Today we are exploring judgmentalism and what can be done about it. Judgmentalism, as in: 

  • Relentless fault-finding
  • Mean-spirited critique
  • Self-righteousness
  • Enjoyment of destructive gossip
  • Blaming that loves to shame

This must be distinguished from discernment, which enables us to be fair and reasonable in distinguishing between what is genuinely medicine and what is genuinely poison, what is truly helpful and what is truly harmful, who is honestly a friend and who honestly is not. 

Discernment serves the cause of aliveness; whereas judgmentalism deals death. 

So again, we are exploring judgmentalism and the healing of it. 

Let’s jump in with a story–

about a young couple that’s moved into a new neighborhood. This is from a time when people would hang laundry outside to dry, as opposed to using a machine dryer. 

One day the young woman saw her neighbor hanging the washing outside, and she said to her husband, “That laundry is not very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.”

Her husband looked on, remaining silent.

Every time her neighbor hung her washing out to dry, the young woman made the same comments.

A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her this?”

The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

That’s the story, and I invite us to notice four things about it. One is that the young wife felt so triggered by her perception of the neighbor’s laundry that she just had to say something. Clean-laundry-that’s-actually-not-clean got under her skin and she just couldn’t ignore it. 

Which leads to the second thing to notice: what the young wife does. She says words against her neighbor that are heavy with aggression, with negativity. Isn’t that what judgmentalism feels like in our bodies, anyhow: heavy? Just like we’ve put on heavy armor? Shoulders hunched, necks stiff, jaws clenched? Maybe even like we are bracing ourselves for some blow to come? Defending ourselves? 

A third thing to notice is that much of this is happening without clear conscious awareness. The young wife is uncomfortable but she is probably not consciously aware of how deeply disturbed she feels by the neighbors’ clean-laundry-that’s-actually-not-clean and how negative she is coming across in her speech.  

A final thing to notice is actually not so much about any of the characters in the story as it is about the storyteller. The storyteller wants to communicate a psychoanalytic lesson about projecting one’s demons upon others, and how, when we perceive faults in another, we ought to wonder if the fault is really in us. This is no doubt the storyteller’s conscious intention. But do you see how the storyteller has also suggested something about the young wife which happens to resonate with a message we constantly hear in our larger American society: that women are less wise and virtuous than men? Do you see that? How, when the storyteller ends the story by saying… 

The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

… not only do they deliver on a lesson about the dangers of projection, they also subtly reinforce an oppressive status quo which goes by the name of patriarchy? Probably this is not something they consciously mean to do; if we were to point this out to the storyteller, they would no doubt hotly proclaim their innocence. Yet there is such a thing as “unconscious bias,” and unconscious bias plays out in us all the time. The 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism keeps us honest: there are just so many -isms out there, which get into us as a part of our socialization, and these -isms have an independent logic that we unconsciously channel through things we say and things we do. It can be shocking to discover this. It can take us straight to shame. We’re UUs! But that doesn’t stop entrenched systems of bias that were put in place long before any of us ever emerged on the scene. A system which explains why, for example, when iPods are offered for sale online, and the photo shows the iPod held by a white hand, it receives 21 percent more offers than when held by a black hand. It explains why black babies reject black dolls in favor of white dolls. White dolls are pretty. White dolls are good. 

And already we’ve traveled far in our exploration of judgmentalism. We have four basic insights before us to consider: 

  • Judgmentalism is triggered by something that is different or disturbing;
  • Judgmentalism employs aggressive thoughts and words which we feel in our bodies as heaviness and stiffness—as if we were putting a suit of armor on;
  • Judgmentalism in significant ways operates unconsciously;
  • Judgmentalism is not just a thing between individuals; it can also express collective or systemic biases.

By why these insights? And what to do with them? 

To connect more dots, let’s look at the science. Brain science, in particular. Brain science tells us that the human psyche is not just one thing but has parts which have evolved. The oldest parts of the brain—the brainstem and limbic system—are all about instinct, emotion, and intuition which, operating unconsciously and automatically, enable most everything that we do and are. The frontal cortex, on the other hand, which is the youngest part of the brain, enables everything to do with consciousness: the assertion of will, learning new things, language use, and self-awareness. 

Now, which parts of the brain do you think get triggered, with judgmentalism as the result? It’s the ancient parts—the parts that operate automatically and unconsciously. These are the parts that predispose us to judgmentalism, because they contain an in-built “red alert” system that turns on within a tenth of a second of perceiving anything that seems threatening to our safety, anything at all; but there is no built-in corresponding “green alert” system that would notify us instantly of something positive like, for example, a delicious meal or a likely mate. 

Literally, nature has wired our nervous systems so that bad news runs way faster than good news. Call this “negativity bias.” We see it play out in all sorts of ways. One critical or destructive act in a close relationship will require at least five good or constructive acts to be balanced out. The pain of losing a certain amount of money is far more than the pleasure of winning the exact same amount. People estimate that it would take twenty-five acts of life-saving heroism for a murderer to redeem himself in the eyes of the world. In America, we have a Department of War but there is no corresponding Department of Peace. Over and over again, scientists see this evolution-based negativity bias at play in people’s lives. 

One main way is how it governs our lives in community. Evolution has taught us to be extremely sensitive to any threat of exclusion from the people we depend on for safety and emotional needs: from the caretakers who parent us as infants, to the peers we count on as kids and teenagers, and to the community that gives us our sense of purpose and meaning. Evolutionary trial-and-error has taught homo sapiens that it is dangerous to ourselves and/or the tribe to diverge from tried-and-true traditions, to draw outside the lines that society lays out for all of us. The lesson has been so thoroughly written into the ancient structures of our brains that, today, we can find ourselves constantly worried about doing things that might get us rejected. Our minds are busy judging ourselves in order to keep us in line and keep us and the tribe safe. 

We are also constantly policing others. Judgment arises when anything about another person is unusual related to what one’s tribe is used to. Unusual behaviors, unusual looks, unusual smells, unusual anything potentially presents a threat to the tribe’s safety. Therefore: judgment. 

It’s what the survival of our species cost us. 

It’s the price our species paid to stay alive. 

Nature has made a huge contribution to our judgmentalism, in other words, and we need to know that. We are judgmental by nature

But nurture also makes a contribution. The nurturing environments we grow up in throw all sorts of seemingly dangerous possibilities our way, give us things to judge, and therefore fine-tune our sense of what is safe and what is not. 100,000 years ago, we were essentially prey. Humans were eaten by giant hyenas, cave bears, cave lions, eagles, snakes, wolves, saber-toothed cats, crocodiles, Komodo dragons, even giant predatory kangaroos. Not to mention other primates as well. We were justifiably anxious then, 100,000 years ago, because you never knew what was waiting for you in the dark or around the corner. Very often you felt out of control. Today, it still is that way, even though the threat possibilities and the reasons for feeling out of control have nothing to do with literal animal predators. The same anxiety that arose in the bodies of our ancient ancestors can be ours today, even though today the trigger may only be having to wait in line for what seems an unfairly long time at your local Dunkin Donuts. Or it’s the guy in front of you in the line, towards whom you’ve taken an immediate dislike but you’re not sure why, he’s not attacking you, there’s just something strange about the shape of his nose….

How nurture impacts our judgmentalism is what we’re turning to now, especially if we want to find a reasonable explanation for why the young wife’s ancient brain parts were triggered by the neighbors’ clean-laundry-that’s-actually-not-clean. Did you find that part of the story strange? That she would get so riled up about that? 

But let me ask: when was the last time your ancient in-built red-alert system was triggered by something that an outside observer might consider weird? 

What if I were to tell you that the young wife grew up as the daughter of a perfectionist mother? That, when she was a young girl being taught how to do laundry, she didn’t get it right the first time or the fourth time—and her mother shamed her terribly. Humiliated her. The young wife might have forgotten these moments of being shamed, but her ancient brain parts certainly had not. So, in the face of her neighbor’s clean-laundry-that’s-actually-not-clean, her inner alarm system starts screaming. Unconsciously, she was feeling threatened by the soul-shattering shame of her early failures, but consciously, her focus was on the neighbor; the story her frontal cortex was telling herself was all about that neighbor.

Does this help explain why the young wife was so deeply triggered? Would it also help to say that, side-by-side with her mother’s idiosyncratic influence, was the influence of an entire American society, teaching her what it means to be a proper woman and wife? As a girl, she happened to be more of a tom boy than anything else and she preferred going fishing with her brothers far more than doing female-appropriate chores at home. One day a school teacher she loved spotted her fishing by the side of a pond. That beloved teacher proceeded to call her over, admonish her for the mud on her dress, and tell her in no uncertain terms that she was acting entirely inappropriately for a young lady. But what hurt far worse than the words was her teacher’s disapproval and even disgust which she felt viscerally—she was feeling this coming from someone she counted on. That day was a turning point for her. Psychologically speaking, she cut off her ”boyish” parts and repressed those energies in herself so she could do what she needed to do to stay in the good graces of a person she loved. Because she needed that love. She cut off parts of her aliveness for that. It was her strategy for survival. 

This is trauma too. Trauma, I would say, is always involved in the process of learning how to embody our social roles properly and appropriately. The concept is between every line of the proposed 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism. Systems of oppression traumatize everyone they touch, privileged and marginalized both. We shrink to fit the identities forced upon us. We are urgent to do so because, otherwise, we lose the love and sense of belonging we desperately need. Losing this is terrifying. It literally feels like we’re going to die.

By now I hope you see that there’s nothing weird at all about the young wife’s reaction to the neighbor’s clean-laundry-that’s-actually-not-clean. But it takes skill to get to the bottom of it. It takes compassion. It takes time. 

It is said that real religion is not just about transcendent emotions like love and peace. It also has a soulful dimension and learns to live amidst our shadows and traumas to bring healing. 

Judgmentalism becomes an opportunity for self-understanding like no other, but it needs to be navigated carefully. 

When judgmentalism arises in you, towards another or towards yourself, here are some things to do: five basic things: 

1. Recognize that the very capacity for snap judgmentalism is why the human species is still alive today. It is the work of ancient brain and body parts which have been millions of years in the making, vigilant towards any and all kinds of threats. We wouldn’t be here without it. So give thanks for it! 

2. See in your capacity for judgmentalism your essential human predicament as a being who is so very vulnerable–not in control, not God but merely human. Breathe compassion into that. And then, recognize that you share your vulnerability with all other human beings and with all beings in general. So, in the same moment you breathe compassion into yourself, breathe it into every other person and every being. Make this an abiding spiritual practice. Make this your every-day, every-moment prayer. 

3. When judgmentalism arises–and discernment tells you that you are under no actual immediate physical threat–your best first response, I believe, is to focus on the judgmental feelings and how they are clues that you are feeling threatened. Feel the feelings of aggression and heaviness. And then follow up with more compassion. The reality is that you are feeling triggered. You are feeling unsafe. That’s reality. So meet yourself where you are. Don’t gaslight your one and only wild precious life. Comfort yourself. Soothe yourself with a short time out. Soothe yourself with a walk outside. Soothe yourself with a nap. Soothe yourself. Breathe compassion into yourself. 

4. The fourth thing to do is actually simultaneous with the third: resist the temptation to cling to the story that pops up side-by-side with the judgmental feelings, together with the secondary story that trails close behind. The initial, pop-up story is going to be made up in the moment, out of whatever is close at hand that seems to deserve the blame. And, as we saw with the young wife, that pop-up story actually leads away from the real cause of her difficult feelings, not towards them. The real cause has to do with her trauma history of being a daughter and becoming a woman in patriarchal society. Again, it’s best for her and for us to let the pop-up story go for the moment and simply feel the feelings of being triggered (the irritation, the anger, and so on) and then spend time soothing oneself. Only later would I recommend seeking out the real underlying reasons, if you should want to do that. Speak with a compassionate friend who knows how to listen. If the young wife was in conversation with me, I would ask her, “When you think of poorly done laundry, does that bring up any memories for you?” 

A moment ago I spoke of a secondary story that trails close behind the initial pop-up story. It has to do with what I think is true: that what we are judgmental of, above all, is judgmentalism. If we catch ourselves feeling judgmental–if that comes to awareness–the typical thing we do is beat ourselves up, order ourselves to get a grip, condemn ourselves as being too sensitive, and so on. It’s yet another story; and on top of the initial pop-up story it’s like our minds are choking on all the stories that are coming up. It’s all too much to process. Better to let all the in-the-moment stories go instead. 

Judgmental feelings are one thing; but what they are really trying to say–what the true story about them is–is another thing entirely, and we must be careful. 

5. This leads to the fifth and last thing: we must thoughtfully and carefully explore our unconscious biases. Again, there are just so many -isms out there, which get into us as a part of our socialization, and these -isms have an independent logic that we unconsciously channel through things we say and things we do. It can be shocking to discover this. It can take us straight to shame. Let’s not go there. No one is an island; no one is hermetically sealed-off from family and culture dynamics which are laced with oppressive dynamics. Let’s use our energy to be more curious about this, when unconscious bias emerges in us; and let us respond with resolve to overcome them–because they can be overcome. 

As we all know, this past June we overwhelmingly adopted the proposed 8th Principle. It has opened up a completely new chapter of anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism work for us. I want you to know that right now the Board is exploring how to move forward in this work, and what its unique leadership role will be. Part of this exploratory effort includes taking stock of decades of work that’s already been done in this area here at West Shore, making a note of what has worked well, and what has not worked so well. We should have some solid ideas by the end of this program year, to set us up for next year. I would love to see an all-congregational unconscious bias training experience as part of our work moving forward. Let me also express gratitude to our Undoing Oppressions group, which will continue to take a leadership role in our ARAOMC work, and I’m grateful to them. 

About this entire topic of judgmentalism and all that it involves, there must be courage. We must remember the inspired words of Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön: “Develop unconditional friendship with feelings, which is not to condone them, but to be able to hold disturbing thoughts and gently come back to the breath: [to say] ‘I see you. I know you. I’m not accepting you, but I am observing you.’” “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves,” she says, “the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Judgmentalism happens. Nature is why. Nurture is why. There are real reasons why. No one can ever be completely non-judgmental. But there can be understanding. There can be compassion. There can be courage. And this will lead to the kind of healing that we can have. 

To love ourselves better, and others. 

To see ourselves more clearly, and others. 

It will be enough.