Updated: Oct 19
I see a lot of people online professing, “I hold a non-judgemental space for you”, and it’s been bugging me for a while now, so I want ed to crack open the can of worms.
Firstly, I don’t believe you.
Secondly, I don’t think saying that is useful.
Each of us, with our complex, sometimes messy human wiring, is inherently judgemental. Understanding our brain's natural tendency to judge isn’t an admission of moral failure. And yet, we have begun to portray it as such. Our brains are well-orchestrated pattern-seeking machines of neurons and synapses putting together all the knowledge they can, and this comes from our own life experiences, but it is also often a plug-and-play version of what we have been fed by society, the media, our family, our heritage etc. Our brains analyse, categorise, and, yes, judge, all in a bid to navigate the great ole game of life and all of the tricky intricacies of human interaction. Is that piece of wood safe to stand on? Judgement. Is that piece of bread mouldy? Judgement. Does that woman remind you of that girl at school who used to copy your homework? Judgement. Sometimes, it keeps us alive. And sometimes, it just thinks it is trying to keep us alive.
On one of my first days of training as a counsellor, the teacher asked the class to list what they thought was important in a therapeutic space. Someone got up and wrote “non-judgemental”, and she crossed it out and simply stated, “That’s not possible. You’re a human.”
What concerns me about seeing all these online therapists cloaking themselves in the illusion of a non-judgmental persona is that it does not miraculously evaporate the subtle, often unconscious, assessments made by our minds. It merely shrouds them in, ironically, judgment. What the messaging actually creates is more insidious and, dare I say, more harmful, which is linking judgment to be something we are ashamed of. And when we feel shame, we try and get away from that feeling as soon as possible, rather than bringing it out into the open to see if it is something we actually want to hang on to.
When we allow the lens of curiosity to look at judgments we hold, we can assess whether they are things which align with our personal beliefs and what we want to be putting out there in the world.
I’ll give you an example. I live in a fat body. It’s something I talk about a lot. Sometimes, I am walking down the street, and I see someone larger than me, and let’s imagine they are wearing clothes which are particularly tight fitting. I may think something about their style, their clothing choices, or what they were thinking when they chose that outfit. Good or bad. I am probably going to be thinking something about their clothes because I don’t have a lot of options for where I can buy clothes, so it is something I notice. Some of the things I am thinking I know are not kind. And I know that as sometimes I think things which I know if I said out loud would be hurtful. If I chastise myself for thinking these things, I immediately run into a shame spiral and tell myself it is not my fault and probably invent some spurious reason why it is absolutely theirs and sprint away from the uncomfortable realisation that I have just had a thought which does not align with who I want to be in the world. However, when I am able to slow down and catch the thoughts and hold them at arms length and enquiry where that thought may have come from, whose voice is it, where may I have been taught this, what kind of place may I have heard this kind of thing in the past AND is it the kind of thing I want to be thinking about someone else, then I am able to consciously dissect a bit of where my brain programming came from and untangle some of the threads I may have run away from as facts.
We don’t learn anything from shame. Moralising on natural responses makes us run away from ourselves and our accountability. And when people in therapeutic spaces say they are judgement-free, what I think they are teaching is when people do have judgments, they are not getting things right.
This leads to people responding to the accusation of judgement rather than questioning the validity of the thought itself. Watch how people who think they are being accused of racism nearly instantly flip to defending themselves against the accusation rather than dismantling (or standing by) the judgement they had uttered. They think it is being accused of being judgemental, which is treachery, not the racism itself.
This is a direct result of moralising human brain patterns. Denying our inherent human tendencies doesn’t make us safe; engaging with them, understanding them, and learning from them does.
When we are willing, to be honest about how we see the world, we are able to make clearer decisions about which of the things we have absorbed we want to keep and which ones we choose to do some work on. We cannot do that if we deny their existence. And in the process, we discover more about who we are and stand a better chance of understanding and supporting those around us with genuine compassion and open-heartedness.