Being judged hurts. It’s the opposite of connection and acceptance, which all of us strive and hope for.
Sometimes the judgement is real. It’s either overtly expressed to us or it’s more subtle and more of something that we sense.
And sometimes the judgement isn’t real. It’s a product of our fear, only existing in our minds.
This article is not about how to tell if someone is judging you or not. Instead, I will focus on what we can do about the fear of judgement, whether the judgement is actually happening or just imagined.
The Drive to Figure Out if in Fact We’re Being Judged or Not
Why do we have a strong urge to figure out, for certain, if we’re being judged or not?
Because when we’re being judged we feel under threat and in danger. We try to figure it out so we know if we need to be on guard or if we can relax.
The problem with this pursuit is that judgements usually aren’t overt. Most of the time the signs are subtle. Maybe a certain look or change in body posture may tip us off, but we’re still speculating after that.
None of us can read minds and we’re not as good as we like to think we are at reading body language and facial expressions.
Rumination vs Worry
The pursuit of knowing with certainty if we’re being judged or not leads to rumination.
What is rumination? Rumination is our mind chewing the same thoughts and worry, over and over and over.
Imagine our mind is a cow and our thoughts are the grass that it chews. This is rumination:
Rumination about being judged sounds like this:
- Were they laughing at me?
- I wonder if he’s gossiping about me?
- What does that look mean?
- What if they are talking behind my back? My reputation is going to be ruined.
These questions aren’t terrible to ask ourselves. They are essential to keeping us socially aware and competent.
But, when these questions become circular, with no answer, but we keep asking ourselves the same question over and over. And it leads to never ending “What if” scenarios.
This is a good sign we’ve crossed the line into ruminating.
Ruminating is different than productive worry.
Often times worry has a negative meaning. It’s uncomfortable. But, it also keeps us safe. If we never worried, our lives would be a mess.
Worry is helpful when it leads to problem solving. We have a question, we either answer it or conclude it can’t be answered. And then we identify actionable steps to take.
When worry does not have an end and does not lead to actionable steps, this is rumination. The illusion of problem solving.
Feelings vs Thoughts vs Behaviors
Feeling, Thoughts, and Behaviors all influence one another. It’s a process that can start from any of three and travel in any direction.
This process is very important for us to examine on a regular basis. The more we can be aware of this process, especially when we are emotionally “hot,” the more control we get and the more we can learn about ourselves and our mental and behavioral patterns.
This process is instantaneous when we are “hot.” We quickly move from a Thought or Feeling to an Action.
This is helpful is some situations, for example driving and a little child runs out into the middle of the road. We want our autopilot to kick in and slam on the breaks.
This is not helpful in situations where we’re not in harms way, but we are reacting like we are.
When we feel like we’re being judged, whether it’s true or not, it can cause us intense emotions, which can lead us to react in certain automatic ways that aren’t helpful. We may lash out and accuse. We may curl up and avoid.
The goal from understanding this process is awareness. And awareness is just another way of saying turning off the autopilot.
The goal is to turn off our autopilot responses and gain more control. To behave in way that not is automatic, but in a way that brings us closer to our goals and in ways that are in line with our values.
Our Flawed Thinking
We’re smart people, but our brains are far from perfect. All day, every day our brain produces mostly junk thoughts, that distort reality.
We like to think we see reality objectively, but this really isn’t possible. We all see the world through our own unique lens. And this lens influences how we perceive reality and what type of thoughts our brains produce.
In psychology, we call them Distorted Thoughts:
Forecasting: “My colleagues will judge me and gossip about my presentation tomorrow.” Forecasting is when we convince ourselves we know with 100% certainty a negative outcome is going to occur.
Mind Reading: “I saw her looking me up and down. I know she’s criticizing my outfit in her mind.” Mind reading is when our brains convince us we know what someone else is thinking. None of us have the ability to see inside someone else’s brain.
Catastrophizing: “If I take a risk and share personal details, I know they’ll think that I’m weird. They’ll reject me and then I’ll be alone. I’m going to die a lonely person.” Our brains are great at coming up with worst-case scenarios.
Personalization: “Jim constantly laughs at what I say. More evidence of why I’m awkward and socially inept.” Our brains love to blame us for things that actually have nothing to do with us. Jim’s laughter is probably more of a reflection of his issues than something that is wrong with you. It’s likely Jim treats other people the similarly or for some reason something about you triggers him. Either way, it’s really Jim’s issue.
Black and White Thinking: “I made some mistakes on my presentation yesterday. I’m a failure.” Black or white thinking doesn’t allow for middle ground. Maybe you did make some mistakes, but does it mean you failed? Doesn’t it just mean that you’re human?
Should Statements: “I shouldn’t feel insecure and disappointed when someone criticizes my work.” Should statements are way of placing expectations on ourselves. It’s a covert way of beating ourselves up. Maybe we shouldn’t lash out or stop trying when we receive criticism, but feeling insecure and disappointed is very normal.
Negative Filter: “Susan is always making critical comments about my appearance.” Maybe Susan does make quite a few comments, but it’s likely not always, and it’s likely she’s given some compliments before. Negative filter is when our brain only allows negative information to enter. It ignores and minimizes positive information.
Emotional Reasoning: “I feel insecure and put down, so they must be judging me.” Just because we feel we’re being judged doesn’t mean that’s actually happening. Our emotions mislead us all the time. They don’t always reflect reality.
If you’re an honest human being, you’re brain sends you flawed thinking all day, every day.
The goal is not to stop the flawed thinking, because that’s impossible. Instead, a more realistic goal is to simply become more aware of the thoughts, more often.
Most of the time we are unaware of the thoughts. And as a result, our Thoughts, Behaviors, and Actions, become fused. This is autopilot.
Instead, if we examine each thought we have and we label the distorted thought when it happens, that in itself can defuse the intensity of the emotions.
“I Won’t Be Able to Cope”
Often underlying any fear of judgement is the belief that we won’t be able to handle it. We won’t know if we should stand up and assert ourselves. We won’t know if we should stay quiet.
We generally don’t trust that our response will be the right thing and believe our response will the situation worse and make ourselves an even bigger target for judgement.
The reality is, usually we are able to cope with the judgement or possible judgement, and we overestimate the level of danger that is poses on us.
In short, judgement whether real or perceive can be extremely uncomfortable. At the same time, we’re not going to die from it.
Avoidance Starts a Vicious Cycle
When we think we can’t cope judgement we avoid situations that we think we’re likely to get judged. Logically, it makes sense.
However, when we avoid, we perpetuate the belief we can’t cope.
Our brain says we can’t cope, we avoid, and our brain rewards us with comfortable emotions. And the next time we find ourselves getting close to a situation where we might get judged, our brain screams louder and sends more intense uncomfortable feelings. It says, “I thought we already solved this. This is dangerous. Stop!”
The result is a stronger urge to avoid. We believe even more in the lie of not being able to cope.
How do we get out of this cycle? We lean into the discomfort.
We override our misfiring brain. Our brain says stop, you’re in danger, and you respond, “I’m actually not in danger. It could be uncomfortable at the very worst. Thanks for the warning, but I’m going in.”
We can also boost our confidence in our ability to cope.
Assertive Defense of The Self
Dr. Christine Padesky, a leading expert in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a style of therapy most often used to treat anxiety, innovated the a exercise called “Assertive Defense of the Self.”
Essentially, it’s about standing up to the negative judgement (whether it’s real or perceived). Either said directly to the person, but at the very least, and maybe even more importantly, said to ourselves.
Assertive self-talk is a powerful coping skill. It challenges our assumption of “I wont’ be able to cope.”
This is what it looks like:
Critical Carl: “You fumbled over your words. Is everything OK?”
You: “Yes, I’m fine, sometimes I experience anxiety in certain situations.”
Critical Carl: “But, there’s nothing to be anxious about here. Is something wrong? Are you crazy?”
You: “No, far from it actually. I simply experience anxiety.”
Critical Carl: “I think something is wrong with you.”
You: “Anxiety is actually very common. Maybe you’re just not familiar with it.”
Critical Carl: “I just can’t understand why you’d be anxious in this situation. We’re just talking.”
You: “Yes, some people don’t understand. And I can see why you’d think I’m crazy when you don’t understand.”
Assertiveness is in the middle of passivity and aggression. Assertiveness acknowledges that you can’t change the other person, but it also refuses to bottle things up.
We shouldn’t assert ourselves verbally in every situation. We have to use our best judgement of when to actually say it to the other person.
In a perfect, reasonable environment, people are receptive to assertiveness. But, if we’re in abusive or toxic environment, we need to be cautious. It may make our situation worse.
We should always aim to be assertive using self-talk though.
And again, we don’t just use assertive self-talk when Critical Carl is criticizing out loud. It can be when we think Critical Carl might be criticizing, but we’re not sure, and it can be used when we’re convinced he’s being critical, but it turns out in the end we’re wrong.
An important aspect of this strategy is that we don’t argue with our thoughts.
We don’t say, “Carl isn’t being critical. Thoughts, you have no proof of that.”
Instead we say, “Well maybe Carl is being critical, and if he is, well, Carl, I have anxiety and sometimes I get anxious. Maybe you’re not familiar with anxiety, but it’s really common.”
Validating and then asserting ourselves to our thoughts is much more effective than trying to prove our thoughts and images are wrong.
Remember, it’s impossible to know if Carl is actually criticizing in his head or not. If we argue with the thoughts, they usually just dig in more, and feed us more evidence of why Carl is judging.
Also, there’s usually a small piece of us (or large piece) that believes our thoughts to be true. Thoughts and images come up, and a side of us says, “You know what, I think you’re right. Critical Carl is being critical.”
And then we focus on anything Carl does that supports the idea of him criticizing us, while we ignore everything else (Negative Filter).
Validating and asserting is essentially refusing to debate their legitimacy. Validating and asserting says, “Yes, maybe you are right, and if you are right about Carl judging me, that’s ok. I CAN cope by asserting self-talk.”
It’s not always a worthwhile pursuit trying to figure out if you’re actually being judged or not. Sometimes it does appear overtly, but most of the time it’s impossible to be 100% certain.
Instead of figuring out if it’s happening or not, focus on building your resilience and confidence around judgement. If you’re successful with that, you’ve built a strong template that can be used in many areas of your life.
If you found this article helpful, I think you’ll find my Self Help section to useful.