Q & A: Acceptance vs. Judgment

QUESTION:
I read in See Me as a Person that [the therapeutic practice of] “wondering…is accepting not judging.” How do I do that when sometimes I’m just flooded with judgment?

ANSWER:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
~ Mark Twain

Mary-Koloroutis-150x150I love your question because it lifts up this mammoth challenge for all of us. It is simple to say “be accepting, not judging” but it’s so very hard to do! We are judging creatures; in fact, in a way, our brains are wired to judge (Damasio, 1994, 2003). We have been blessed with the capacity to take in information and use our minds to integrate it, synthesize it, and attach meaning to it. Much of this happens in moments. We see patterns and we perceive and interpret the patterns based on our experiences and our knowledge. We are also social creatures and are prone to connect easily with those who seem similar to us and prone to withdraw from or reject those who seem very different. So the problem with relying too much on our automatic and habitual responses becomes quite clear. If we rely on automatic judgment, we are likely to leap to conclusions and think we know things that “just ain’t so.”

Once we are clear that this phenomenon is automatic in all of us, we are in a better position to activate a more mindful (less automatic) process—one which develops our capacity to recognize and suspend judgments; to consciously be open and curious. This, in turn, facilitates our ability to continue to take in data and information and to learn about the unique person in our care.

I think about this in two parts: first is clarifying why it is important to suspend judgment, and second is how to suspend judgment.

Why it is Important to Suspend Judgment

Most of us have learned in our professional training that we need to be “nonjudgmental” in the care of our patients. This teaching is based on the fact that we will and do care for people from all walks of life—all ethnicities, cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds—people who may be very much like us and people who are very different from us. Some of these people could potentially be our friends—or maybe our enemies. Some of these people may be pleasant and cooperative and grateful, and some may be tenacious and irritable and rude. Some of these people will make “good choices,” follow our instructions, and engage actively with us in their care, and others will seem to be doing everything they can to undermine their own health. There are people who inspire us and people who frustrate and confound us. We have been taught (or at least told) to see them as individuals, accept them where they are, and to suspend judgment. Is this just pie-in-the-sky?—great in theory, but not practical in reality? Is it a reasonable expectation?

Consider these three “whys” as you seek your own answer:

1. Suspending judgment is fundamental to the scientific method. When we leap to judgment, we shut down our ability to take in data and vital information. We become anti-scientific, and we compromise safe care.

2. Suspending one’s own judgment is the only way to understand others on their own terms. Practically speaking, we have too much white noise going on in our minds when we are judging or “think we know” to open and listen and take in what we’re hearing. It is only through understanding and connecting with the other on their own terms that we have a chance to partner with them and help them cope and take ownership for their healing and recovery.

3. Suspending judgment is an inherent responsibility in our role as clinicians. Maria Bellchambers, in the opening chapter of See Me as a Person describes how this teaching was ingrained in her as a young student nurse in war torn Ireland (pp. 25-27). Her teachers prepared her to be able to provide care for the very people who may have tried to hurt members of her own family and who would be disparaging to her, simply because her name is Maria which marked her as a Catholic. Her teachers prepared her to fulfill the sacred trust inherent in her role as a nurse. In order to remain open, she mindfully wrapped herself in a “cloak of dignity.” This cloak symbolized the responsibility for the sacred trust she accepted in becoming a nurse and helped her stay true to her commitment.

These are the “whys” that inform my thinking. I encourage you to reflect on your own compelling reasons to stay out of judgment. It is only when we are anchored in our own values and beliefs about why it is important to suspend judgment that we can develop the discipline to mindfully release our habitual patterns of judgment.

How to Suspend Judgment and Accept Others Where They Are:

The steps to suspending judgment and accepting others are pretty straightforward. They become easier with time and practice.

1. Notice: I appreciate the fact that you describe being “flooded with judgment” at times. When we are flooded, we are much more able to notice and take responsibility for our judgment. (It is when our judging mind is subtle, and more nuanced that it can more easily go unnoticed.) Be easy on yourself when you notice your judgments. Letting go of self-judgment is fundamental to noticing and releasing judgment of others. As you notice, mentally shift your heart and mind to a state of openness.

2. Release: Mindfully let go of the judging thoughts.

3. Make a new Choice: Choose to attune to and wonder about the person in front of you. Remembering that everyone has a back story allows you to stay open to learning what you need to know to care for this unique person. When behaviors are challenging, wondering helps us shift from seeing behaviors as unacceptable (and a reason to judge) to seeing behaviors as a source of information about this unique person and what he or she is going through.

~ Mary Koloroutis

References:
Damasio, A. (1994). Descartes’ error: Emotion, reason and the human brain. New York: Quill.
Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, sorrow and the feeling brain. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.
Koloroutis, M & Trout, M., (2012). See me as a person: Creating therapeutic relationships with patients and their families. Minneapolis, MN: Creative Health Care Management.