How I Learned To Let Go Of Being Judgmental
I still have my moments in politics. But let me tell you about a noisy neighbor, a difficult stage of a relationship, and my kids.
I had been fired from a job just as the recession in 2008 was taking hold. I couldn’t get another job that paid as well, so we moved to Utah. Once in Utah on a soft landing in a relative’s basement, rent-free, I managed to get a job in a few weeks. A few weeks after that, we got into an apartment with a noisy neighbor. He wasn’t noisy in the sense of arguments and domestic abuse. He just played his gigantic sound system so loud that it rattled the dishes in the kitchen.
So I went downstairs to discuss. He resisted. He deflected. He was clearly not interested in complying with my request for some peace and quiet. I talked to management about him and they didn’t appear that interested in helping either.
I let it go. I got really focused on earning money to support my wife and myself. That first job I got, I lost with the recession. I found myself working for another small business. That paid the bills and it also got me into a deal to buy a house at the bottom of the market just 9 months after moving to Utah, still deep in a recession.
About a month before we were ready to close, my neighbor from downstairs confronted me and my wife as we were unloading groceries. “I don’t know who it is, but every morning, around 5 am, I hear someone schlepping around upstairs. Every morning, like clockwork someone, wakes me up. She must weigh something like 170 lbs, and I just want it to stop.” My wife was furious. I was grinning inside. I knew it was me with my rubber-soled slippers on a linoleum floor. I told him that I’d look into it.
We had arranged our home purchase so that we could take our time moving out. We really didn’t have a choice about it as the rental contract required 60 days of notice before breaking the lease. After a couple of weeks of moving using spare time after work, we had cleared the apartment and everything that was in storage and moved it to our new home. We had already been living at the house for a week and came back to the apartment to do one last sweep for anything we might have left behind.
I saw our noisy neighbor again just as we were heading to the management office to return the keys. I saw that he was loading his truck. “Hi. Are you moving out?”
“Yeah, management wouldn’t do anything about the noise your wife makes in the morning, so I’m moving to another apartment.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that that was me. I think he knew. I also didn't tell him that we were moving to a house while he was moving to another apartment. He didn’t have the same information I had. He didn’t have the same goals that I had.
I didn’t judge him for his rudeness with his sound system. I somehow knew that if I spent any time trying to get him to change, and that would include judging him, then I’d be giving him my attention. Everything requires attention and decisions to be made. I knew that I had to focus on my own goals, not his. I avoided judging him so that I could focus on my own business.
I’ve been married now for 13 years. Wow. I couldn’t imagine saying that to anyone much less write about it in an article before I got married. My wife and I are from different cultures. We’ve had to learn about each other and how to look at our differences and arrive at some point in the middle. We’ve had arguments, we’ve had disagreements, and we very nearly got divorced. But we both came to our senses and realized that peace together is a lot less expensive in terms of time, effort, and money, than separation.
I could not have come to a place of peace mired in judgment. Yes, my wife has a habit of asking me to do something else while I’m focused on something that I think is important or enjoyable. I’ve even devised an equation in my head that says, the probability that my wife will ask me to do something other than what I’m doing right now is proportionate to the square of how important what I’m doing right now is to me.
Therefore, If I’m digging what I’m doing right now, there’s a high probability that my wife will ask me to stop what I’m doing and attend to her immediate task. That’s one reason why I write early in the morning when everyone is asleep. There are few things I enjoy more than writing.
My wife is an organizing force in my life. She moves the furniture around the house often. She loves to organize things. But she is also sometimes critical of others and judgmental. There have been so many times when I could have shot back with an unflattering comment, but I didn’t. There were so many times that I could have told her off, but I didn’t. I have learned from reading, writing, and introspection, that she is on her own path. I have learned that what she is thinking and doing isn’t really much of my business until safety is a concern.
So in our disagreements, I did not judge her. I did not tell her what for. I held my tongue and said the minimum that needed to be said. I let the feelings pass. I considered that when I feel offended by her, that my job was to get to know that feeling and where it comes from. I focused on changing myself first. Once I changed my behavior there was nothing she could do but change her response to me.
I practiced this over many years to arrive at a place of peace together, with my wife and my family. Even now, in the middle of a pandemic, there is peace in my house. My house is in order. My wife has noticed that we have enough of everything we need for today. She has noticed that I don’t demand respect, I earn it. I model respect. I model peace.
There is something really interesting about human behavior that I learned while being married. If you model peace, other people tend to imitate you, and they become peaceful. That is one more reason why I have avoided judging people.
My kids were born into this world with no concept of rules. There were only a few things they understood: feed me, hold me, love me. I watched them grow up from peanut to toddlers to the spritely young kids that they are now today. I watched them have temper tantrums. I learned how to observe their behavior without judgment. I learned that they were only doing what they knew how to do. They could not do any better, for if they could, they would.
I also knew, after living with my wife, and reading a few really good books, that I could not get lost in judgment with my own kids. I knew that if I got in the habit of judging them, then I would not be able to see them grow up. If I found myself irritated by anything they did, it was on me to quell that irritation and explain things to them like boundaries, possessions, and courtesy. I made a point of modeling the behavior I wanted to see in them.
I got in the habit of telling them, “I love you just the way you are. You don’t have to change for me. Change is automatic.”
I also knew that kids get bored easily. What seems fascinating for a moment, is just a passing interest to kids. I figured out that if I chastised them for doing something that I didn’t want them to do, well, that’s attention, and kids love attention. So I set boundaries with as little drama as possible. I explained to them, “that’s mine”, or “that’s dangerous”, or “that chair is really high and the floor is really hard — if you fall, you will cry”, and they would come down carefully. I made a point of explaining the consequences instead of placing judgment. That little bit of extra effort practiced over the years, has led me to a life of peace today.
There is something else about judging others that I found. By not judging the people around me, I associate a feeling of safety and comfort with me, for them. I’m thinking about them. I want my kids to know that they can talk to me about anything anytime. Same for my wife.
I know how uncomfortable I feel when I’m judged by someone else. If I make a mistake, I will have more interest in sharing my mistake with someone who will not judge me than with someone who does. I get a sense of release when I can share my mistakes without fear of judgment.
Long ago, when my wife and I were still living in California, she had a job working for a prepaid calling card company that specialized in calls to Vietnam, her home country. She had been asked to work in a booth at a fair. I dropped her off, ran errands, and came back to pick her up. But she was standing in a red zone at the curb.
I stopped to pick her up, but I noticed a motorcycle cop behind me. He picked up his PA, “Do not get in the car!”. She got in the car. Before I could take off, sirens wailed. “Do you know why I’m stopping you? You stopped in a red zone with a sign that clearly says ‘no stopping’.”
I explained what had happened to my wife, that I was going to get a ticket for stopping there to pick her up. My wife cried. The officer? I have never seen an officer look so irritated. He really did not want to be writing this ticket. I almost laughed. I wasn’t worried about the money. I wasn’t worried about the ticket. I wasn’t angry at anyone. I knew that I couldn’t just drive away without picking her up, too. But I didn’t judge anyone that day for anything. It just was, and I have lived that way ever since.
I have let go of thousands of opportunities to judge people. If I did feel the temptation to judge others, I kept it to myself, let it pass, and thought through what would happen if I said what was really on my mind. My judgment would seem an insult to the other person, escalation would ensue. There is no such thing as winning an argument with your wife. I wouldn’t sleep well that night. Yeah. I like to sleep at night.
I comport myself in such a way each day that I can sleep at night. My body is my moral compass. If I don’t like the way I feel in my chest or my gut, I don’t do it. I don’t like the way I feel when I pass judgment on someone. I’ve tried that and I’ve lost sleep over it. So I avoid judging people at all costs. Sure, I’m still tempted, but that constant sense of unease I feel when I think about judging other people inhibits me. Just following that one principle, that one directive, noticing that feeling, has bought me years of peace.
What about the people who judge me? What about them? People who are judgmental are their own worst critics. If they criticize me, they get to live within their brains, not me. I don’t even have to respond to them, for I have a fair amount of confidence that if they criticize me for my errors, they already punish themselves severely for theirs.
I used to be critical of myself, too, but I found that to be so tiring. Being critical of oneself requires a lot of energy. I have had arguments with myself in my head, and that made me tired, too. With practice, I could see it coming a mile away, I could head off the temptation to criticize anyone, including myself. By avoiding criticism and judgment, I saved myself countless hours of unnecessary suffering.
I’m just one person who has learned to avoid passing judgment (except for politicians). Just imagine what the world would be like if we all learned to let it go, and do something else. I sometimes imagine what I’m doing, avoiding criticism and judgment, multiplied by 7.8 billion just to see what would happen. I know, it’s a fantasy. But it could happen. We might then live as one.