Is Judgment Good or Bad?

You are making a judgment.

How do you feel in reading that statement or in hearing those words in your head? Do you feel ashamed or do you feel proud? Do you feel accused or do you feel encouraged?

Our language is imperfect, and the way that we use and attribute meaning to words can sometimes get in the way of what we are trying to say. Certain words can trigger strong associations in our minds, and because of these reactions, they can quickly become a block to communication instead of a bridge. One of these trigger words is judgment.

We often talk a lot about having compassion for others instead of judging them. Or we aspire to create and live within a judgment-free zone -- which we equate with a space of love and acceptance. In other words, we push away judgment as a bad thing.

Judgment can be defined as “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.” This is in fact, the primary definition of the word judgment in the Webster’s dictionary of the English language. That does not sound like a bad thing, right? However, more recently, we have taken the idea of judgment on as an evil scourge, mostly in the context of another definition of judgment, as “an opinion or conclusion.”

Recently, I got into a rather heated argument with someone... who, ironically, I felt was judging me for advocating for non-judgment. Huh? Right. Try to wrap your head around that. This person was basically saying that non-judgment is a way of abdicating your duty to develop a considered perspective and then behave in the world accordingly. He argued that those who carry around non-judgment as a torch are in fact acting out a conflict avoidant cop-out from participating in life. He expressed frustration because he viewed my favoring non-judgment as a way of sitting back and giving up personal responsibility.

It took me a while to realize that we were actually talking about two different faces of the word “judgment.” For the sake of simplicity and clarity, I will use two different words to represent these various aspects of judgment. I will use discernment to refer to the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions. And judgment to refer to an “an opinion or conclusion.” Still, they sound pretty similar. So what is the distinction?

Judgment needlessly curtails an unlimited resource -- love, kindness, compassion.
“That woman is annoying. I can’t stand being around her. Her laugh irritates me, and she is so scatter-brained. I don’t know how she gets anything done being that disorganized.”

Discernment necessarily allocates a limited resource -- time, energy, money
“I am going to have dinner with my new friend instead of going to the party because I want to invest in deepening our connection and see how I can help him with his company.”

Judgment categorizes and separates me from you, us from them.
“The people who go to those events are very pretentious. All they do is talk about themselves and how much money they have. I would never act like that even if I were rich.”

Discernment focuses on what is most important to say, think, feel, or do.
“I like connecting with people are passionate about making a difference in the world. I find that when I ask people about what they care about, we bond on a deeper level.”

Judgment is about others.
“She is… he is… they are… what those people do…“

Discernment is for yourself.
“I like it when… I am happier if… I prefer to… I choose…”

Judgment polices thoughts.
“This is good. That is bad. We are right. They are wrong.”

Discernment directs action.
“I will do this. I will not do this. I will focus here. I will not focus there.”

In other words, judgment (the way that I am using it here) is a destructive force and discernment is a creative force. When we say “don’t judge,” we are not advocating to become a spineless, opinionless, passive jellyfish. The ability to take in information, process and sort it, and ultimately select a course of action from it, is after all, a uniquely human gift. Judgment only becomes a danger to ourselves and others only when we use it to destroy; when we allow our envy or insecurity spiral outwards by throwing shame, silently or violently, on others. The intention is to veer away from judging what is bad by others and tearing down, and instead steer towards choosing what is good for ourselves and building up.