Being judgy about being judgy
A dear friend was recently telling me a story about a friend of her who had a frustrating pattern of chasing one relationship after another without taking much time in between to reflect. At one moment, I let out a Laugh, which my friend perceptively picked up: “I don’t know where that laugh is from, but it made me very uncomfortable.”
You probably have been in a similar situation. It’s not nice on either end. Worse, keeping the discomfort inside may lead to resentment, while expressing out loud causes tension.
The comment got me wondering. Later I realized the laugh sounded condescending because it came from my judgmental side.
I’m usually an introspective guy who likes to sort things out by doing inner work, so as a bias I do feel that way to be more superior. It comes from an assumption that if one’s life has been about chasing after external stuff, then maturing often means caring and doing more inner work too. It’s an assumption, so it may or may not be true.
Imagine being my friend and you can understand where the discomfort comes from. On her end, my laugh provokes a few questions: “Who are you to say this? Everyone has his or her own lesson to learn” or “I didn’t ask you to comment, why do you say it?”
On my end, I thought I laughed out of an ironic sense of human folly (“Sigh… We humans keep making the same mistake”). I know I’m too just another human, and I’m no exempted from such folly. Nevertheless, it probably has come off as condescending.
Reflecting upon it gave me a chill on my spine. If I was calm, measured and still automatically let out such a laugh, then how deep must the habit of judgment be? Worse, if a moment like that can already make someone uncomfortable, then how many times in my life have I unintentionally done so?
More importantly though, where does that laugh come from?
As I sat and contemplated on this, the answer became clear: it was the result of some unprocessed suppression. Let me explain.
I have been taught from young to not judge, or at least withhold judgment, to “live and let live.” Later on, it turns into a self-image of someone who’s accepting, kind and non-judgmental. Overtime, I got over-identified with this persona, which for the most part has been useful. I stay contented, I do no harm, I am welcoming. At least I believe so. 😅
Yet any single self-image will eventually leak, for we are never that plainly good. For each seemingly kind, open, accepting self-image there is an equal and opposite shadowed side that is mean, judgy and pretty darn closed off.
The unexpected laugh was another incident where the shadow leaked out. When that happens, there are often two responses.
The first is to freak out, get confused or angry about your own shortcomings. “How on earth could I do that?” More generally, “why do good people do bad thing?” The previous self-image is too small to hold this new, unacceptable behavior.
The second response is to do a bit of gentle self-inquiry “How might I see myself in a larger way to make sense of such contradicting behaviors?” Indeed, many modalities of healing from IFS to Satir to Systemic Constellation etc.. address this. This is a riskier approach that can lead to further confusion, so don’t try it at home without proper supervision. Unless you are like me.
“Live and let live”?
Let’s try using my example again by revisiting the childhood lesson of “live and let live”.
It comes from a desire for security and safety. “If I don’t touch you, hopefully you will not touch me”. That’s a genuine hope that many people, including my mom, do indeed share. But as a story to tell oneself, it no long makes as much sense for a few reasons.
First, when we play too safe to avoid the bad, we tend to lose chances for the good too. It maybe fine to apply that once in a while, but as a core philosophy it just doesn’t sound right to me. This motto, “If you want to have something you’ve never had before, you have to do something you’ve never done before” make more sense. We need good judgments, which mostly comes from making bad ones and learn from them.
Second, we will be touched anyway. Sometimes it’s from other people; other times it’s from the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Remember the story of the Buddha, who used to be the pampered Prince Siddhartha? No matter how much his father king tries to shield him from the knowledge of “negative” things like sickness and death, he eventually discovers them and cannot stay within the illusion any more. Disengage is important for recharge, but as a stance it is not realistic.
Last and perhaps most important, deep down we do want to be touched… Our usual selves just don’t like that idea, for it often is misunderstood as weakness and dependency. This is the one that trips me up the most, which shows how deep I’ve bought into the “live and let live” philosophy.
I’ve been avoiding a truth that I do want to be seen, to matter, to be missed when I’m gone.
It maybe true that much harms have been done by over-inflated egos. Yet, I believe that far more important is to foster a healthier ego AND remembering the larger spiritual reality beyond it. Our task is to do both. “To stand strong in this life and stay humble in the next” as the Sufi saying goes. It’s not easy, but certainly worthwhile.
Such incident of a Leaked Laugh was a humbling wake up call.
For a long time, I lean on not taking up space, for “fear of having a big ego”.
For a long time, I don’t dare to judge, because I’m afraid of being judged.
The petty me is afraid to voice out into the world, yet only when he does so can his judgment become grounded, practical and wise.
So what now? How can we start this necessary but somewhat uncomfortable process of “eating the shadow”, to use a psychological parlance? Does that mean if you are open and non-judgmental, you should suddenly become judgy and insists “my way or highway”?
Yes, but perhaps in an experimental, playful setting. That’s why theater & BDSM community can be quite a good place for self-discovery. There you can flip the light & dark and have some fun, for an interplay of two colors is surely more interesting than a monotony of one.
In daily life though, you can do something simpler, such as sitting in contemplation.
Find a nice quiet place, drop into the ease of your breath and let the mental chatter quiet down. Then slowly bring up your favorite self-image.
(For me, it’s a wise, calm, open, non-judgmental person)
Then ask in silence, as if you are offering the question to the sky and wait for the surprise answer.
What if I am the opposite? What if everything I’m proud of myself is no longer true?
What if I’m not valued for what I’m most proud of myself, whether it is knowledge, principles, wealth, beauty or even spirituality?
Would it be okay?
Such contemplation has helped me know myself much better and thus less frightened when my crap leaks out in the world like that laughable laugh incident.
I hope it helps you too, heh.
(sorry, the shadow comes out again…😛)
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Learning from a leaked laugh was originally published in The Ascent on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.