At church we hear “Judge not, that ye be not judged." And yet church is often the place where we feel the most judged.
Sometimes our family says “I am worried about you” in a way that feels less like worry and more like condemnation. Sometimes they outright say “You are being led away by Satan.” or “You are following the path of the world.”
Anyone who has wrestled with doubts or been glared upon with disapproval because behavior or thoughts don’t comply with religious expectations, has felt the sick kick in the stomach. The kick that says: “you messed it up again,” “you poor, dirty sinner,” “you just aren’t good enough.” It feels awful.
It is easy to point out that *they* are not following Jesus’ exhortation to “Judge not.” At the same time, shame language, concern trolling, and passive-aggressive blame-fests can all be part of our mother tongues.
How do we break these cycles? How do we move forward with healthy choices like setting boundaries, an act that requires using our judgment, without *being judgmental*?
We don’t want to replace one worthiness checklist with another. We don’t want to use new beliefs to decide the people who hold our old beliefs are stupid, bad or possibly brainwashed. For one, this would mean that Old-Me was stupid and bad and possibly brainwashed. I wasn’t.
As people, we’ve been trained both by churchy things and by all the things, that we need to be worthy, skinny, selfless, hard-working, shoulders-covered, so-many-things, all-the-things -- to be “good.” To be included and loved and wanted. We are constantly assessing ourselves and others. And discussing with folks the goodness and badness of the people around us. Judging.
I was deep into my own faith transition and talking to a friend about my brother who was struggling with addiction and genuinely hurting a lot of people. I said something like “I just don’t know if he’s a good person or not.” Her response floored me: “So what? Why do you care?” And my gut response was something like, “I care because . . . obviously . . . that’s. . . because . . .”
I cared because all I understood -then- was constant assessment to determine-- is he good enough? Am I good enough? Are we worthy of belonging, of respect, of friendship, of love, of eternal family, of salvation? And even if I no longer knew what I believed about eternal families or salvation, I had no idea how to think about his behavior or mine, without asking: Is he a good person? Am I?
What was ahead for me was a deep paradigm shift that involved moving away from judging people as good vs. bad. Judgments based in labeling people as good/bad will always feel “judgmental” because at their core they are about deciding the worth of a person. Even if we are judged as worthy, that "Worth" is fragile. At any moment we could be judged differently.
Which is not to say that I don’t make judgements. I need judgment to set boundaries and limits... to protect myself and others... to navigate relationships in healthy ways. But how? Judgment without being judgmental? How does that even work?
It starts with the end.
What is the end that we (human peoples) want? What do we desire?
For most of us, the goal is connection. We want to be seen, heard, and accepted by our friends, family, and church-work-hobby folk. Most of all, we want acceptance by ourselves. We want inner peace with who we are. And maybe with God if we are a believer in deity. We want golden rule stuff, and peace, and love, and brownies, and fun, and joy, and people to hold us when we are sad. The goal is connection.
So if we start with connection:
We can stop worrying about who is good and bad (we are all good and bad sometimes) or who is selfish or unselfish (we all are sometimes) and shift our focus to connection and needs.
Moving away from Judgmentalism requires that we take a leap of faith, and believe that every person has within the desire to “enhance life” as psychologist Marshall Rosenberg puts it. Carl Rogers calls it our drive to self-actualize. And almost every religion teaches some form of Divine Nature, The Buddha Self, the Inner Light, or the Holy Ghost. Maya Angelou says it like this, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
When we feel disconnected, isolated, judged, lonely, unworthy, bad, unwanted, unloved, unlovable then we often make bad choices. We don’t do bad stuff because we are bad. We do it because we don’t know how to get our needs met. We are stuck in old coping mechanisms, bad habits, and we feel terrible, lonely, selfish and hopeless. So why even bother?
When we feel connected, loved, valued, admired, included, unconditionally, we generally make good choices. We don’t do good stuff because we are good. We do it because we feel loved and we want to share our love with others.
Acknowledging this drive to self-actualize does not mean that we accept any behavior and refuse to judge. In fact the opposite is true. It is much easier to set boundaries when we can accept that we do not diminish another person’s value by not valuing their behavior. It is much easier to set boundaries when we know our value does not depend on pleasing or placating others so that we can trick them into loving us.
This whole process means learning to speak another language. A language that isn’t about who is good and who is bad. A language that isn’t rooted in shame and unworthiness. A language that doesn’t talk about people’s motives but instead about their behaviors. A language that is rooted in every single person’s fundamental value and desire to know better, so that they can do better. A language that is driven by curiosity and understanding of people’s choices instead of condemning them. A language that is all about connection. Does this behavior draw us closer or does it drive us apart? Does this behavior meet your needs and consider my needs too?
Learning a new language is hard work. But work worth doing. Because new languages open new worlds.
Lisa Butterworth, LPC, NCC has a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Idaho State University, primarily working with issues of relational health, faith transitions and journeys, women's issues and sexuality. She is the founder of the popular Feminist Mormon Housewives website and support group.