Trusting your gut has long been seen as imperfect and unreliable, a form of “woo-woo” pseudoscience with no logical way of explaining the notion of a sixth sense and the boundaries between intuition vs. being judgemental feeling murky at best.
But in recent years, research has proven the very real efficacy of gut instincts. Studies show that pairing gut feelings with analytical thinking leads to faster, more accurate decisions. And, the stomach isn’t just called the “second brain” by scientists because of anecdotal evidence. Roughly 100 million neurons line the digestive tract, which is more than the neural network surrounding even the spinal cord.
Although this is certainly good news for those who believe in the power of intuition—successful CEOs and other top execs claim to leverage it when handling crises, and major organizations invest millions in helping professionals refine intuitive skills—growing acceptance of using your intuition as a guide (and subsequent real-world applications) have perhaps had an unwanted side effect: The more we feel capable of listening to—and trusting—our gut, the more we’re poised to become, well, judgmental assholes. But where does a gut instinct end and a snap judgment begin?
Understanding the difference between intuition vs. being judgemental
“Trusting your gut is often more of a feeling than a thought process,” says licensed psychologist Jessica Rabon, PhD. “We may feel uncomfortable on edge, or that something is off. In contrast, being judgmental is about forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion about the other person or situation, rather than how they are making you feel.”
So, whereas intuition may lead someone to say, “I have a bad feeling about this person,” judgment may lead them to verbalize, “This person is rude.”
Adia Gooden, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, adds that judgment is often an additional layer people, particularly women, tack onto their intuition. “Tuning into your internal wisdom and intuition is often thought of as more feminine, and seen as emotional and irrational,” says Dr. Gooden. “We often denigrate people for going off of their intuition alone, so I think these people have learned to justify it. So, if we went on a bad date, our gut was that it didn’t feel right, but then we lay judgments on top of it. ‘They showed up five minutes late, and the restaurant they chose was so basic, and the way they were dressed….’”
This often happens naturally, and subconsciously. You’re likely doing it with your best friend, when they continue to date someone you see as a bad match. You’re doing it with your coworker, when they force a meeting that could have been an email. You’re doing it with the person in front of you in line at the coffee shop, as they give an overly complicated latte order to the barista, and to the stranger on the train, who is wearing something you find wholly inappropriate for the weather.
But just as its more emotional cousin, intuition, has gotten a generally—and unfairly—bad rap, so has judgmental behavior. “Judgments give us really rich information about our value system and what matters to us,” says Mary Beth Somich, licensed therapist. “We live in a complex world where we have to make hundreds of judgment calls per day. They are necessary, and not inherently a bad thing.” Dr. Rabon agrees: “Judgment can help us navigate life, determine the friends we have, the relationships we get into, or the jobs we want to apply for.”
It’s what we do with that judgment—and how, according to Somich, “it’s presented, delivered, or enforced”—that can become problematic. “Being overly judgmental can hold us back from experiencing things that could bring richness to our lives,” she says. “It can contribute to discrimination or hate, and it can exacerbate or fuel anxiety and fear that negatively impacts the mental health and happiness of others and ourselves.”
That latter point is a big one, Dr. Rabon says. “When we overly judge others, when we’re overly critical, we actually harm ourselves,” she says. “Our brain becomes more attuned to finding the negative in others, thus leading us to find more negatives in ourselves.” She has seen this lead to increased stress, anxiety, and depression.
What to do when your judgments hurt more than help
1. Pay attention to what triggers your judgmental behavior.
“The first step to being less judgmental is to increase your self-awareness about your judgments,” says Dr. Rabon. She recommends actively identifying when you are having a judgmental thought and then taking an inventory of what was happening at that moment. “What was the actual stimulus that elicited the judgmental thought; what emotions were you feeling before, during, and after?”
By documenting these moments and detecting patterns, you may discover your judgments are heightened in certain environments or around certain people in your life. Or, you could be triggered when you are feeling a certain way—perhaps you have more judgmental thoughts when you are overtired and feeling irritable.
2. Let go of self-judgment
People are often more judgmental of themselves than they are of others, which is why Dr. Gooden encourages clients to try to get at the root of judgmental behavior. “Let’s say you’re going to a party, and you judge the way someone was dressed,” she says. “Ask yourself why that set you off. Were you feeling self-conscious about how you’re dressed? Were you judging yourself about how your body looks?”
She also suggests people catch themselves in the act of overtly self-critical thoughts. “One of the ways to practice that is through self-compassion,” she says. “When people are more compassionate to themselves, they can be more compassionate to other people.”
3. Tweak your vocabulary
Do you often use words like good, bad, always, or never? If these are common descriptors (“You’re unreliable because you’re always late,” for instance), you may be doing too much “all-or-nothing, black-and-white thinking,” according to Somich. “This is a common contributor to over-excessive judgment,” she says. “Catch yourself using this language and consider whether there are exceptions to that narrative.”
A solution she recommends is to also add the word and to black-and-white thoughts. “Try saying, ‘my neighbor can be really annoying, and I appreciate when he shares fresh vegetables from his garden.’”
4. Be curious versus critical
It’s a subtle mental shift, but curiosity offers a more positive framework than criticism. “Be curious as to why a person may be acting in a certain way, and try to find alternate explanations for the behavior rather than jumping to critical conclusions,” says Dr. Rabon.
If, for example, you see a mom staring at her phone while pushing her child on the playground swing set, you may initially assume she’s a “bad” parent, but try to extend the courtesy of curiosity and reconsider her reasons for doing that. Perhaps she’s catching up on work after several days of being out with a sick kid, or maybe she’s sending an urgent text to her partner.
5. Practice acceptance
Accepting other people or scenarios can be challenging, but Dr. Rabon says it’s the key to letting go of toxic judgment. “We cannot control the behaviors of others, only how we respond to them,” she says. “Once we realize there is only so much we can control, it makes it easier to accept people and situations for who and what they are because we shift our focus from the external to the internal.”
A vital way to engage in acceptance is by exposing yourself to different cultures and experiences, instead of “enforcing behaviors based on predisposed beliefs,” says Somich. “Ask yourself, ‘is this judgment accurate or helpful?’” The more you are able to accept, the clearer the answer to that will be.
6. Stay connected to your gut
Judgments can certainly be made without relying on intuition, but, Somich says, “The risk of being judgmental—as a personality trait, versus making a judgment—is in losing that connection to intuition.” When making decisions, try to engage with your gut and your judgments in tandem.
Dr. Gooden likes to “listen” to those internal thoughts to better determine if the judgment is on the right track. “How our gut sounds is usually quiet and calm,” she says. “We often know if a job interview went well or if we want a second date, and when we ask ourselves, we can usually hear it in our gut. We can hear if it’s loud and anxious or if it’s calm and quiet. Let that inform you.”