Sunday, 24 May 2015

How can I stop being so judgmental?

Is there anybody out there who can honestly say that they have never been harshly judgmental?  I thought not.   Welcome to being human!  Being judgmental is an easy way to protect yourself when you are feeling raw and vulnerable.  It does a great job of pushing others away when you feel threatened.  Good defenses are nothing to be ashamed of.  You are not in control of these automatic pilot reactions anyway.  They kick in unconsciously, protecting you from perceived danger whether you request them to or not.  However, once you become conscious of what you are doing, you can get into the driver's seat.  Awareness of when you are being judgmental can allow you to modulate it and to detour quickly when you find yourself going there. This is good to know.  Why?  Precisely because while being critical may momentarily feel good as it allows you to puff yourself up and feel superior to another, it can have devastating long-term consequences.  When you are judgmental too often, too much of the time, this can fuel negativity, isolation, resentment and bitterness. Furthermore, it is not a long-term cure for insecurity.  So how does one head off criticism at the pass before it makes you into a curmudgeon?  Getting in charge requires first understanding how criticism works.

The first thing to understand is that harsh criticism is a form of self protection and that you use it, not necessarily because someone else is lacking (though they may be) but because you feel threatened in some way. If you feel confident in yourself, there is no reason to be brutally critical of another. Many people make the mistake of thinking that if someone has criticized them, it must mean that there is something wrong with them.  They get all bent out of shape when someone finds fault with them and they wonder what they did to deserve such disapproval.  The psychological truth, however, is that being on the receiving end of criticism does not necessarily mean you did anything wrong.  In fact, negative judgments reveal much more about the giver than they do about the recipient.  If when walking down the street, I think to myself, "That woman could lose a few pounds", actually you know little about her but a lot about me.  She may be overweight and then again she may not.  What you know for sure though, is that I am a person who has issues about weight.  If you are out shopping with a friend and start thinking to yourself, "She sure does spend money frivolously", believe it or not, what we know is that money is an emotionally charged issue for you.  If you see a guy at the gym and you think "He sure could work out more", we can deduce that in your world, being fit is a priority.

It is important for people to look at their own judgmental behavior and see it for what it is.  Criticism operates as a potent protective device because it makes the criticizer feel powerful and pushes the other person away, keeping them at a safe distance.   Being able to modulate criticism of others means acknowledging that you feel threatened, figuring out the source and finding some other way to cope with the vulnerability that has been triggered.  The causes of harsh criticism can be varied and are often unconscious. For instance, you might become critical of another person because you feel envious of them.  They may have achieved some success that you wish you had or they may have positive qualities that you feel deficient in.  Then again, unwarranted criticism can be caused by perfectionism which leads to unrealistically high standards of others and the assumption that they are somehow lacking.  Negative stereotyping is another underlying cause of judgmental behavior. Ignorance and prejudice can lead to extreme criticism and sometimes even hatred.  Lastly, you might discover that you have become judgmental of another because they mirror back to you some quality that you dislike in yourself.  In some spiritual circles, a tool for coping when you find yourself harshly criticizing another is called: "using the other as a mirror".  It means taking back what you have attributed to someone else and trying to understand what button has been pressed in you.  Examining how your criticism of another may be due to seeing in them some quality or issue that you find disturbing in yourself, can be a very powerful tool for self growth.  To do this, however, takes much more courage than bad mouthing someone else!

I was in a therapy group once of about twenty-five people.  Few of us knew one another and we were thrown together for 21 days for the purpose of learning about how we related to others.  In such a setting where no one knows one another, it is normal to be attracted to some personalities and turned off by others.  At the start of our experience, we were told by our group leader to pay particular attention to whoever in the group irritated us the most.  While many of us had difficulty believing it at the start, we were told that this person could probably teach us more than any other participant. Why?  As the group unfolded, many of us discovered that the person we clashed with the most, was also the person who reminded us of the qualities we least liked in ourselves.  So pay attention to the people in your life who irritate or repel you and you could learn more than you bargained for!  Also, when that inner critic goes on and on preying on some real or imagined flaw in somebody else, consider finding out what button has been pressed in you rather than getting caught in the quagmire of negativity.  In the end, judging others really is about our own insecurities and feelings of inadequacy and we can all benefit from understanding that and working to root out judgmental behavior whenever it rears its ugly head.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Do you believe in a just world?

Some people end up in a therapist's office because an unexpected negative event happened in their lives that they were thoroughly unprepared for and it led them to feel like the rug had been pulled out from under them.  Maybe they got laid off from a job without warning; maybe someone complained about them professionally or worse still, charged them with a crime they did not commit; maybe a partner dumped them without warning; maybe an unexpected law suit landed at their door; maybe they became seriously ill; or maybe they just got so overextended at work that they ended up totally burnt out. The comment that I often hear from people faced with such situations is: " I really thought that if I was a good person; that if I worked hard, followed the rules and was honest, that things would work out for me. What happened?  Why me?"

Many of us don't realize it until some unfair misfortune happens to us but we are inclined to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable and just place where people get what they deserve.  That is, we tend to believe that noble actions are eventually rewarded and evil actions eventually punished. This commonly held (often unconscious) belief has been referred to by social psychologists as the "just-world hypothesis".  It makes sense that we would want to believe in a just world as it gives us a sense of control and security to think that we can influence what happens to us in predictable ways. We want to believe that if we do good that good will come to us.  Moreover, to justify this belief that life is morally fair and that consequences are fitting, we also tend to go so far as to tell ourselves that when misfortune happens, the person must have deserved it. Such thinking can easily result in blaming the victim.  Perhaps the most striking example of desperately clinging to the belief in cosmic justice at any cost is the rationalization that the rape victim must have been asking for it.  Otherwise, how scary is it to have to face that your wife, your daughter, your mother are all at risk of the same traumatic event happening to them no matter what precautions they may take?

It is often just a matter of time and life experience before life teaches us that such cause and effect does not match reality.  Just because someone has been accused of immoral or unethical behavior does not mean that they necessarily did anything wrong.  Similarly, just because you work hard and play fair does not mean that everybody is going to play fair with you.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner tells us in his book called "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", we only co-create our universe. Yes, by all means we influence how our lives unfold.  However, random acts of misfortune also happen.  In his own case, his three-year-old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease causing him to age prematurely and die in his early teens.  What Kushner tells us is that rather than seeing events that happen to us as necessarily a result of our goodness or badness, we need to realize that lightening can strike anywhere and that the true measure of our worth actually shows itself not in what happens to us but in how we cope when bad things happen to us.  This is where therapy can be invaluable.  As a facilitator of people's growth, I thoroughly believe that breakdown can be break through.  I have seen again and again how people who have been the victim of misfortune with guidance and support can turn that negative into a positive by learning to cope in a way that makes them stronger for it.  I am not trying to sugar coat things here.  There is no question about it. Shit happens.  When it does, though, the nicest thing you can do is turn it into fertilizer!  I had a mentor once who called this phenomenon of turning misfortune into opportunity, "white magic".  Needless to say, she taught me a whole lot.