"Try going an entire day without judging anyone, including yourself."

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Episode 83 -- January 28, 2021

New Year, New Vision: Seeing Without Judging

While many see the new year as a chance to try new things and make big changes, author and recovery guide Beverly Conyers shows how each day—even each moment—contains the same promise and possibility. in her book, Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything, Conyers shows us how the practice of mindfulness—including the skill of seeing without judging—can be a game-changing part of recovery and a path to a happier life.

The mindful practice of nonjudgment opens the door to a more compassionate understanding of our self and others. As we see ourselves and those around us in this kinder light, we can bring new healing and new possibility into the new year—and every new day.

It has been edited for brevity.

Seeing without Judging
Almost from the moment of birth, we humans judge every aspect of our world. It's a survival reflex that lets us instantly identify safety or danger, friend or foe.

Judgment is the guiding force behind most of our decisions, from whether we have eggs or cereal for breakfast to where we live and whom we marry. When we exercise poor judgment, we end up doing things that can get us into trouble, like rekindling an abusive relationship or drinking and driving. When we use good judgment, we do things that can promote our well-being, like reaching out to an old friend or getting into recovery. In a way, the quality of our life is a reflection of the judgments we've made, good and bad, big and small.

But what about nonjudgment, the mindful practice of observing without judging? What can we gain from that practice? Simply put, nonjudgment allows us to step back and see things more objectively. It also lays the groundwork for a more compassionate worldview.

A story is told of an Indian king who entered a city in which everyone was blind. The king rode in on a magnificent elephant and wanted to impress the people with his majesty. He ordered six men to feel the elephant and describe it to the city's inhabitants. One man felt the legs and told the crowd that the elephant was like four pillars. The second man felt the tail and described it as a broom. Patting its side, the third man said it was like a wall. For the man at the ears, it was like a carpet; for the one at its trunk, like a pipe. At its tusks, the last man declared the elephant was like a pair of horns. Each had reached what seemed to be a reasonable conclusion—but their judgment was based on incomplete evidence.

The problem with making judgments is our tendency to slap labels on things before we fully understand them. When we decide that something is good or desirable without looking beyond our first impression, we can find ourselves signing contracts, taking on debt, accepting job offers, or investing in money-making schemes that we later come to regret. Similarly, if we prematurely label something as bad or undesirable, we can deprive ourselves of a potential benefit—something I experienced firsthand. When I was young, I turned down a full scholarship to a good university because I thought its location was too "boring." I was not only wrong about the location. I lost out on a wonderful opportunity to improve my life. If I had practiced nonjudgment (something I'd never heard of at the time), I would have kept an open mind and gathered more information before making an evidence-based decision.

But the benefits of nonjudgment go far beyond helping us to become more awake and aware decision-makers. Nonjudgment opens the door to a more compassionate understanding of our self and others.

How many times a day do you judge other people? If you're like most of us, you probably do it a lot without realizing it: She looks haggard. He could stand to lose a little weight. She's too old to wear that skirt. He needs a haircut. If someone pulls into a parking space ahead of us, he's a moron or a jerk. If someone's using food stamps in the checkout line, she's lazy or a cheater. All these labels are based on snap judgments. All are made more or less automatically. And all diminish the quality of our life.

One of the most-quoted lines from the Bible is "Judge not, that ye be not judged." There's a lot of wisdom in that advice. Judging others sets up barriers between us and them. We tell ourselves that the people we judge are different from us—odd, arrogant, or unacceptable in some fundamental way. But when we define the entirety of who they are based on a single aspect of their appearance or behavior, we deny our common humanity, making our world a harsher, lonelier place.

This realization can strike us unexpectedly, perhaps especially when we are hurting. Years ago, when my marriage was falling apart and one of my children was struggling with addiction, I went through the motions of my daily routine, but I was always knotted up with worry and grief. One day while I was in a grocery store, hiding my pain behind my "public" face, I had a sort of epiphany. Looking at other shoppers, I was forcibly struck by the realization that nobody knows what burdens other people may be carrying. We all do our best to act "normally" in public. But who knows what private struggles our fellow beings are coping with?

One of my favorite reminders of this truth is found in a Nar-Anon Family Group booklet: "Remember all people are always changing. When we judge them, we judge on what we believe we know of them, failing to realize that there is much we do not know, and that they are constantly changing as they try for better or worse to cope with life."

Nonjudgment removes the blinders from our eyes, allowing us to see that life's struggles, disappointments, pain, and loss come to everyone. Whatever our differences, we honor our common humanity when we begin to replace judgment with compassion.

Unfortunately, for many of us who have experienced any problematic compulsive behavior, the person we judge most harshly is our self. Even when we know that addictions and compulsions are illnesses much like other chronic conditions, they seem to go hand-in-hand with shame. Why?

For one thing, although attitudes are slowly changing, addiction and recovery still carry a stigma. Many people continue to view addiction as a sign of weakness or poor character despite decades of research that has shown it to be a complex disorder manifested by a broad set of behaviors, tendencies, and habits. Many of us have internalized the stigma, concluding that we are weak and of poor character. Moreover, a lot of us didn't like ourselves very much even before we became addicted. Poor self-image is often an important contributing factor in addiction. And then, during the course of our disordered living and thinking, many of us did things that we're ashamed of, further damaging our self-respect. In recovery, we work to make amends for harm we have caused others. But we sometimes fail to make amends to our self. Instead, we tend to judge ourselves without mercy, inflicting layers of shame and guilt on our already-battered ego. We tell ourselves that because we have done something wrong, we must be a horrible person. Unfortunately, beating ourselves up—like picking at a wound—only weakens our ability to heal.

A man I met in a support group illustrated this truth when he described his long alienation from his children. "I had a raging drug problem for almost five years," he said. "I dropped out of my kids' lives. Even after I got clean, I didn't reach out to them because I didn't think I deserved them." It wasn't until his fourteen-year-old son contacted him that he began to rebuild his relationship with his kids.

"They're the most important thing in the world to me," he said with a catch in his voice. "But I don't know if I would've ever found the courage to reconnect on my own. I hated myself too much." For him, as for many of us, the pain of self-judgment kept the pain of addiction eternally fresh and raw.

Nonjudgment—the ability to observe and accept without labels—allows us to see ourselves in a clearer, kinder light. We acknowledge our mistakes and do our best to set things right. But we also recognize that we lacked the wisdom and skills that might have enabled us to make better choices. Our harmful actions sprang not from "badness" but from unawareness, something we are working hard to correct. When we stop viewing our self through the narrow lens of self-judgment, our perspective begins to expand. We come to see that like all human beings, we, too, are deserving of kindness and compassion—not judgment.

PRACTICE: Nonjudgment day. Try going an entire day without judging anyone, including yourself. When judgmental thoughts arise, pause to examine them. Notice their content and how they make you feel. Notice how they affect your perception of the world. Then, with conscious intention, choose to let them go. What can you do to observe more and judge less?

About the Author:
Beverly Conyers—one of the most respected voices in wellness and recovery—has guided hundreds of thousands of readers through the process of recognizing family roles in addiction, healing shame, building healthy relationships, releasing trauma, focusing on emotional sobriety, as well as acknowledging self-sabotaging behaviors, addictive tendencies, and substance use patterns. With her newest work, Conyers shows us how the practice of mindfulness can be a game-changing part of recovering from any- and everything. She is the author of Find Your Light: Practicing Mindfulness to Recover from Anything (Nov. 2019), Follow Your Light: A Guided Journal to Recover from Anything (Aug. 2020) as well as Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, and Recovery (2003), Everything Changes: Help for Families of Newly Recovering Addicts (2009), and The Recovering Heart: Emotional Sobriety for Women (2013).

© 2019 by Beverly Conyers
All rights reserved