Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Suspending Judgment

From the Family Connections program developed by the
National Education Alliance for Borderline Personality Disorder.
As Stephen and I continue facilitating the Family Connections program here in Ottawa, we frequently comment that the skills we develop in this course really apply to all of our relationships, not just our connection to a loved one with with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Relationship mindfulness is one of those skills.

If your Myers-Briggs profile includes a "J" for "Judging" at the end (as mine does), then suspending judgment is going to be a challenging exercise for you. Judgment is how we assess our world, how we evaluate options, risk, and opportunity.

It can be powerful in a business context. Unfortunately, it can be really harmful to relationships, especially if it's with someone who is emotionally sensitive and very reactive. A sarcastic comment like, "Hey, would you like a little salad with that dressing?" can put a wedge between two people. Not to mention turn the rest of the meal into a hate-fest.

What relationship mindfulness challenges us to do is to pause and engage our "oral filter" before we blurt out what's in our heads.

It asks us to think about the relationship, rather than what is "true" or "right" or "good for them."

In the salad-dressing scenario, does it really matter if your loved one really likes salad dressing? Even if he or she has a medical issue, they are likely fully aware of it and know that the dressing isn't the healthiest choice. Your speaking about it won't help matters and will likely undermine your attempts to support better choices.

You have choices: you can criticize, or you can remain neutral, or even find something to be positive about.

"Yummy salad!"

Shortly after reviewing this lesson in our class, I had a visitor who marvelled repeatedly at the "huge bag of flour" we have. (Our kitchen is currently under construction, so everything is exposed.)

"So much flour!" she said, in a shocked voice.

Many thoughts ran through my mind:

  1. Wow. It is a lot of flour. Do I need that much flour? What a waste of space? Am I a hoarder?
  2. Why do YOU care? What business is it of yours if I have a whole room full of bags of flour stacked to the ceiling?

And over the following days the thought that ran through my head was:

  • I don't want to have her in my house again. She criticizes every little thing in my life and I'm tired of it. It leaves me feeling small and stupid.
What an impact for a few small words!

(It was only after several days that I realized that she probably doesn't know that I do a good deal of baking and that it takes about four cups of flour to make a loaf of bread, so we go through flour at a good rate. She doesn't bake.)

Imagine how differently the exchange would have been if she'd approached it with curiosity instead: That's a lot of flour. Do you do a lot of baking? (Said in an honestly open tone.)

The conversation might have touched on my favourite bread recipe, my experiment with quinoa, the scones I want to try again, the dumplings in my favourite stew.

But because I felt judged, I shut down and have come close to shutting her out. 
Being nonjudgmental means to see things as they are. No blame. No adjectives. Judgments are toxic to our own well-being and toxic to our relationships. -- from the Family Connections handouts, copyright NEA BPD.
Suspending judgment takes a lot of effort, especially when it comes to parents and children. After all, most of their youth was taken up with telling them how to modify their behaviour. It is a path that we have worn smooth. Because of that, our children will be especially sensitive to any kind of criticism in our voices, so we have to work hard to change ourselves.

There may be a lot of salad dressing, there may be a lot of flour. Any judgment we make about the simple facts will have an effect on our relationship. Proceed with caution.


  1. I have constant comments from people in my life exactly like this. and why? why are people so concerned about that which doesn't concern them? I just don't understand the need to point stuff out like this. I can only imagine they must be in a constant state of shock, wonderment and confusion over everyone else's behaviour. how exhausting!

    1. I can only assume that they direct the same degree of judgment upon themselves and must, therefore, be very unhappy.


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