These days judgment is a dirty word. This gets confusing for many of us especially when we feel that we are simply expressing an opinion. What is it that someone might feel that would lead them to assume that what we say, simply as an opinion, is a dispersion on their character? To understand this we have to look at a couple of definitions and how someone might interpret them differently from what they might have originally been intended to mean.
Let’s start simple and from our own perspective. What is an opinion and why might we need to have one, let alone express it?
To know what we want or don’t want, to know what we understand or don’t and in order to compare and express them we must first have a starting point; that is some place we can refer back to in order to know where we stand with them. This is where the definition of opinion comes into play. In its conventional meaning it’s defined as a chosen belief about our personal experience and what we think about it. We then use this opinion or belief to compare with newly occurring circumstances and experiences in order to understand how they might fit in with our lives and the things we prefer. So, essentially an opinion is a statement that reflects a decision about what we’d want or like in our lives. It’s when we communicate our opinions, beliefs and preferences to others that the responses, ours and theirs, get “sticky.”
Before we can go into others’ reactions to our opinions, let me ask you a question. When someone does or says something over which you get angry, do you blame them for making you angry or do you simply recognize it as your own reaction to something that you have no control over? This may be a subtle distinction but it makes a big difference on how you view someone else’s opinion about something; especially if it concerns you. That being said and left for you to digest a bit, let’s change gears and come back at this later from another side of things.
In our Western culture we have slowly become more and more accustomed to taking how we value ourselves from who and what are external to us. That is, we have our government, the media, the news, the internet, magazines, reality shows, our peer groups, our parents and more, all of whom are bombarding us with how we should be, what we should want and how we should act. There is an unconscious or subliminal benefit to being told who we should be and how we should act. If the rules of life come from outside of us, how can we be responsible or accountable for the conditions we encounter? This may relieve our pressure in making decisions but it also steals our personal power. Based on this we can say that our personal power is very much dependent on how accountable we are for our own successes and failures. If we are successful at something are we successful because the world says we are or are we so because we say so based on our own beliefs? We can’t have it both ways. Underlying it all we must all choose who is accountable for our successes and our failures. We can’t choose us for just our successes and then them for our failures. It must be one or the other. So, is it us or them?
In letting the world determine our value, we may have relieved ourselves of accountability but what it is that we have to realize is that our personal power has gone with it. So, how does this work? When we blame the world for what it is that we don’t have or can’t do, we give away our personal power. This way, whomever gets the blame also gets the credit. Now, being aware of this popular but unfortunate tendency of most people, let’s return to talking about opinions.
The best way to understand the dynamics of what occurs is to observe an example. So, let’s start with something easy; just a comment made between friends.
As a teacher is speaking to a mother at a school function she tells her that she shouldn’t be letting her sixteen year old daughter go out on a school night. This seems like a simple enough statement but there may be many things happening underneath the conversation on the parts of both women. Let’s first look at the mother.
If the mother is comfortable in her Self-Trust and who she is, she will probably just take the statement as an opinion and nothing more. If she is diminished or lacking in Self-Trust, other things are more likely to take place. The statement will trigger thoughts and feelings on either a conscious or unconscious level or in a combination of both. A lesser amount or even a lack of Self-Trust will make her more susceptible toward sensing the teacher’s assessment as a judgment about her quality of mothering. The teacher’s assessment might just be a statement of her position but the mother will, more than likely take her statement as a judgment. I see a judgment as the same as an assessment but with a moral component expressing a personal opinion as to whether what she is doing is seen as “good” or “bad.”
When the teacher makes her statement a couple of things will happen. First, the mother will feel anger or resentment toward the teacher. This will rise within her suddenly and involuntarily. Then, she will react with a fight or flight response depending on how sensitive she has become to being self-conscious in her early training. She will respond with either a quick retort to put the teacher on the defensive or she will assume a diminished posture reflecting the “bad little girl” she had been chastised as throughout her childhood. Mind you, this may seem like an extreme or way out analysis of the situation on my part due to the fact that her outer reactions might not be as obvious in the mother’s response but her intensity, visible or not, has a direct correlation to the amount of Self-Trust that she was able to retain or rebuild through and after her childhood training. The more she was able to retain, the less concern or intensity will be present in her reaction. For the mother who had not retained her spirit throughout her childhood training and who was “broken,” much like over-training a horse, the underlying feeling will be one of sadness or maybe even helplessness with a need to prevent the “exposure” of her perceived unworthiness. We should also realize that the anger she feels can be seen as a coping mechanism used to compensate for her perception of losing face and/or losing control. Now, let’s take a look at the teacher and her reactions.
You might think that the teacher’s reaction might be different but if she also suffers from diminished Self-Trust, whether through childhood training or through difficult and intimidating interactions with her boss, she may also present the same “symptoms” but with one exception. Because she is employed in a position of some authority, especially since it is connected to training children, the visibility of her discomfort will be a lot less obvious under the cover of her assumed authority. A second benefit dynamic to that authority will allow her to mitigate any of the effects of her diminished Self-Trust by resting in the assumed power and “license” given her profession. However, when she deals with her boss, she may feel the same perceived unworthiness the mother felt with her if her Self-Trust was also diminished in her childhood. If her Self-Trust is at a healthy level, even with her boss, her confidence would remain unaffected.
So, back to my original question: When does opinion or assessment become judgment? It is when our diminished or lack of Self-Trust and confidence leaves us feeling defensive of our own perceived inadequacy impelling us to take an ordinary statement of opinion from another as a slight or an offense.
My assessment of the interaction between the mother and the teacher may seem extreme or convoluted but we have to realize that we all take the feelings and impressions of our personal value created during childhood and allow them to be submerged below a tidal wave of socially acceptable behaviors designed to save face, minimize the exposure of our our emotional distresses and to fit us into what appears to others to be a smooth and structured social rapport. Because that social rapport only deals with life from an outwardly tangible perspective we are often left in a quandary understanding what to do with our feelings and beliefs about ourselves when they conflict with our expected contemporary customs. To make things more difficult for us, many of us don’t even realize what we are feeling when we do interact. With the progressive dissolution of the family and losing our role models, our distress in not knowing what to do with our in-congruent feelings has become even more acute. The only solution I see toward alleviating our perceived inadequacies “earned” in childhood is to work at building our Self-Trust and confidence so as not to make us susceptible to taking the world’s opinions about us to heart through seeing them as judgments. Then, even what might have been intentionally levied against us as a judgment will fall away from us as a simple opinion.