside of oneself in interaction with others and the world. True value is inherent in us and seeking it outside can only yield false value which even achieving it will lead to eventual sense of lack and seeking it elsewhere in a never-ending cycle. Such judgements are unhealthy because we add a layer of rejection and negativity to the judgement. They usually come with an emotional charge. One might say “This one is so nice, but that one is really ugly, it gives me the creeps.” It might feel nicer for you at this time but it does not mean it is inherently nicer and better and the other one is necessarily bad and creepy. Or the value judgement might relate to comparing our current experience with something we enjoyed much more in the past; leading to feelings of regret, shortcoming and frustration of not being able to have the same wonderful experience now or in a new relationship.

So here a layer of superiority-inferiority value is added on top of the preferential judgement. This extra layer leads to the rejection of the inferior and hence makes the judgement oppositional. We end up rejecting our own experience as is and start wishing and wanting to distance ourselves from the inferior feeling or take action to change it for the better. However, such action (or inaction) is usually not constructive and leads to more hurt and suffering in repeating patterns in various situations and relationships. Our life will then turn into a battleground of inner conflicts, filled with stress, perhaps temporary triumphs but back to depression or frustration and anger or self-doubt and helplessness. Feeling hurt and hurting others, the cycle goes on in an unhealthy way.

Therefore, simple comparisons and personal preferences are fine and necessary; what becomes problematic is when we add a layer of rejection on certain experiences and try to impose our value judgements on ourselves as well as possibly on others. It has an internal charge, a kind of aggression or frustration associated with it. That is the foundation of our inner critic (or judge within or superego) which leads to losing our peace of mind and serenity because we live in an ongoing state of inner conflict. We keep rejecting parts of ourselves in our daily experiences and wishing we had a different experience (better, prettier, stronger, more fulfilling, more meaningful, and so on). As mentioned earlier, this wishing and wanting is itself based on the set of rules and benchmarks we have accumulated while futilely seeking value outside of ourselves.

In relationships, most troubles arise as a result of our value judgements which can be disintegrative or destructive. Such judgments create frictions leading to distance and separations or can become worse and create conflicts and wars when one tries to impose their value judgments on the other. This is the root cause of most arguments and typically starts with a person or a group of people getting caught up in their misguided belief that “my values/morals/ideas/ideals/family/culture/country/race/religion/… are better than or superior to yours”. Then some just keep their distance leading to relationship breakdowns, while others might not stop there and take so called “corrective action”. By mindlessly subscribing to their misguided superior value judgement story, this group takes action to impose their values on others: “Since your values/ways/views are inferior to mine, you need to change and if you don’t, I will take action to make things right.”!

Sometimes the equation could be other way round: “Yours is better than (or superior to) mine.” In this case too, the person is rejecting their experience which causes frustration and can usually lead to one of these three unhealthy feelings: envy, jealousy or powerlessness.

Envy could be at work when the the person admires the superior and wishes to emulate them through rejecting their own authentic experiences.

Jealousy could be at work when the person cannot tolerate the seemingly superior one and wishes to bring them down.

Powerlessness could be at work when one feels small, helpless and ashamed in not being able to do anything to change the situation to measure up and “improve” in the direction of the superior.

One may ask how one improves then if we never compare, prefer and aspire? Again, there is nothing unhealthy about healthy comparison, preferential judgement and aspiring; it is the added layer of superiority-inferiority and the emotional charge attached to it which create problems.

What to do: Dealing with our Inner Critic or the Judge Within:

We are complex beings and there is no simple answer. However, one of the most important steps is to recognise the type of judgement we are involved in; is it simply a preferential judgement or it is a value judgement? If it is value judgement, then it has the fingerprints of the inner critic all over it (also called the judge within or the superego). As Byron Brown writes (in his book Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within)

The judge mercilessly dictates standards and ideas about what gives you value and what doesn’t. It is more loyal to those standards than it is to you. It is convinced that your self-worth can feel secure only if you measure up; and continue to measure up. The judge believes that all will be lost of you don’t, so it motivates you, rewards you, chides you, punishes you, encourages you, rails against you, all in an effort to keep you focused on its set of values. If you don’t meet the standards or decide they are not important, it tells you that you are worthless. And there is no worse fate than feeling worthless. Thus your self-esteem is constantly manipulated by the judge. And you accept its verdict, believing that it is the only way to avoid feeling a terrifying sense of no value. -Byron Brown*

Once you notice your value judgements, or that of others, feel the charge in your body, see it as an attack from your inner critic (or someone else’s judge) and defend against it and try to disengage form the judge. This is a skill you can develop over time, but the first and most important step is to notice that you are value judging yourself or being value judged. Defending and disengaging from your inner critic will open up some space in you and the space makes it gradually easier to notice and defend the next round and so on. Over time you will rise up over your inner critic and will free yourself up from the its shackles. This is fundamental to being able to live a mindful life of being present with your life experiences, being more responsive and less reactive. Being more free.

I hope this has been of some help and support. For more on the Inner Critic, methods of defence and how to disengage from him/her, I invite you to listen to my talk “Freedom from your inner critic”.

(Last updated Oct-2022)