Every day, all of us humans encounter feelings, thoughts, and behaviour- in ourselves and others- that we consider less than ideal. It is very easy to judge ourselves and others, and as a result, judgement happens all the time. The toll it takes is high: self-judgement can lead to guilt, shame, hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and maladaptive behaviour. Judgement of others can lead to hurt, anger, conflict, and broken relationships.
Conversely, compassion for self and others feels far better, peaceful instead of tense, makes for more harmony in relationships, and as I will further explain, is always the appropriate response.
The insecure part of a person, or ego as it’s called by some, likes to judge. It needs to feel either superior or inferior, not feeling comfortable with the truth of one’s equality. Judging another elevates it by looking down on someone else. This protects it from feelings of inferiority, which are usually at an unconscious level. Judging one’s self reinforces feelings of inferiority and lack of acceptability. From a secure position of feeling loveable and acceptable with all of one’s limitations, one can be humble and honest, and feel neither superior nor inferior. One can have compassion for one’s own and others’ failings as there is no need to judge.
The compassion is towards the person for feeling a negative feeling, and possibly acting out of it. I am not saying that the feeling is grounded or trustworthy, or that the behaviour is acceptable. Instead, I am separating the person from the feeling and behaviour, and saying that the person couldn’t help feeling that way and was doing his or her best given everything, such as his circumstances, the resources available at the time, his past, her genes etc. It is very important to remember that having compassion for someone does not need to interfere with having healthy boundaries, which are vital in relationships. One can still, for example, have consequences for certain behaviour. Also, one may choose to no longer associate with someone and still have compassion for him/her.
Imagine with me, please, a shop with various feelings on the shelves, and a person who is feeling fine and free to choose whatever he wants. Would anyone who is feeling fine choose a negative feeling, such as fear, anger, hurt, jealousy, confusion, hopelessness or apathy? Of course not. Everyone who is feeling fine and therefore truly free to choose, would prefer positive feelings to negative ones, as they are more pleasant to experience. So when we realize that the negative feelings are not chosen, but just “jump into the cart” – people just find themselves feeling upset, we can see that people deserve compassion, not judgement, for being upset. In other words, they can’t help it. This does not mean, of course, that nothing can be done. They can learn better ways of coping. It’s just that until they’re learned, they are not yet learned.
Now imagine a hypothetical person who never got upset. Would this person ever choose to behave badly? Why would they? Or imagine a person who is feeling fine as above with a shopping cart in a shop of behaviours. Would he choose a negative behaviour? No! There would be no reason to. What I am saying is that people behave badly out of some negative feeling or feelings that they did not choose to feel. For example, a child might lie out of fear of getting into trouble. The child is not evil; he did not choose to be afraid. He couldn’t help it, so he deserves compassion. This does NOT make the lying okay or acceptable. At the same time, he needs to take responsibility for his behaviour. He needs a little discussion about the importance of honesty and trust, reassurance that he is still loved, request for an apology if one was not spontaneously given, and perhaps a consequence.
Having compassion for someone who has wronged you makes it easier to forgive them.
Some very basic neuroanatomy sheds light on the same topic. Very simplistically, the brain is made up of three parts that have evolved over time. The most primitive is the “reptilian brain” or brainstem, which is concerned with basic physical survival. In us, it controls breathing, our hearts beating etc. The lizard is not concerned with much beyond physical survival. The next most evolved part of our brain is the limbic brain, which a dog would also have. It is responsible for the well-known fight or flight response, and therefore is also about survival, as there are many negative emotions, such as worthlessness, that feel very threatening and thus emotionally unsurvivable. So when we are functioning out of these two parts of the brain, it is about survival, and therefore not a choice. Often unconscious defence mechanisms automatically and immediately kick in to protect us, such as denial, defensiveness etc. without our conscious awareness or approval. This is because whether we survive or not is not an option, and our subconscious is designed to protect us in an urgent manner. The experience is that there is no time for the luxury of reflecting and choosing how to act. This is why people often react badly in the immediacy of a situation, then later upon reflection, when calm, regret their reaction, and are able to apologize and respond in a constructive way. This brings us to the third and most evolved part of our brain, the cerebral cortex. From here, we are calm, can reflect, and truly choose. From here, people do not feel a sense of threat to their survival, and they make better choices. From the first two less evolved parts of the brain, however, there is at some level a sense of threat to survival, and so people react unfavourably from a no-choice place. Of course, when there is an actual threat to survival, such as walking across the street with a car speeding towards you, or having a grizzly charge you, operating out of fear from the limbic system is adaptive. The fear is appropriate because there is real danger. This is in contrast to the usual situation of misperceived threat when there is none, leading to maladaptive responses, such as anxiety and anger.
The other suggestion that I am making, which goes along with the above, is that people are always doing their best. Why would anyone out of choice choose to do less than his or her best? Even if someone is sitting in front of his exam paper without even looking at it because of his profound sense of hopelessness and futility, I would say that given how he feels, which he is not choosing; he is doing his best. Alternatively, imagine someone who has a severe depression and struggles to get out of bed in the morning. On Tuesday, he tries hard to get out of bed, but is unsuccessful. On Wednesday, he again struggles, but somehow manages to get out of bed. What I am suggesting is that things were not identical on the two mornings, whether the difference, which may not be apparent to an observer, or even to him, was within him, his environment, or both. It’s these subtle differences that allowed him to succeed on the second day. If he could have succeeded on the Tuesday, he would have. I am saying that given a person’s genetics, past, circumstances, feelings, beliefs, and the resources that he or she has available at any particular time, he or she is always doing his/her best. One needs to recognize that sometimes one’s best is very bad indeed. When one adopts the viewpoint that people are always doing their best, one feels compassion instead of judgement towards oneself and others. It makes sense, as well as makes for less suffering. It works.
It is easy to judge when one doesn’t understand. It’s useful to wonder what someone might have been feeling to explain that behaviour. Understanding tends to lead to compassion to replace the judgement. And even when one doesn’t understand, one can assume that there was some reason(s), and there were some negative feelings involved.
Who are we to judge, when we ourselves are far from perfect? One is reminded of the wise advice: take the log out of your own eye instead of worrying about the speck in your neighbour’s. After all, there is enough to keep us busy when we focus on our own feelings and behaviour, and they are the only things that are within our control. And there is the old story of the stoning of a prostitute, where the challenge for anyone who was “without sin” to cast the first stone was met by silence. Of course, nobody stepped up to throw a stone. Nobody is perfect.
The good news is that people can change, mature, and heal. They can operate more out of their cerebral cortex and less out of survival mode than they used to. Their best can become better. This is the journey that we are all on, aiming for these positive changes. Learning and practicing being more compassionate and less judgemental of ourselves and others is one way in which we can grow.
And when you catch yourself judging yourself or another, be compassionate to yourself about that! We’re just human!