The Judgment Trap



JB visits his shrink.


Do you judge others? Do you do it all the time? Come on, be honest. From the things I hear people say, I’m reasonably certain most of us constantly make judgments, either about the people we interact with or some of the things they’re doing. Ironically, even when we recognize our judgments contain the power to inflict emotional pain, we all like to think of ourselves as someone equal, slightly better, or perhaps significantly better, smarter, more knowledgeable, more capable, or even more highly evolved than others.


We judge constantly.

Most of us judge people or the things they do all the time. It takes a concerted effort to stop and ask why.

Judgments come in all shapes and sizes. We might see someone and judge they are too fat, too lazy, too old, too smelly, or just plain too ugly. We might talk to someone else and find them shy, aggressive, dangerous, manipulative, stupid or annoying. A person with odd clothing or rings hanging off their lips or eyebrows might appall our sense of style or even our sense of decency. Political or religious views out of sync with our own make the perfect ammunition for finding another lacking the mental capacity to see the “real” or “big” picture. There really is no end to the ways we compare and contrast ourselves with others.


Judgments are in internal creation of the mind. As such, they’re ours to have and to hold, and express or not. It’s really our choice what we do with them. When we choose to make our internal judgments known to others, the results are unpredictable. Some people seem to develop a capacity to let judgments roll right off their backs—they develop a thick skin, as it were. Some may be quite hurt by the judgments we express, but keep the pain to themselves. Others may blow up, lash out, or become so upset they take physical action to right the perceived wrong.


We might think of judgment as a tool we can employ in the hope to feel better about ourselves. When we power it up, we unconsciously buy into the idea it will allow us to raise our status in relation to another. It really doesn’t matter whether we feel inferior or superior to the person we judge, either. The judgment is made to lift us up in relative terms. Sadly, this tool comes with major flaws in the design so there’s no real chance for long-term success.



Where do judgments come from? On some level our need to make judgments probably began with our survival as a species. With danger at hand, sizing up a situation quickly to decide on the scope of the threat seems critical. For early man, an unexpected threat might mean life or death so a snap judgment makes sense.


If we take physical survival off the table, most judgments seem born out of the fear we somehow fail to measure up, or they may pop up to reinforce actions, decisions or even judgments we’ve made previously. As an example, say I join a particular church and yet maintain certain doubts about the existence of God. In this case, I might judge atheists more harshly to justify the continuing discrepancy in my logic.


Mr. Pond Scum comes home after a tough day at work.

Few may want to face the fact they feel lower than pond scum. It’s easier to lash out in the form of judging others.

No matter the ultimate source for judgment, the implication is we use judgment in order to knock others down a peg, or raise ourselves higher. In this way, judging others is a mental exercise intimately entwined with our sense of self-worth.


Self-worth (or self-esteem, if you prefer) refers to the way we view ourselves, and to what degree we believe we get what we deserve in life. Self-worth is closely tied to the ability to project a sense of self-confidence. Depending on whether we have high or low self-worth may impact the way others might see us, whether we feel loved or loveable, the amount of money we earn, the possessions we collect, the activities we participate in, the friends we either have or don’t have, and so on.


Let’s consider an example of judgment in action: Suppose my political views are extremely liberal. Now, suppose I walk into a waiting room at the doctor’s office and see “Betsy” watching FOX news and make a snap judgment she is a conservative and as such doesn’t deserve the time of day. Betsy may or may not be conservative. There could be any number of reasons she’s watching this show. Perhaps someone else turned on the TV. Perhaps she’s as liberal as I am and just likes to hear the other side. Perhaps her usual news station isn’t working. The point is I felt an inner need to assign Betsy a place on the opposing team and create the means by which to feel better about myself the moment I saw her. Let’s be clear here: This was never about Betsy or her politics. It’s all about my need to lift myself up or to justify my beliefs.


A diagram of the judgment trap.

The judgment trap is like a merry-go-round. It’s hard to get off until we can recognize we’re making judgments and what they mean about us.

Judgments have a way of entrapping us. When we judge we become self-righteous and indignant. We seek out any and all means to place ourselves above others. However, deep down there is a realization we are really no better off than before the judgment surfaced. This creates nagging doubt and as a result we begin to feel guilty for judging and that only leads to feeling worse than we did before the whole exercise began. The worse we feel, the more frenzied we become. The more frenzied we feel, the more we become tempted to judge again and re-balance the scales. And so the cycle repeats itself in an endless, self-destructive loop.


Internally, a judgment might grant temporary relief or respite from feeling the depths of low self-esteem. Externally, nothing I say or think has the power to lift me higher in relation to another. And should I express a judgment verbally chances are I’m only going to cause grief. Thus, when I judge I do nothing more than play a twisted mental game. It’s as if I’m jumping on a merry-go-round. For as long as I keep judging I can tell myself I’m raising my place in life, but the truth is I’m going nowhere but round and round.


It’s worth asking if the judgments we have of others ever bring true happiness. Or you might ask if putting others down is ever the path toward achieving something better?


The way past judgment is to step off the spinning wheel and quit playing the game. This requires a conscious effort. We need to recognize when we are making judgments so we can step back and reflect on why we find it so necessary in the first place. If we take the time to be honest we may just discover (1) we don’t need to be better than others (2) putting others down only leads to feeling worse about ourselves, and (3) there’s something else going on, something that challenges our sense of self-worth. Ultimately, figuring out what that particular something else is can help us discover a better, happier place in life.


The next time you find yourself judging someone else consider this golden rule: Judge not, lest you fall into the judgment trap and feel worse for the effort.


Action Item: Start a journal and write down every judgment you find yourself making over the course of a couple hours. Now, practice releasing the judgments by writing a statement to reflect what you think they may be about. For example, “I judged Dave for being stupid today when I know he’s actually smarter than I am. I sometimes worry others think I’m stupid. I’m not stupid, and I shouldn’t let the feelings I occasionally have about myself get in the way of my friendship with Dave.”

If you’re interested in other ideas on self-improvement, check out our Personal Growth page.

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