We all get judgmental at times or obsessed with our own personal, anxiety-driven mantras(link is external) that go round and round like an automatic tape. These repetitive thoughts often center on the experience of being mistreated or done in.
Your mantra might be: “My sister cheated me out of Dad’s money,” or “I can’t stand my brother’s lying” or “My ex is turning the kids against me.”
These thoughts may be true. But I know from personal experience that when I’m over focused on what a friend or family member is doing wrong it’s mainly about me. It’s my own underground anxiety (link is external)or unhappiness or low self-esteem that’s driving a particular kind of judgmental obssessiveness that may be interfering with an otherwise good day.
Consider friendship, for example. It’s what many of us do best. I treasure my friends, I count on them, I love them unabashedly, and I call them terms of endearment like “sweetums” and “honey-bunny.” When I am feeling calm and centered, I simply appreciate who they are, and truly feel that their limitations and vulnerabilities only add to my experience of their uniqueness and what I can learn from them.
But at other times I can get riveted on some limitation of a particular friend, or how she is screwing up a relationship. At such moments, I may have to restrain myself from offering unsolicited advice to whip her into shape. If I’m feeling strongly enough about her “problem,” I may begin talking to that friend in my head and telling her what to do. Better that I do it in my head, because I can be obnoxious when I offer unsolicited “truths” to my best friends when my own underground anxiety (link is external)inspires me to enlighten them.
For example, a friend in Berkeley complains constantly to me about her partner, whom she fails to stand up to. She feels “done in” by his controlling behavior, but whenever I encourage her to speak up, she will say things like, “It only makes things worse” or “You don’t know Bill!”
When I am calm and feeling good about myself, I can discern her participation in the marital pattern with great clarity, but I don’t need her to be different. I can be creative in expressing my perspective in a way that will maximize the chances she will hear me, but I also understand that my friend may have more at stake in maintaining the status quo with her husband—or more at risk in challenging it—than I can appreciate.
If I find myself obsessing on a particular day about my friend’s spineless behavior, I know that this response is a red flag warning me that I am anxious and stressed out about something else I’m not attending to.
So, I try instead to figure out what other issues might be fueling my judgmental response on a particular day. Is it related to feeling stirred up about my father, who would never speak up or take a position on anything that mattered? Am I feeling badly about myself or worried about the future? Is there something else I’m feeling anxious and stressed about that I’m not paying attention to?
When I’m anxious, I get instructive. So I’ve learned to wait (at least most of the time), to see whether the need to speak endures over the course of a day or two. Usually, the intensity dissipates because it’s being driven by my own stress. Waiting also allows for a clearer intuitive response on my part about how to put things and whether even to bother. My motto in the face of my feeling judgmental or any form of intensity: Strike while the iron is cold.
The amount of time you spend ruminating about someone else’s bad or misguided behavior is an excellent measure of your own level of stress, whether or not you are aware of what’s stirring you up.
The happiest people are focused on living their own life (not someone else’s) as well as possible.
Dr. Lerner is one of the world’s most respected voices in the psychology of women and family relationships. She is the author of 11 books published in 35 languages. These include The Dance of Intimacy, Marriage Rules, and The Dance of Anger, a New York Times bestseller that has helped rescue men and women from the swamps and quicksands of difficult relationships. Dr. Lerner hosts a blog for Psychology Today.