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Judging Others: Projections of the Self and How to Learn from Them

Written by Lane Gormley, EdS, LPC, BCC

Depression Counseling in Kennesaw, Alpharetta, Conyers and Athens, GA

Passing Judgment
Most of us judge others to some extent. Some of us do it unconsciously or semi-consciously. We might not be mindful – there’s that word again – of how frequent, how harsh, how inconsistent, how unfair, and how irrational our judgments are. Some people are not even aware that they do it a great part of every day and that it is a significant factor in their sad and irritable moods, sense of isolation, and the pessimistic quality of their lives.

When our negative judgments of others are unconscious, they are to our detriment. I am very aware of my judgments of others, and I know how to use those judgments to help myself. I know how to turn a potential negative into a positive. When I can help my Clients learn to do that, they can create “breathing room” in their lives – space to grow, to flourish, to create, and to love.

Who Sits in Judgment? And Why?
I have two friends who are paid very good salaries to judge others. Each of them wears black robes and sits in a big chair which is called, for some reason, a “bench”. That is a good reason to judge. People who sit on a jury are similarly tasked with judging their fellow citizens. There are also journalists who are paid to adjudicate ongoing cases unofficially in the hopes of raising their ratings by satisfying our country’s fascination with wrongdoing and those responsible for it. Those of us who are not paid to judge others might ask ourselves why we are doing it.

Many people judge when they feel judged – by others or even by themselves. It is a form of self-defense. Freud wrote that one means of defending our fragile egos is to project the attitudes/thoughts/desires/behaviors that we do not like act about ourselves onto others, whom we then judge. He called projection a defense mechanism.

The Buddhist view is similar to Freud’s. Once, in a Buddhist lecture on ethics, a Tibetan monk named Thubten Wangyal told our class, “Everyone that I meet is a mirror of me. If I don’t like what I see in my mirror, then I need to change.” He was saying that we must see and “own”, or acknowledge, the flaws that we attribute to others. In a similar vein, noted author Thich Nhat Hanh suggested that, each time we can catch ourselves judging someone else, we say, “And I am that, too.”

As a therapist, It has been my experience that people who disapprove of themselves are quick to judge others negatively in order to avoid, or to deflect, their own shame and/or guilt. In therapy, a first goal is often to release others from our judgment so we can focus on ourselves.

Owning Our Projections
I grew up in a judgmental family, but I recognized quite early that my own unkind judgments of others were hurting me. On the most beautiful spring day in the most beautiful city, I would catch myself taking an “inventory” of someone else’s imagined flaws. I knew I was doing it, but I did not know why or how to stop.

I rebelled upon hearing, in the ethics lecture, that I was projecting aspects of myself onto other people. No, I said, I am not like her. I am not like him. I am not like them. I really didn’t want to look into my mirrors. It was easier to look the other way. My judgments of others continued to be unkind, though, and I had to live with that discomfort. Little by little, I began to examine each of my criticisms of others and to look honestly at what they reflected about me. This activity was always interesting and sometimes gave unexpected results. Today, I truly appreciate people who make me look at Lane.

Here is a story about the first time that happened:

I was working in a large federal agency in my city. The department in which I worked was managed by a group of extremely high-strung, achievement-oriented, pushy, opinionated, “difficult” women. In meetings, when I was talking and diagramming, on a board, changes to a project, they would come right up to me, take the marker out of my hand, and start drawing on MY diagram. I thought they were impossible and resented them terribly… until I realized, shortly after the ethics lecture, that I was exactly like them. It made me laugh; but, more than that, it made me free.

That was a turning point for me. Since that day, I catch many of my judgments in time to own my projections, to look in my mirror(s), and sometimes even to change myself as a result. One thing I have learned about myself is that, when I am worried about something in my own life, I try to deflect attention away from my own discomfort and onto someone else. I now know how to stop that. When I catch myself thinking what a know-it-all Catherine is, I stop and say to myself, “Lane, why are you suddenly so critical of Catherine? What is this really about?” It usually doesn’t take me long to figure it out.

Signs that negative judgments of others are hurting you might include: a depressed mood, isolation, distrust of others, and even paranoia. A good exercise is to write down negative, judgmental thoughts for two or three days. That should give you some clues about what is going on in your own life. If your whole life seems nothing more than a string of negative judgments, you can change that and become happier. I can show you how.

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