Why judgmental people are living in a world that isn’t real

Illustration: Cathy Hutchison

Have you ever been judged by a group of people?

Maybe had someone evaluate you as “lower” based on something fundamental about you like race, religion, gender, lifestyle, your job, or maybe just the way you dressed? (Middle school girls are particularly adept at that last one.)

We’ve all been judged. My question is: how did that make you feel?

If you are like most, the answer is: terrible.

And so, we avoid judgmental people whenever we can. When we can’t avoid them, we simply hide in plain sight right there in the conversation.

For example, have you ever shaded the truth when confronted with someone you knew was judgmental? Maybe tailored your story to the known prejudices of your audience? Avoided a topic all together?

Have you ever heard something judgmental that stung, and said nothing?

Why do we do that?

We are all want to belong.

David McRaney, in his book, You Are Not So Smart, highlights that we are biologically wired to want to belong. He writes: “As a primate, you are keenly aware of group dynamics. You are hardwired to want to hang out with people and associate yourself with groups. Your survival has depended on it for millions of years.”

We all have a tendency to dress to gain better acceptance in a group. (I suspect the whole designer handbag industry is based on this.) Most of us have polished a description of ourselves to make it seem more impressive. Or maybe we just avoid talking about religion or politics in a group that disagrees when we know we are outnumbered.

Belonging is such a core need, that we often shape the image of ourselves to help us better connect with a group. It’s why friend groups often dress alike and share jargon. Some of us learn this skill early as we adapt our behavior in our family to make things go easier. Others hone it through adolescence. By adulthood, we’re pros if we’ve had any social exposure at all.

The thing is, while people can create belonging through love, many create it through judgment. They determine who belongs by stating who doesn’t.

Judgmental people are handed an edited version of reality by their friends.

Because judgmental people are busy arbitrating who is in and out based on their judgment, they miss that people don’t confide in them. They get handed an edited version of their friends rather than an offering of true, authentic selves as people manage the merits needed to belong.

Because judgmental people aren’t told the truth, they live in a world of false assumptions. Nothing is revealed to challenge them (either because someone doesn’t want to lose the sense of belonging or because it is simply too big of a pain in the ass.). This leaves the judgmental person with the erroneous belief that the way they see the world is 100% correct. That their judgments are true.

What’s odd is that in the face of judgment, judgmental people respond the same way we do, because: they also hate being judged.

Here’s the scary part. Sometimes, this isn’t about “judgmental people.” Sometimes, this is about us, because we are the ones judging.

Though we may not label ourselves as “judgmental”, we judge people all the time. Automated responses to the way a person looks, what a person says, or how they behave, based on our value systems.

The difference in “judgment” and “being judgmental” comes from our tendency to fundamental attribution error.

Are we judging behavior or character? And are we doing this fairly?

There is a term in social psychology called: fundamental attribution error (FAE) which describes the human tendency to overly attribute the behavior of others to character traits. For example, if you are cut off by someone in traffic, you are much more likely to attribute the other driver’s behavior to his character as being selfish or a jerk; rather than believing it is situational, such as that his wife is about to give birth, or he is late to catch a flight.

This fundamental attribution error causes us to make snap decisions about someone’s character rather than considering their circumstances. It’s the whole reason we have words that personify behavior. Terms like: liar, slut, drunkard, adulterer, thief.

The funny thing about fundamental attribution error is that we judge our own choices in terms of the situations we are in, but we judge other’s choice based on what it says about their character. In other words, I might tell a lie, but she is a liar.

Judgment considers the situation. Being judgmental is a determination about character.

We can’t be critical of situational ethics if we practice them.

In religious circles, there is a lot of criticism of “situational ethics.” Situational ethics are when we apply flexibility to moral laws based on circumstances.

But the reality is that even our courts do this.

There is a difference between murder and manslaughter, and it has to do with the situation.

We make these adjustments internally as well — especially when we watch movies. We have compassion for the accountant who embezzles so his dying wife can receive a life-saving cancer treatment, and vilify the accountant who embezzles from his hometown’s teachers fund to get the Porsche he’s always wanted.

(We all say that stealing is wrong, but we still see Robin Hood as a protagonist. )

Something in us knows the circumstances matter.

And we bias our judgments based on them all the time — especially when we are judging ourselves.

We always get the benefit of knowing our full situation and adjust our evaluation accordingly.

Judgment is the wrong framework.

So, if we want to belong, are prone to fundamental attribution error, and rarely know enough about a situation to judge it fairly, then it would seem that we really suck at judging.

(For the record, yes. We are abysmal at judging.)

We miss just how flawed our judgments really are, but that isn’t even the point. The problem is that judgment is the wrong framework when it comes to human relationships.

Judgment may satisfy our ego’s need to be right, but love is the thing that satisfies at a heart level.

Love affirms the other person’s belonging.

Judgment affirms our own.

Love makes it safe for others to be who they really are and share authentic experience.

Judgment puts people on guard.

Love keeps no record of wrongs.

Judgment seeks them out.

It is love — not judgment — that creates the type of environments we most want to live in. It produces deep friendship. It results in a belonging that goes far deeper than the superficial subsets formed through judgment.

Most importantly, love is the secret weapon when it comes to dealing with judgmental people. Why? Because even judgmental people need it.

Choosing love is a practice — and not an easy one. (Mostly because choosing love over judgment exposes our own fear. ) The thing is, when introduced into almost any situation, love disrupts the patterns. It dissolves the need to be right. It brings healing. And most importantly, love creates the connection that satisfies our fundamental need to belong.

So the next time you are faced with a judgmental person — or are tempted to judge yourself — experiment with introducing love to the equation. You will likely be beautifully surprised at the result.

//Cathy Hutchison’s book, Bad Christian: For Everyone Who Loves Jesus But Doesn’t Fit in Church is available via Amazon.

Deeply curious on why and how people engage together. Visual journal enthusiast. Get her QuickStart Guide to Visual Journaling: http://bit.ly/StartJournal