As much as I try not to, I’m constantly worried about what others are thinking of me. Part of the reason why is that I’m pretty judgmental–if I’m having these not-so-nice thoughts about others, they must also be having them about me, right? But, being judgy often stems from our own insecurities, explains Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist. The things we’re critical about in others are the things we’re critical about in ourselves.
“We judge naturally,” says Dr. Manly, who is the author of Date Smart ($16), Aging Joyfully ($19), and Joy From Fear ($20). Judgment is necessary “so that we can discriminate between healthy food and moldy food; healthy situations and unhealthy situations; a safe person coming into the village vs. an intruder coming into the village,” she explains. But judgment can also be used negatively when “we judge people against this idealized image of what we believe life should be, or what the media believes life or we should be,” Dr. Manly adds. “That’s when what I call ‘the voice of toxic comparison’ comes in.”
That’s not to say it’s not okay to analyze people. “It’s natural for us to see someone and say, ‘Oh my God, she’s gorgeous,’ right? And that’s absolutely fine,” Dr. Manly says. “We just don’t want to go to the next step and say, ‘She’s more gorgeous than I am,’ or, ‘She’s prettier than I am,’ or, ‘She’s more fit.’ Or if you’re looking at someone saying, ‘Oh, well I am prettier than she is,’ or, ‘I’m more fit,’ we also want to stop that because what’s it doing? It’s increasing the viper inside of us and it’s feeding the viper, and we don’t want to feed the viper that’s criticizing ourselves or criticizing other people.”
These idealized thoughts of how we “should” look or what we “should” do stem from cognitive distortions. “”Our minds will distort things in order to make what we’re doing okay,” Dr. Manly says. “Cognitive distortions are that place where your mind gets distorted to believe, ‘Everybody does this,’ or, ‘Everybody deserves to be criticized,’ or ‘Everybody’s body should be judged.'”
For example, I’ve got tons of internalized fatphobia that I project onto myself and sometimes (in my head) others. Media depictions certainly influenced this–did anyone who grew up watching The Nanny not develop body insecurities stemming from pencil-thin Fran Drescher fearing weight gain like the plague? But some of it was also passed down through messages from my mom and grandmother that being fat is bad. Something Dr. Manly classifies as “an intergenerational transmission of violence.”
Wherever your insecurities stem from, Dr. Manly says it’s very possible to unlearn them and lead a life where you’re kinder to yourself and others.
1. Acknowledge when you’re doing it
“One of the key things is just to notice when you’re doing it. Just stop yourself,” says Dr. Manly. “But here’s the key–you can’t judge yourself for doing it, because then you’re letting judgment in again. It’s just, ‘Oh, I notice that I’m criticizing that person or criticizing that person’s looks, I don’t want to do that. Leave it be.’ “
2. Talkback to judgmental thoughts
When you catch yourself being judgmental, it’s important to stop and ask yourself: “Do I want to be judging right now?”
“Sometimes you’ll say, ‘Yeah, I want to go for it. I want to tear her to pieces,’ and that’s a choice,” says Dr. Manly. “And other times you’ll go, ‘No, I don’t really want to feed that viper inside me.’ And the more we go to that side without judgment, the more we will hardwire that part into our brains that is loving and compassionate with others and the self.”
As intangible as it sounds, Dr. Manly says that by routinely talking back to these intrusive thoughts and choosing to not engage with them, we can, over time, stop them from happening.
“Our brains can be trained. That’s the beauty of neuroplasticity. That all of the thoughts you have are simply your own hardwiring,” she says. “It’s mind-blowing, but I see it every day in my clinical practice that the people who work more on feeding that positive side of themselves, they change their lives. Yes, it takes time, but they eventually get to a place where they’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t even recognize that person. That person was vicious.'”
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