Decrease Anxiety by Breaking the Judgment Habit

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by Jean Holthaus, LISW, MSW

I grew up being told repeatedly that it wasn’t “nice” to judge other people, as I’m sure many of you did. However, it wasn’t until I became a therapist that I recognized the connection between judgment and anxiety. Not only is it “not nice” to judge, it actually contributes to higher levels of anxiety, and breaking our judgement habit can decrease anxiety.

When are we judging?

We judge every time we decide something:

  • Is right or wrong
  • Is good or bad
  • Should happen or shouldn’t happen

If you look at the last several hours of your life, you—like me—may find you have judged numerous times. This afternoon, I’ve judged that the person I had an appointment with shouldn’t be late, the young man in the crosswalk should know better than to wear those shoes, the government officials making decisions about COVID-19 should be doing things differently. You get the idea.

While I would never say those things out loud, my internal dialogue is peppered with judgments. Judging is a habit, and it’s a habit that doesn’t stop with just judging others. We also judge ourselves relentlessly. While most of us never speak our judgments about others aloud, the litany of self-judgments we make plays in our head all day long tearing us down, destroying our self-concept, and causing us anxiety.

What is judging?

We judge when we:

  • Take a group of facts (my two friends are glancing at me as they talk with one another and giggle)
  • Form an opinion or belief about those facts (they are talking about me because they think I’m stupid)
  • Act upon the opinion/belief as though it were a fact

Facts themselves normally have very little emotional charge. However, when I add my judgment to them, I now feel incredibly anxious as I begin to wonder:

  • Why are they talking about me?
  • What did I do to make them think I’m stupid?
  • What if they decide they don’t want to be my friend anymore?
  • And so on…

Judging creates emotional pain, fills us with anxiety, and makes it hard to be effective.

How do we stop judging?

Like any habit, it takes work to stop judging. By persistently practicing these four steps, you can begin to break your judging habit:

1. Find the Facts

Separate the facts from the feelings, beliefs, and opinions.

  • To practice this, look at yourself in a full-length mirror. Write down all the things you say to yourself as you look in the mirror. Your self-talk might include statements like: I look so dumpy in sweats, I’m so fat, and my hair is an absolute disaster…I should never have gone to the grocery store looking like this.
  • Now, look for the facts in your self-talk. The facts in the scenario above include I’m wearing sweats and I went to the grocery store. None of the rest of the statement were facts!

2. Let Go of Judgment

Change requires a willingness to let go of judgments. I can hear some of you saying, “But my hair really was a disaster, and I am fat.” I promise we will look at what to do with opinions, but first we need to label them as opinions and stop treating them like facts!

3. Unconditionally Accept Reality

Often, what creates our anxiety and distress is judging what is present against what we believe “should” be present. “My hair is a disaster,” is a judgement of what my hair looks like against what I think it should look like. Until we accept what is present, we can’t change a thing!

  • Continuing to believe you should be different than you are makes you anxious and full of self-doubt and doesn’t motivate change! Accepting yourself as you are puts you in a position to begin making changes.
  • Accepting the current moment doesn’t mean you like it or agree with it. For example, no one likes having COVID-19. However, until we accept that the coronavirus is part of our world right now, we can’t do anything to take care of ourselves and others. Once we accept it, we are positioned to make a battle plan and move forward.
  • Accepting reality means letting go of our internal dialog about how unfair, wrong, or unmanageable the situation is. Instead, we need to develop self-talk like, “This is the situation I’m in, and I can find a way to handle it.”

4. Do What Brings Life

Once you accept the situation, you’re now positioned to make change. If you don’t like your hair the way it looks, you can change it (no condemnation needed to motivate the change!).

Since COVID-19 is happening, make a plan to minimize your risk.

By letting go of judging, you are freed to move forward by doing things that will make you as fully alive as possible.

Judgment will steal your joy and peace and leave you full of anxiety and negative self talk about yourself and others.

When we break the judgment habit in our lives, we become free to live fully alive and fully enjoying each moment of the life we have—even when there are things like coronavirus in it!


Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She also provides teletherapy.

Jean earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.

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