Tuesday, May 29, 2007

On Being Judgmental

Journal from July 6th 2003

I’ve been noticing lately how much I really enjoy judging people in my head. If I can find a way to make their behavior seem illogical or reckless, I can delight in climbing up on my high horse and pronouncing them less than I. It makes me feel powerful. I know that it’s wrong. I know that it’s something I should stop doing but the truth is, I don’t want to stop.

I’ve had a few instances recently that gave me some new insights into the root of my judgmental behavior.

At dinner the other night, Steve was talking about a cough he had been dealing with for the past week or so. I became angry and scolded him for not going to the doctor. I spoke to him sarcastically and attempted to shame him for being irresponsible with his health. Steve doesn’t respond to this kind of outburst and my attitude was dismissed, next topic.

Later, I felt embarrassed by my behavior. Why had I reacted so strongly to reports of a simple cough? At first, I assumed it was a reaction born out of self-pity. How could he so casually ignore a cough when lung problems had been my greatest downfall? Why did he get to be so leisurely about it when I had to take it so seriously?

While I’m sure there were elements of truth to that theory, it did not ring true, as a whole. I dove a little deeper into the subtext of the exchange and uncovered my underlying emotions were not anger or self-pity; they were fear and worry.

Years ago, when I was in ICU following my first lung transplant, Steve was very ill at home with pneumonia. It had started with a cough that he did not address and the consequence was a yucky bout of pneumonia. My anger and sarcasm were a manifestation of my fear that he would, once again, neglect himself and wind up very sick.

So why the anger? Why did that emerge instead of the love that provided a foundation for my worry? Why would I choose, consciously or unconsciously, to address him in that way instead of with kindness? The answer: vulnerability.

Kindness makes me feel vulnerable, judgment makes me feel strong. Clearly, these feelings do not benefit anyone and are simply counter-productive. Kindness or concern would have gone over much better than misplaced anger and criticism. Perhaps that same exchange delivered with heartfelt concern would have brought us closer together. Instead the opposite was true.

I have taken this realization and attempted to apply it to my life. The results have been interesting.

I was getting frustrated with David the other day. Out of all of the people in my life, he was the only one that had not made a “happy painting” for our kitchen wall. He had promised to do one over and over but never delivered. I just didn’t understand what the problem was. I began to pester him about this, again, and his reaction was to get defensive. I stopped myself in mid-sentence and decided to try and tap into the deeper reason behind my irritation. Once I took a moment to do this, I was able to see that my reasons for wanting him to create a painting reflected my desire for him to let go of his chronic fear of failure. I knew that David was putting off the painting, not because he didn’t want to do one, but because of his overwhelming fear that the painting wouldn’t be good enough, deep enough, clever enough. This precise fear held him back from many other life experiences. He had a history of quitting before he began.

From where I was sitting, in the land of carpe diem, this kind of resistance to life’s new territories was tragic. I wanted so badly for him to break through that mentality and my conscious manifestation of that desire was to judge him for his perceived cowardice. When I was able to get in touch with this deeper emotion as well as the shallowness of my judgement, I stopped my ranting. Instead, I sat down next to him, looked him in the eye and told him the truth from my heart. I told him that I wanted him to do this painting because he was such an important person in my life. The wall would simply not be complete without his contribution. I told him I didn’t care if the painting was a Mona Lisa or pure nonsense, I just wanted him to have the experience of paint on canvas. I told him that I loved him and wanted him to feel safe to try something new.

Honesty poured from me this made both of us well up with tears. It was a kind of shift in a moment that I had never experienced before. It was beautiful, real and freeing.

David never made a painting but I never brought it up again. It no longer bothered me and I certainly felt no need to nag him about it. I had spoken my hopes and the rest was up to him. I was fine with whatever he chose and had no judgments.

There is something easy and satisfying about judging and gossiping. (If there weren’t so many of us wouldn’t be reading celebrity magazines!) I can’t pretend that these discoveries have transformed me to a place of non-judgmental nirvana. The difference is that I now know when I am doing it and that a much more satisfying alternative exists. It is in my hands to stop taking the easy way out and do a little extra work in order to find a much kinder and more rewarding way to engage those I love.

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