It's a rainy day today as I sit here in my office writing, and as many people might, I'm wishing the rain would go away. Now, living in Boulder, Colorado, rain is a fairly rare occurrence. But nonetheless, I'm sitting here thinking the rain is gloomy and wishing the weather were different. This, of course, leaves me feeling rather gloomy myself.
Our Brains Are Judgment-Making Machines
Our brains are designed to make snap judgments for our survival. They have evolved over millions of years to be able to quickly assess a situation and determine if it is harmful to us or not. In the olden days, our brains scanned for life threats like saber-toothed tigers. As time went on, we evolved to detect social threats, because humans were a tribal creature and we could not survive very well in the wild on our own without our tribe.
Nowadays, with all the advances the human race has made, we still tend to lump our assessments into two basic categories: good or bad. While this helps us navigate a complex world without dedicating ridiculous amounts of time to evaluating every situation in order to make a decision, it also sometimes traps us.
How Judgments Trap Us
As a child I remember reading the book Where The Red Fern Grows. The main character described how he would build simple raccoon traps by boring a hole into a log, placing a shiny object at the bottom, and then driving 4 nails in at the top, pointing down at diagonal angles. There was just enough space between the nails for a raccoon to fit it's paw down in to grasp the shiny object, but once it made a fist and tried to pull it's paw out, the nails would dig in and it was trapped. The funny part about it was that if the raccoon simply let go of the shiny object, it would have easily been able to pull it's paw out of the trap.
Our judgments work in a similar way, trapping us. The tighter we hold onto them, the deeper the nails dig into our fist and the more stuck we become. But when we let them go, we become free.
When Judgments Are Useful
This isn't to say that all judgments are unhelpful. As mentioned above, our ability to make snap decisions based on limited information has kept us alive as a species for millions of years and allows us to go about our day more easily. I'm not advocating that you make no judgments at all ever.
When evaluating a situation results in a judgment that you can change it for the better...by all means, please do so! For example: If you are standing in front of a speeding car and your brain says, "Danger Will Robinson, get out of the way!" then I would listen to it, not stand there for another 5 minutes trying to let go of your judgment about the car speeding at you being bad. That will most certainly result in you becoming road pizza.
When To Let Go
If, however, you have fully evaluated a situation and you have no power to change it (e.g., the weather) then it might be more helpful to loosen your grip on judging it as "bad". When we judge something as bad, that judgment is often followed by a story about why the situation or person or thing is bad, and when we perseverate on that story it can cause additional pain and suffering.
In my example of the rainy day, my assessment that rain = bad was quickly followed by a cascade of negative thoughts centering around how it was going to ruin my plans to go for a run, and then I wouldn't get my exercise in, and all sorts of bad things would happen after that. When in reality, I just had to put on some extra layers. I went for my run and it was quite lovely running in the rain, and not as cold and horrible as I had imagined it might be. My day was not ruined after all.
When we can let go of our judgments and accept the reality of what is, we remove the additional suffering caused by our aversion.
Tips For Letting Go of Judgments That Aren't Helping
If you find yourself caught up in a swirl of negative judgments that aren't helping, here are a few tips for shifting your perspective and letting go:
- Slow Down - Ironically, when things are busy we often wish for a chance to slow down. And then when the perfect opportunity, like a rainy day, comes along, we judge it as a bad thing, and ruin our ability to enjoy it because of our resistance to it. Next time you catch yourself judging your tiredness, or the weather, or catching a cold - take a moment to slow down and see if maybe that's what your body really needed anyway, even if it's not what you wanted.
- Look for the positive - This is the classic "look for the silver lining" adage. And while perhaps annoying when we're in a bad mood and someone tells us to look on the bright side, there is actually a lot of research backing up the practice of looking for the bright spots in a situation. For example, when I started to think about the rain, I realized that Colorado desperately needs the moisture because we didn't get enough snow this year. This will help prevent forest fires later in the season and result in nourished crops that will produce more yummy vegetables for me to eat! Once I started focusing on those aspects of the rain, I felt much less sullen and gray.
- Get Curious - This may be a tricky skill to learn, especially when your brain is having a full-blown judgefest about something you don't like that's happening. But if you can't change it for the better (e.g., a virus you've already seen the doctor for and just have to wait out), then try getting curious about it rather than holding onto the assessment that it's 100% bad. Let's say you have the flu and you're already doing everything humanly possible to treat it and minimize the pain, but you're still stuck up at night with a sore throat. Instead of labeling the sore throat as "bad" and laying there hating your friend for giving you the virus, or your body for getting sick, or the universe for allowing such a travesty to occur... spend some time investigating the actual sensations you're feeling without labeling them as good or bad. What does the pain in your throat really feel like? What's the quality of it? Is it sharp like razor blades, or dull and achy? Is it there all the time or only when you swallow? You might be surprised by how this simple inquisitiveness changes your relationship to the pain. It won't necessarily make the pain go away (although, sometimes it does shift how the pain feels), but it will reduce the additional suffering from our aversion to it.
If you try the tips above and your mind is still leaving you feeling trapped in negativity, or you are dealing with some particularly difficult circumstances right now, I'd love to talk with you about finding ways to work with whatever difficulties you are facing.
For more information on how practicing mindfulness can help you let go of judgments that are weighing you down, check out the mindfulness page.
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HELP WITH LETTING GO OF NEGATIVE THINKING & REDUCING Your STRESS
If your judgments are causing you stress, try my free guide for a list of mindfulness strategies to help you let go of negative thoughts and calm your mind.