I'm so damned judgmental!

I made all the right decisions while others screwed up. But shouldn't I have compassion for them?

Published August 22, 2007 10:44AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I believe my problem is one that can be fixed with a bit of perspective, and you are always so sensible and eloquent in providing that. Here it is: I can't help but judge people all the time. When someone tells me that they are neck deep in credit card debt or dating a married man, instead of being sympathetic, my private reaction is: "Why are you doing this? I think you're a fool."

This wouldn't be such a problem, except that my thoughts are always written across my face. And in addition to my expression, my husband says that he's observed me adopt a really fake tone of voice whenever I'm talking to someone whose actions or behavior I don't approve of. What he says is true -- I can feel myself struggling to put up a sympathetic, understanding façade when I'm feeling the exact opposite. I don't like it when I act like this.

The thing is, I've always lived life on the straight and narrow. I graduated on time, found a great job, got married to my high school sweetheart, bought a house. I've never deviated from the path that I've envisioned myself living, and I can't understand why other people make the mistakes they do. I tell myself that I need to stop passing judgment because one day I'll make a huge mistake in life and I wouldn't want people judging me, but deep down I don't believe that I'll ever make that huge mistake because I'm just too sensible.

How do I shake this superiority complex? (Or how do I hide it better?) I don't want to be a judgmental person.

Judgy McJudgerson

Dear Judgy,

It took some thinking to arrive at this, but I believe that while it may be true that these people are making bad decisions, it is not their decisions you are responding to, but their unhappiness.

And if it is their unhappiness you are responding to, then despite your feeling angry or judgmental, you are actually responding to them with compassion. It is complicated, of course: Their suffering affects you. You are feeling their pain. You arrived at judgment, but you started by identifying with them, which is at root compassion, connectedness.

Now, this initial identification may not feel like compassion to you. It is full of conflict. It feels like annoyance, maybe. Like maybe you feel, why can't they just get their shit together? Like their unhappiness is a flaw in your universe. But I don't really believe that you are all that cold. Rather, I think that those of us who tend to be perfectionists and harshly judgmental feel for these people who fuck up. We do not respect our own compassion, however. We fear that our feeling for them is dangerous. We fear somehow in an irrational, primitive way that their fucking up might rub off on us perhaps, or that their fucking up shows us how little power and control we have over them, that we cannot stop them fucking up, or that they do not respect our very logical and consistent way of living, that they do not respect our law-abiding ways. Perhaps their fucking up is almost a rebuke to us. So we arrive at the idea that their fucking up is a problem for us. And then we resent them for it. And all the while they haven't done anything to us. All this happens in our heads.

I don't have this completely worked out. But there is a logical side to it too. Logically, I might ask, If you think that what you have done is good, then is it good just for you, or is it good for the nation as well? If it is good for the nation, if you genuinely believe that your way is the best way for others, then one might say you have an obligation to try to persuade others to do as you have done. That is our obligation as citizens.

But instead of saying to yourself, "OK, it is my duty as a citizen to try to set this person straight," instead their presence brings out something in you, something harsh and judgmental that is painful for you.

Now, if this harshly critical feeling were directed only at these fuck-ups, why would it cause you pain? It seems to me it would cause you pain only if you felt it directed at yourself. So your harshness toward others may be rooted in a harshness toward yourself. Although you are glad that you have done well, you may be living in fear that you will not always do well. You may be living in fear that if you were to by some awful mishap fuck up, then others would view you as you view these people. So you sense there is no compassion out there for you.

You may also feel a kind of envy for the fuck-up. Life would be so much easier, would it not, if we could all just be fuck-ups? But we can't! Why not? Because we won't let ourselves! So how come they get to be fuck-ups and we have to live on the straight and narrow? How come they get to break the rules? And where are the consequences? Shouldn't there be consequences? (Perhaps, in our judgment, we are attempting to supply the consequences that fate seems to have neglected to provide.)

This is something I have been thinking about for the past few months, as I attempt to forge a more elastic and lighthearted inner world, particularly as I attempt to forge a more compassionate and loving relationship with my own creative powers. I've been thinking about the relationship between the inner and the outer and how we can change the inner by changing the outer. That is, by expressing compassion for others and having it expressed to us, we can learn to have compassion for ourselves and to stop being such jerks to ourselves.

In one sense, I think it can be said that we harshly critical people do not take ourselves seriously enough. That is, we take our competent, thinking side seriously. But we underplay our emotional side. And over time that causes us pain and heartache, as we do not allow ourselves to feel, to be hurt, to be childlike, to want silly things, to laugh at dumb jokes, to occasionally make a mistake and shrug it off or laugh at ourselves about it, to take risks with joy, to trust that we live in a loving universe. We don't do that. We say life is fucked and you'd better get yours or you're screwed. And somebody told us that, I think. We learned that somewhere. We learned it in our family, in work, and school and church and from our parents arguing at the dinner table about money.

So I think that if we were big and heroic individuals and we took ourselves seriously, if we took our lives seriously, we would be direct and compassionate toward these people who are sort of fucking up their lives. We would say, I think you are fucking up and it pains me and I want to help.

But we do not do that! Why not? Are we afraid? Perhaps we are. We do not want to be told to fuck off. We do not want our own flaws exposed.

So I think you need to learn to say, Let me help you. Let me help you figure this out. Let me show you how to pay off your credit card debt. Let me help you find the courage to get out of this bad relationship. Let me help you find resources that can help you change your life. Let me help you learn to make better decisions.

This takes courage. It takes courage to admit that you honestly do care, and that you honestly think you have a better way. And it takes courage to ask if a person wants your help.

Now, all people with codependent tendencies, beware! This could be a trap!

A person may not want your help. If you extend your hand, you must be prepared to be rejected. It is easier to simply be silent and judgmental. But you've tried that and it isn't working. It's causing you pain. That's why I think you need to take your judgments seriously and at the same time have some humility and try to help some of these people out of their morass. In doing so you may learn a great deal about the complexities of misfortune. These lessons you will then be able to apply to your own life and it will make you more interesting.

There is no escaping this: Either it matters, and you have some connection and responsibility toward these people, and therefore must take the courageous steps of engaging them, or it doesn't matter, and your suffering is trivial. I don't think it's trivial. I think it means something.

I think it means that you have compassion for these people and are obligated to try to help them. You can judge people and still help them. You don't have to be a saint. In fact, you're not a saint. You're just human. And so are they.

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