by Jonathan Robinson
If you can fog a mirror, you have probably noticed two things. First, there are a lot of annoying, incompetent, stupid, and very difficult folks living in this world. Second, assuming you agree with my previous sentence, you have a very judgmental mind. For better or worse, you’re not alone. A hundred thousand years ago, the ability to judge people quickly helped our species survive. If we saw an unknown caveman and thought they “looked friendly,” we could die if they actually ended up being a killer. Thus, our minds learned to judge people quickly, and if in doubt, with great suspicion. After all, judging and being afraid of strangers could save your life.
Yet nowadays, the tendency of our minds to judge most everyone as annoying, different than us, or just plain difficult simply leads to stress and unhappiness. Fortunately, there are four simple phrases you can use to overcome your mind’s constant judgements, and instead feel open hearted, compassionate, and at ease with other’s behavior. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to find the simple phrase or phrases that work best for you. Once you find a phrase that works for you, you can maintain a peaceful and loving attitude towards people—even when they’re committed to being super annoying.
It Must Be Hard Being Them
The first phrase I’ve used to quickly let go of judgment is, “It must be hard being them.” This sentence is meant to evoke compassion, not superiority. If you think this phrase and feel superior to whoever you’re judging, you’re not using it the way it’s intended. However, if you think this phrase from your heart, and feel compassion for a person for being burdened by their difficult behavior, then you’re using it well.
Recently, I talked to a very rude airline reservation clerk over the phone. She was curt, unhelpful, and incompetent (in my judgmental opinion). Anyway, she was either a very wounded and angry person, or she was having a particularly bad day. Yet, when I thought in my mind, “It must be hard being her,” I immediately felt more compassion for her. After all, someone as angry and unhelpful as she must create a lot of havoc in her life. She probably feels very lonely, frustrated with her job, and angry that she gets a lot of resistance to her difficult personality. Strangely, as soon as I felt more compassion for her, her behavior became less troubling. It often goes that way.
How is That Like Me?
I used to live in a spiritual community. I liked some of the members of this community, while others I found particularly irritating. When annoyed, in this community we were encouraged to use a phrase that helped us to immediately let go of our self-righteousness and annoyance. The phrase was, “How’s that like me?” So, if Joe was complaining about how it was too hot to work outside when it was 80 degrees, I’d ask myself, “How’s that like me? Do I ever complain like Joe is doing?” The answer was an inevitable “yes.” In fact, I would try to pinpoint exactly how I sometimes behaved like Joe’s current annoying behavior. For example, I might remember that my complaining about being out of potato chips was similar to Joe being upset about working in less than perfect weather.
When I would see how I sometimes acted in ways that were similar to whatever I found annoying or difficult in another, two things would happen. First, I would let go of my self-righteousness and feel humbled. Second, I would feel more compassionate towards whoever I had been judging. After all, we all do annoying and even stupid things at times. We’re human. The phrase, “How’s that like me?” has helped remind me of our shared humanity and assisted me in seeing that I, too, am not perfect.
Don’t Know Mind
A third approach to overcoming our mind’s judgmental tendencies is to think a phrase such as, “I don’t really know the whole story.” In the Zen tradition, they call this “don’t know mind.” Our mind always wants to attach a story to whatever is happening in our lives. Even when we have almost no information, we create a story in our head as to what things mean and what’s really going on. Most of these stories that we create make us look pretty good and make other’s look pretty bad. Yet, if and when we get a fuller picture of reality, we see that there’s no such thing as one person being “all good,” and another being “all bad.” People are complex, and they often have very good reasons for their behavior—even if we can’t see it at the time or know what it is.
As a psychotherapist, I get to see “behind the curtain” of why people behave the way they do. Several years back, I had a client who was required by a court to see me due to his having repeatedly hit his wife and kids. I had never seen such a person in my office, and my initial reaction to him was one of judgement and disgust. However, I soon learned that his father had not only beaten him, but sexually abused him as a child. As I learned about his life, I understood why he had turned out the way he did. I felt deep compassion for this wounded man, and as therapy progressed, I let go of my judgments and he let go of his violent tendencies. Had I held on to my initial judgement that he was a bad person, neither of us would have been healed. Not believing your mind’s initial judgments can be a path to greater freedom for both you and others.
They are a Perfect Them
In most spiritual traditions, there is the idea that behind our personality and behaviors, we all share a common awareness, soul, or divine nature. This divine nature may be hidden under many layers of ego and problematic behavior, but it’s there somewhere. If you can quiet your mind and open your heart, you can sometimes tune into this soul or divine aspect in others—even if they’re being annoying. A phrase I’ve used to help me along this path is, “They are a perfect them.” When I say this sentence from my heart, it reminds me that everyone is simply doing the best they can, and that a perfect soul is hidden underneath all their wounding.
In movies, there’s always a “bad guy” or gal who we root against. Even if that character’s behavior is abhorrent, we may still marvel at the acting abilities of the person portraying the antagonist. In a similar way, when I see someone doing something I find offensive, I can still admire how well they’re playing their role. They might be a world class jerk, but at least they are playing that role perfectly. And behind the role they are playing, they are a wounded, vulnerable human being—just like me. In short, they are a “perfect them,” and as I allow them to be who they are, it gives me the chance to let go of my judgment and feel compassion and peace.
Ultimately, we all want to love and be loved. Unfortunately, our Neanderthal-like judgmental minds get in the way of what we truly crave deep down inside. By trying out the four phrases I’ve discussed, you may find a quick way to sidestep how your mind creates separation and annoyance. Once you find a simple way to elude judging others, you can instantly enjoy more peace, compassion, and love.