Do you judge yourself? Do you judge others?
Do you find yourself critically responding (out loud, or in your mind) with demeaning or derogatory statements when you have a thought or notice a feeling? Or when you see someone taking an action or having dialogue with others?
Trauma survivors especially tend to have harsh, inner-critic voices. This inner, critical voice almost always spends some time internally disparaging self, and sometimes can also be aimed at others.
This critical voice sounds judgmental — whether it’s “She looks terrible in those pants!” or
OR “I look terrible in these pants!” — or both! The critic thinks or says things like, “That was a stupid thing to say!” or “You did that wrong!” or “I’m better than you!”
If you struggle with a judgmental or critical voice, you are not alone. Today we’re going to talk about where it comes from, why it served you in the past, and what you can do about it now to help you feel happier and safer.
Are you judgmental?
Whether internal or external, judgment or criticism usually comes from the same place: hypervigilance.
A trauma history teaches people to be on the lookout for potential dangers, big and small, all the time! This doesn’t just mean oncoming vehicles or angry dogs — it can mean what seems like tiny things to some — even feelings, as those can be triggers for the amygdala (warning alarm from the brain) that danger is coming. Hypervigilance can bring judgment, and it is all about avoiding danger. Danger that you know from the past, or danger you worry is lurking around the corner. Hypervigilance and yes, judgment too — are part of your body’s wiring to protect you!
Judgment and criticism are essentially your brain and body constantly assessing everything for safety — and if you had a history of childhood trauma (big T or little T!) — then this mechanism was absolutely necessary back then to keep you safe.
Childhood trauma comes in all forms:
If you grew up with a hypercritical parent…
If you were physically, verbally, or sexually abused…
If your parent was absent and withdrawn…
If you had to be “perfect” to receive love…
Then it’s likely everything you said or did impacted your ability to exist — to get what you needed to survive … to stay safe … or to get love or acceptance.
What danger was there if you didn’t do things perfectly? What would happen if you weren’t paying close enough attention? If you endured trauma, you were always working to improve your hypervigilance to notice the danger. And because nobody can ever perfectly predict when someone will harm them, you were never good enough at it. No matter how closely you paid attention. And because of what happened in the past, trauma survivors’ brains and bodies are still striving to achieve “perfect” hypervigilance.
No wonder your brain is constantly assessing everything — in yourself, in others, or all of the above, to see where the danger lies, where you could be better, or what you might miss seeing.
Isn’t it better if you notice your faults first? Isn’t it better if you notice things about others so you can be prepared for whatever might come your way? That is where the brain goes naturally, as a trauma response.
Why is judgment or criticism harming us now?
While judgment or criticism may have kept safety in childhood, it is likely a hindrance now. Judgment is the opposite of compassion, and compassion is absolutely necessary to have healthy relationships with ourselves and others.
Judgment and criticism easily take up too much space now — keeping a trauma survivor wrapped up in negative, worrying thoughts, fueling an already-activated nervous system, preventing authentic, vulnerable relationships, and stopping the experiencing of the joys available today in safe, adult life.
The mind thinks if we are constantly judging — noticing all of the faults, then we can do something and keep ourselves and others safe.
If I judge myself, I can protect myself from what others may say or think.
If I judge you, I can control things (our relationship) and keep myself separate and safe.
Are we judging or criticizing because our inner child is still trying to keep us safe? Are we judging because we are insecure, scared, anxious, confused, or in pain? Unless we are asked to be judges for a singing competition, the answer, most of the time, is yes.
Did you know that people who did not experience traumatic events and came from securely attached relationships in their childhood tend to have an underlying belief that everything will be okay. They feel good on the inside about themselves. They tend to feel confident, not insecure. They don’t feel the need to tightly control things.
Wouldn’t it feel good to exist in the world like that? Good news: It is possible — even for trauma survivors!
So, how can we stop being so judgmental and critical?
Withholding judgment is another element of being trauma-informed. Coming to situations with a trauma-informed lens allows us to have curiosity and compassion rather than judgment. It helps us to consider:
What happened to this person (or myself) to cause this behavior?
A trauma-informed lens easily moves us from This person is driving so slow! to: I wonder why this person is driving so slow.
When your mind goes to judgment or criticism — and it will! — ask yourself:
Can I be curious about this person’s story? Can I be curious about my own need to judge? Can I bring compassion to this thought?
If you walk down the street and see someone wearing mismatched clothing, you might immediately think something harsh about them.
Let’s say it’s: Yuck! That person’s outfit is a mess!
When you bring curiosity and compassion about yourself to this thought, you might ask:
What does this judgment say about me? The answers could be lots of things:
- Fashion is important to me! (above all else)
- The way I look is important to me. (above all else)
- Could the way I look be TOO important to me?
- Maybe this is a result of how I was treated as a child, where I had to look perfect in order to be accepted or loved.
When you bring curiosity and compassion about the other person to this thought, you might ask: I wonder why they are dressed like that? What’s their story? There are so many possibilities:
- Fashion isn’t important to them. Perhaps other things are important to them.
- They may not have enough money to buy anything else.
- They could be colorblind.
- They think it looks good!
- Their child put that outfit together for them.
Curiosity and compassion result in empathy and kindness towards ourselves and others!
Remember, everybody has a story! People are always deeper than what we see upon first glance. For example, do you remember when we wrote about the Humans of New York story about John Gargano.
Can we be more compassionately curious?
Of course, judgment and criticism are especially common for trauma survivors. It makes sense, given the history! But ask yourself: What would it be like to feel safe enough in life to not have to judge? What would it be like to approach the world with more empathy and compassionate curiosity?
It’s usually not about the other person’s shirt, or the thing you’re criticizing yourself about; there’s likely an underlying issue that is being stirred or triggered by your trauma history.
Replacing judgment with curiosity and compassion can help you hold hope in life. It can help you cultivate compassion and vulnerability in healthy relationships. And these things feel really, really good.
Trauma-informed therapy can help.
There is no judgment in therapy. In trauma informed therapy, we come to the table with the understanding and knowledge that there is a good reason for you to do whatever you do. And then we help you work to build safety and security in your life, today.
Everyone has a story.
Everyone has a reason.
Let’s not judge; let’s have compassion.
- Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself by Dr. Kristin Neff
- More than support – 9 things trauma-informed therapists always provide
- Are you able to hold hope in life?
- 6 ways to calm your nervous system right now and understand it.
- How to be trauma-informed given today’s important issues?
- A strategy for coping with the hard parts of life
- You deserve love and harmony no matter your scars from trauma