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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Negotiating the Paradoxes of Nonjudgment

July 21, 2010

Swati Desai, Ph.D., LCSW
The Huffington Post
July 19, 2010

We are living in very confusing times. On one hand we are expected to
be nonjudgmental (as in accepting, respectful, compassionate and not
rejecting in demeaning way) in personal, social and politically
correct settings. On the other hand, our increasingly diverse world
implies that we are constantly bombarded with unfamiliar faces, new
situations, and newly arriving set of cultural values that threaten
our sense of security and offers compelling reasons for judgments
(what may seem like vigilance, discrimination, stereotyping).

On one hand, there are two good reasons why the nonjudgmental and
non-rejecting way seems to be a perfect model for creating a world
that is stable and prosperous, yet allows for individual freedom: 1)
To promote harmonious co-existence in our increasingly diverse world
and 2) to allow all types of individual potentials to be maximized.
This means that in the political arena, we are expected not to pass
any moral or value judgment on any particular community, and we watch
over any discrimination, racial profiling, or stereotyping. On a
social level, it requires us to allow all different styles of
lifestyles: dressing, hairstyles, food habits, accents, curse-words,
beliefs, religions, disabilities and behavioral patterns, as long as
this is not proven to violate our laws. As we believe in encouraging
individual potential to flourish, we are required to hold back
judgments in our personal life as well -- against choices made by our
own spouses and our own children, and the values chosen by our
friends. Being nonjudgmental and compassionate seems to be a perfect
foundation for personal relationships to flourish.

However, there is one big problem with this very attractive
principal. Our brain is not supposed to be nonjudgmental! It is
structured to make judgments at all times for the sake of safety:
emotional and physical. When we are faced with a person or situation
that is unfamiliar or uncomfortable, our brain will check the stored
database: group classifications, similar past situations, personal
experiences, and then it will put the unfamiliar person or situation
into one of these familiar categories. This judgment may be based on
purely personal experiences or it may be based on a scientific study
we have read. Either way, it seems very real, very convincing to us
and we take an action based on our own training in ensuring our
safety. It may mean either rejecting the new person or situation in a
harsh or blunt way, or simply disappearing away, or taking a legal
action invoking a rule.

Here are some real questions raised by real people in which one could
judge the validity of being nonjudgmental.

If I am nonjudgmental about the actions that are against my values,
will I be condoning them? Will my spouse and friends repeat them and
not care about if those actions hurt me? If I am nonjudgmental about
my kids' misbehavior, is that opposite of "disciplining?" Will that
mean anything goes and they will have a nonchalant attitude? If
someone hurts my family, how is it possible to hold any compassion
towards the perpetrator?

If I am nonjudgmental, how will I know if the homeless person asking
for money for food is really for food or for substance use? Unless I
judge, how will I know if I am being taken advantage of? I may be
viewed as a gullible simpleton who can be used. Unless I am vigilant
about certain characteristics that a person exhibits, although they
may be viewed as stereotyping, how will I keep myself out of future
trouble? If I see a person with Mohawk and tattoos walking towards
me, should I be crossing the street or quickly dashing to my car? By
being nonjudgmental of teen behavior, are we allowing our teens to be
self-centered and unmotivated?

Is noticing a "good" characteristic of a group, such as "brahmins
from the state of Tamilnadu in India are typically very bright," also
prejudice? Is stating a study about early child development that
shows that on the average, girls do better in languages and boys do
better in math, being prejudiced, even when such observation may lead
to more efforts in changing the environmental factors? Is it okay to
be critical about your daughter choosing a college dropout husband,
because of studies that on the average educated people are more
likely to have better income than the uneducated ones? Without
putting people in categories, how can we ensure that terrorists are
sorted out? Without "racial profiling," how do we begin to look for
possible suspects?

We are frequently being judgmental and retraining our brain is hard
and not so obviously desirable in all situations.

Here is the best answer to the confusion about being nonjudgmental I
have heard. While describing his conversation with the Dalai Lama,
Dr. Dan Siegel presented the following answer: Being nonjudgmental
means not taking your own judgments too seriously.

This is what I suggest. When your brain makes a judgment, you do not
need to take it as "that is that," but consider that there are at
least three possible mistakes your brain may be making.

1) Although your judgment is evidence-based for a group, the person
you are facing may not fit the description, so it is helpful to be
open and accepting towards finding out more about this person.

2) You may have wrong information about a group, based on your own
incomplete personal observations, which will not withstand more
methodical testing.

3) Your judgments may be for the need for superiority, need for "I am
better than that." In either one of these cases, if you take your
judgments "too seriously," you may reject and demean a person
inappropriately, losing out on a chance to create a more harmonious
world. Train your brain to question it's own judgment before taking action.

At the same time, do not be too judgmental of your poor judgmental
brain. She is just doing her job!

Swati Desai, Director of Psychological Services at Akasha Center for
Integrative Medicine, Santa Monica
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
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