|GUILTY JUDGMENTS VS. SHAMEFUL JUDGMENTALISM
Terry D. Cooper
I AM REVEALED
Dec 27 2011
Judgmentalism is often tied to an unhealthy sense of shame. When I say unhealthy shame, I am distinguishing this
experience from the feelings of embarrassment or the awareness that I have violated the rights of others. If I rudely cut
in line at the movie theater, it is appropriate for me to feel a healthy sense of shame; I have ignored my own limitations
as well as the rights of others. Or if I do something highly embarrassing, it is appropriate for me to feel a temporary
sense of shame. This is a passing feeling of sudden exposure, being caught off guard or looking silly. Yet unhealthy
shame is a deep-rooted conviction that I am defective and worthless. It is exaggerated, self-indicting and destructive.
Its aim is not to change my behavior; instead, its aim is ridicule and total condemnation.
Shame is connected to judgmentalism in two ways. First, when we are on the receiving end of judgmentalism, it is easy
to fall prey to shame. Second, when we are being judgmental, we are often working very hard to cover our own shame
by shaming others. Shame believes only in condemnation and not in grace. But shame is not simply a psychological
problem. It can become a theological problem as well. If we hold an excessively shameful and judgmental view of
ourselves, we will very often project that onto God. We will become convinced that God's attitude toward us is full of
harsh contempt. When this happens, we are not just doing battle with our own inner critic, but instead we believe that
God is as disgusted with us as we are with ourselves. The notion of grace cannot seem to get past our own self-
Perhaps this was exactly the situation in which Martin Luther found himself when he was in the monastery. Full of self-
loathing, Luther knew that God hated him as well. And Luther, as an astute depth-psychologist as well as a theologian,
also knew that he could never consciously name all of his sins. When he thought he had confessed them all, others
would surface. He felt trapped in a world of divine wrath. And Luther was willing to be profoundly honest: As he felt
hated by God, he hated this God back. Constantly feeling condemned, he eventually admitted hating the condemner.
It was precisely in this situation that Luther experienced the profound divine acceptance, which was able to both
transform his image of God and help him think differently about himself. Shame was transformed by grace.
There is something sadly audacious when the very Ground and Source of our lives, the God of love, offers us
acceptance and transforming love while we persist in our old condemning habits and insist that we stand
unredeemable. This shame is an inverted form of grandiosity: we think we are too far gone, even for God's love.
Over the past few decades, a great deal of clinical interest has focused on the differences between the experiences of
guilt and shame. For the purposes of the rest of this chapter, when I use the word shame, I am referring to the
unhealthy form of the word. Guilt, which is a very important ingredient for a spiritually mature and emotionally healthy
life, must be clearly distinguished and separated from shame. Again, it is important to separate these two experiences
for this reason: While guilt is the partner of judgment, shame is the mate of judgmentalism. Even after they have
been embraced by God's grace, some still need some help in distinguishing appropriate guilt and shame. Let's look at
some key distinctions between the two.
DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN GUILT AND SHAME
If I were compiling a profile of guilt which has turned into shame, I would say that shame exaggerates and condemningly
labels us; it attacks us with all-or-nothing thinking; it does not respond to forgiveness; it drives us into isolation and
inverted grandiosity; it does not motivate change; it is tied to perfectionism; and it encourages self-punishment.
Conversely, limited healthy guilt invites us to turn a deaf ear to exaggerated self-talk; it looks at specific, concrete
behavior and attitudes we want to change; it does respond to forgiveness; it encourages us to share mistakes with
trusted friends; it motivates us to change; it is based on obtainable, realistic goals; and it sees the futility of self-
I've delineated these further in table 5 and describe them in detail below.
Shame exaggerates what we have done, blows things out of proportion and uses negative labels to describe us rather
than our behavior. It resorts to name-calling (idiot, tramp, bum, wimp) and loves the language of condemnation. It goes
for overkill. It is out of proportion to our actual behavior. Healthy guilt, on the other hand, is specific about what we
have done. Guilt might tell me that I was not very sensitive to a student's needs; shame would tell me that I don't care
about my students at all. Guilt might tell someone that she neglected her daughter; shame would tell her that she is a
Shame attacks us with all-or-nothing thinking and global generalizations. It says that we or someone else is "completely
irresponsible," "absolutely worthless" or "just a bum." Again, notice that these messages never provide specific
information we can use. Instead, they leave us feeling helpless, hopeless and impaled by the condemnation. Healthy
guilt, on the other hand, recognizes - during calmer, more rational moments - that these pronouncements are ridiculous
and unfair. They are based on dualistic thinking, which provides us with no help for change. Healthy guilt focuses on
specific things we can change and resists clobbering us with a totalistic judgment. Guilt is more modest, more focused,
more concerned with our recovery from the fault than simply blasting the fault.
Shame does not respond to forgiveness. It puts us on a cycle of compulsive, perpetual confessing, but it offers no
sense of relief. We constantly say we're sorry, and sometimes we don't even know why we're saying it. No amount of
apologizing seems to bring inner peace. Healthy guilt, however, opens the path to self-forgiveness and encourages us
to accept our frailties. We can allow ourselves to be released from the irresponsibilities of our pasts and face our
futures without the dead weight of our former mistakes. Healthy guilt allows us to embrace and own our pasts while
keeping our self-worth intact. It realizes that we cannot like ourselves today if we do not accept who we were yesterday.
Healthy guilt always sees the worthwhile person underneath the destructive , or at least unhealthy, behavior.
Shame is the condition of Judas, a hopeless condition of self-condemnation. Shame drives us into isolation, loneliness
and feelings of unique depravity. In addition to hiding from others, we often hide from ourselves. There is no
redemption, only a psychological hell. Self-avoidance becomes essential if we are to dodge these inward persecutions.
Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer states this very well:
him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him,
and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous in his isolation. Sin wants to remain
unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a pious community.
the sharing of failure and regret with trusted friends. It recognizes the power of allowing ourselves to be known and
accepted. It acknowledges the deep need within each of us to reveal who we really are and open the door for support
and acceptance. And it understands that God's love surpasses our heaviest condemnation.
Shame does not motivate us toward constructive change or encourage us to make amends. It never provides us with a
vision of how to do these things. Instead, it freezes and immobilizes us in a morbid world of inactivity, leaving us feeling
stuck. Healthy guilt, on the other hand, moves us toward change, growth and the building of better lives. We feel
motivated rather than devastated. Why? Because healthy guilt stays with the modest agenda of looking for specific
change. Our self-awareness is an educational tool: we do not have to feel threatened as we look at ourselves; our
worth is not being challenged.
Shame is often linked to perfectionism or an ideal standard. The unrealistic demands make failure inevitable. Shame is
fueled by impossible expectations, ruthless standards that often leave us in one of two predicaments. First, we may feel
exhausted, defeated and depressed. Second, we may angrily rebel against these dictates, revolting against ourselves
in a self-defeating protest. We may spend most of our time trying to get out from under these rigid, demeaning voices,
yet even when we rebel against them, these standards are still controlling us. We are fighting ourselves, and the battle
takes all our energy. Either way, whether we follow or fight our perfection, it leaves us empty and condemned. Healthy
guilt, on the other hand, allows us to let go of our grandiosity and unrealistic standards. We can deflate our
perfectionism, and seek realistic, human, obtainable goals. While we need not shortchange our potential, we can
embrace our limitations and learn to live with them. Not having to be perfect can relieve us of unnecessary anxiety.
Shame encourages some form of self-punishment in an irrational attempt to "atone" for what has happened or what we
have done. Shame puts us on a roller coaster of trying to compensate for our feelings of failure. We may constantly
tell people that we will "make it up to them," and then take on impossible tasks to alleviate our feelings of shame. We
may completely overextend ourselves in doing things for a friend we think we've neglected. We may punish our bodies
by abstaining from food after we've overeaten. Healthy guilt, however, sees the futility of self-punishment and
understands that it is a block to self-acceptance. Once amends are made, the issue is dropped. The point is to
change, not make up for the past.
Grace vs. shame and guiltlessness vs. justice. Healthy guilt is undergirded and insured by Jesus' grace. Like
a person walking a tightrope, we have a safety net of acceptance available to us. Sadly, many of us do not accept or
rely on this. We act or believe as if wrong moves are fatal. But our being is not on trial anymore. We are not
synonymous with our behavior. We can rest easy. The stakes are not that high. We don't have to panic. In fact, we
can review our behavior and use this core sense of acceptance to generate change.
Grace, God's unconditional prizing we find in the midst of our critical investigations, is transforming. We do not need to
change in order to gain acceptance. Acceptance is there free for the taking. What we do with that acceptance is a
response of gratitude. We can never do enough to get out of the shame pit, but we can, as Paul Tillich frequently said
"accept our acceptance." At that point we will have a foundation on which to build.
I remember reading, from an author I unfortunately cannot recall, that guilt, when it is functioning in a healthy manner, is
somewhat similar to an alarm clock. Even though most of us do not like the sound of an alarm clock when it goes off in
the morning, the alarm serves a very important function - namely, alerting us to the time of day. The clock wakes us up
to a decision: Do we get up or do we remain in bed? While it may seem that we have no choice, we actually do,
especially if we are willing to pay the consequences of not getting up. The alarm needs to be loud enough to wake us
up, but not so loud that it impairs our hearing. Further, we need to be able to turn it off. An alarm clock we could not
turn off would merely be dead noise we carry around all day. Both the duration and the intensity of the alarm need to
Similarly, guilt simply alarms us about a decision we need to make. There is a discrepancy between our values and our
behavior. This inconsistency needs to be addressed. For instance, my beliefs or values may tell me that I should treat
others as I would like to be treated. Guilt may remind me that I was quite insensitive to someone yesterday. I, therefore,
need to apologize to that person and work toward not doing that again. After I have acknowledged my fault and made
amends, it becomes fruitless to allow guilt to continue to sabotage my mental peace - this would be like the alarm clock
that could not be turned off.
Yet at other times, the split between my beliefs and my behavior may reveal that my beliefs, rather than my behavior,
need to be changed. For example, I may have an absolutely essential meeting at work at the same time that a close
friend is in a play. I may feel guilty because I cannot be at both places at the same time. In such a situation, it is
perhaps my unrealistic belief system that needs to be changed. I may feel sad that I cannot attend the play, but there is
no reason to feel guilty. As Thomas Oden suggests, this is simply the human plight: Choosing one value sometimes
means negating another. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which there was only one good choice and all the
others were negative, buy that is not the way life operates.
Because guilt is often an uncomfortable experience, some have reacted to guilt in one of two extreme ways. One way,
which has been unfortunately fueled by some schools of psychotherapy, is to consider all guilt as neurotic and
unhelpful. This view often leads to reckless abandonment of guilt. Guilt is pointless and gets in the way of one's own
fulfillment. Oden describes his reaction to this type of guiltless attitude about using abortion as a means of birth control:
abortions already, she was soon to have a third. Asked what she had against contraceptives, she shrugged with
shocking simplicity: "Sex just feels better without them," which meant that abortion had heedlessly and blatantly
become a means of birth control...That portion of the interview was shocking enough: to realize that human life,
God's first and greatest gift, is being bartered off thoughtlessly for the momentary élan of sexual pleasure. But
the sequel was even more shocking. An "eminent psychiatrist" was then brought in to talk to the teenager and
television audience about guilt that emerges out of consideration of abortion. He approved of her low guilt
awareness as healthy and suggested that if she worried too much about the morality of her action, it would further
complicate her life. I have never quite gotten over that five-minute interview, and what it implies for our society.
Indeed, this type of utter disregard for responsible guilt scares many of us. By assuming that all feelings of obligation,
duty and moral responsibility are simply the hangovers of a repressive conscience, some individuals have distorted the
notion of self-actualization into a hedonistic form of self-indulgence. Again, some psychotherapies in the sixties and
seventies, especially, sought to liberate people from all the pangs of conscience. Because some had been troubled by
an overactive conscience in the past, it was believed that the solution was to rid themselves of all prohibitory, restrictive
and restraining voices. While Freud is sometimes blamed for some of these psychotherapeutic tendencies, it is
important to note that the later Freud believed that without some degree of social restraint and responsibility, human
nature would move toward destruction. Freud was much more sober about the overthrow of conscience than were
many of his followers.
Another major factor in the overthrow of guilt was the growing belief that destructive human behavior always comes from
outside factors and not from responsible choice. For example, there is always an external cause for "sin," and we
should never look toward human volition as part of evil.
Judges hearing criminal cases have often viewed guilt not as a real offense against society, but only as an ambiguous
result of social and economic deprivation, determined by outward circumstances rather than any responsible acts of
will. On this basis, they have left victims unprotected and have promptly pardoned offenders allowing them to return to
mug, plunder, and rape again. Ironically, these judges have dishonored the self-respect of our anti-social citizens by
assuming they have no self-determining wills...Recent theology has colluded with the modern idea that guilt is not real,
and that it has obvious political, economic, and psychological remedies. Theology, too, has reduced the problem of
guilt to social mechanics, political tinkering, and psychological determinism, and thereby withheld its unique gift at a time
when society needed it most. Theology has in fact intensified this false hope of a quick fix with its own
antinomian (lawless) version of the gospel: God's mercy without human social effort, pardon with
requirement, grace without covenant accountability, God's unconditional love without any mention of
Guilt is very often reduced to mere guilt feelings. This psychological captivity of an ethical issue does not allow for a
genuine release from real guilt, the violation of ethical standards important to individuals and their communities. It is
very important to realize that our sense of brokenness, guilt and "falling short" of God's intention for our lives doesn't
simply emerge from a fictional idea or the internalization of an external reality. It emerges because we know, at a deep
level, that we are not living consistently with our own deepest desires for a life of love and justice.
While many conservative Christians have been very alert to this social sense of "guiltlessness," they have often not paid
enough attention to excessive guilt problems in their own congregations. In other words, just as guilt has been thrown
out in some circles, it has also been exaggerated in others. Many individuals have struggled mightily to get out from
under the feelings of neurotic guilt and abusive conceptions of themselves. Some Christians have wrestled with these
feelings of excessive guilt, or what I would prefer calling shame. Because the entire concept of self-esteem has been
treated with great suspicion, and such a strong emphasis has been placed on pride, arrogance and self-exaltation,
some have concentrated on their "depraved" nature at the expense of seeing anything positive about themselves.
"Total depravity" has been understood to imply that we could not possibly be any worse than we are. Just as Augustine
went to the extreme with the Pelagians of arguing that unbaptized babies will be damned, so the Reformers and
especially Calvin, attempted to block any notion of works righteousness with an overstated view of human depravity.
And perhaps we should be honest about part of the "guiltless predicament" we have inherited: Part of it is a reaction to
the excessive guilt of previous generations, a guilt fixated on ethical trivia, an oppressive conscience, and the
assumption that an enjoyable life and a faithful life are mutually exclusive. Perhaps an example would help. I know a
church that split up because a pool table was placed in the recreation center for the youth. That's right, the church split
because of this "highly serious" moral issue. While most of us would be concerned that kids are snorting cocaine off
this pool table, this particular church was fixated on playing pool. Even when there was no betting on the outcome of
the game, pool was too much.
Now, granted, this is an extreme case. But some evangelicals have not paid adequate attention to the self-disdain, self-
contempt and sense of shame in the psyches of many conservatives. As I talked about in an earlier chapter, even
evangelical scholars have often been quick to support the "Primacy of pride and self-exaltation" position because it
matches their Calvinistic roots. But I would like to also suggest that shame may have many ways of hiding its face. It
can work behind the scenes even in behavior that does not explicitly look like shame. Consider these examples.
what the shame is whispering to us.
If we want to help people with shame and judgmentalism, we must see beneath the surface and understand what may
be going on beneath. Stated differently, not all self-elevation should be taken at face value. It may be present and, at
times, be very difficult to endure. But it is often driven by a more basic sense of inadequacy. Why does anyone need
to regularly brag if they have solid self-confidence? Why does anyone need to constantly highlight themselves if they
feel secure inside? Beneath these boisterous displays, I would suggest, is an injured self with much shame. And the
sad reality is that the more frantically the shame is covered up, the more of a grip it holds.
SHAME AS JUDGMENTALISM TURNED INWARD
Anyone who has spent much time with people in counseling understands how a sense of shame can speak through an
internalized, critical voice of condemnation. We may not beat ourselves physically, but we brutalize ourselves mentally.
How? By exaggerated criticisms, condemnations, self-judgments and generalizations. We magnify our flaws and
completely blow things out of proportion. We start an avalanche of verbal self-abuse. We may not talk out loud when
this is going on, but the battering still occurs subvocally. A snickering, heckling, demeaning voice comments on our
shortcomings. Judgmentalism is active. Mistakes are interpreted as failures. Being uninformed is labeled as "stupid."
This condemning voices love the hype of emotionally-charged language. It is a master at name-calling. In short, it turns
us into our own worst enemy. Self-judgmentalism is precisely that - self-judgment. It is not judgment of specific
behaviors or traits. Instead it is condemnation of the entire self.
Here's an example from my own life. I remember leaving class feeling disappointed that there had not been more
discussion that evening. As the last few minutes of the class set in, I had thought to myself, They are not interested in
this material at all! As I left the school and walked to my car, I began to think that the entire class must not be going
very well. After I had gotten in my car and was driving home, my negative, exaggerated thoughts continued: I've failed
in this class. Perhaps I'm boring. As I approached my home I was thinking, You know, maybe I'm just not a very good
teacher. This was followed quickly by, Perhaps I never should have gone into education. And finally, I'm a failure.
Again, these thoughts happened very rapidly. By the time I was getting ready for bed, I was frustrated and depressed.
When my class met again the next time, I asked them to give me some anonymous feedback. I asked them to address
the issue of class discussion. When I reviewed the evaluations, there was nothing negative whatsoever. In fact, many
of the students apologized for being so tired during the prior session and for not saying much. They went on to say that
they didn't ask a lot of questions because everything seemed very clear to them.
My self-judgmentalism had pushed me into very negative feelings about my teaching. I had exaggerated, distorted and
magnified what was going on in the previous class. I read into their fatigue a complete boredom with what I was saying.
Their lack of discussion must mean that I am a lousy instructor. This episode reminded me of how important it is to
check things out before beginning a process of self-judgmentalism. As I thought about it, I realized that I had done
nothing differently the week before from what I normally do. And I also realized that this lack of discussion had been an
exception to the rule. The students normally talked a great deal about issues. Yet that hypercritical voice in my own
head wouldn't allow me to see this. And I have talked with several other professors who have told me that they also do
this more often than they'd like to admit.
A self-judgmentalist mentality is a grace-resistant, antagonistic, demeaning internal enemy. It can ambush us, indict us
and keep us frozen in unhealthy attitudes and behavior. Common messages sound like this: I'm unattractive. I'm
stupid. I'm not well liked. I'm never even noticed. I'm too emotional. I must be boring. I'm inadequate. I'm inferior. I'm
too insecure. I have no confidence. I'm ashamed of myself. I don't know how to have any fun. I'm too shy. I'm self-
centered. I'm irresponsible. I'm immature. I'm just a coward. I'm lazy. I've failed in all my relationships. I can't take
criticism. I don't make enough money. What if I'm wrong? What will they think of me? I'll never fit in. I could never
work there. I could never learn that. I can't change. I'm a psychological mess. I'm a weak person. No one can get
along with me. I'm completely disorganized. I'm not lovable. I'm hopeless.
These negative messages hound, heckle and distort our clear thinking about ourselves. Their function is to condemn,
not to inform. Their task is wrecking self-confidence and keeping us within narrow restraints.
Again, notice the difference between making judgments and being judgmentalist. These internal statements attack us
rather than our behavior. These fiery indictments are thrown at our being, our identity, our sense of worth.
Judgmentalism is uninterested in the modest task of pointing toward the specific behavior that could be changed.
That's not dramatic enough. That's too limited in scope. Judgmentalism is hungry for an assault. Why concentrate on
a specific habit or behavior when it can rage against the entire self! Why pass up a chance to be judgmental?
Judgmentalism's strategy is the "oversimplify and insult plan." We divide the world into all-or-nothing categories, then
place ourselves in the negative group. We are either good or bad, compassionate or unfeeling, warm or cold, genuine
or phony, hardworking or lazy, intelligent or stupid. Having made these tidy polar opposites, we then slam ourselves
into the unattractive category. Again, much of this may occur at an unconscious level. As cognitive therapists often
say, these are "automatic thoughts."
During rational moments, most of us recognize that we may not fit into this all-or-nothing classification scheme. We
know that life is more complicated than that. We also recognize that we are somewhat different in every situation. It is
unrealistic to say we are always, completely, totally, absolutely, simply or just anything. We're too complex for that.
Some of us have collected a highly judgmental series of images or pictures of ourselves, which we can pull out in our
worst moments. This is a warehouse of negative, shaming, critical messages over the years. All the condemning voices
from the outside now have an inside representative. A raging parent, for instance, no longer has to be present. We
have taken over the job and learned to rage at ourselves. A humiliating teacher no longer has to suggest that we are
stupid. We are happy to replay the old tape with a new level of intensity.
THREE WAYS WE DISGUISE OUR SELF-JUDGMENTALISMS
If I am walking down the street and I ask people how they are doing, they usually do not respond by saying, "Well, other
than being excessively self-judgmental, shame-based and feeling inadequate, I'm doing fine." In fact, when we are
struggling with self-judgmentalism, we usually find ways to camouflage it. We present a "compensatory self," an image
designed to hide deeper feelings of self-contempt. There are three primary ways we attempt to dodge or detour
around our self-judgementalism. Karen Horney argued rather convincingly that, in the face of anxiety, we often develop
one of these three interpersonal movements or trends that attempt to alleviate our insecurity.
Toward others. The first movement is toward others. This typically involves an accommodating, self-sacrificing
stance, which usually necessitates not paying much attention to ourselves as we try to please others. This trend is
conflict-avoidant, even if that means that our own needs get ignored. The solution to potential conflict with another is
simply to make sure we agree with the other person. Moving toward others, in Horney's scheme, means ignoring our
own needs. In fact, there can be shades of masochism in this approach.
One of the most obvious cover-ups for self-doubt is approval-seeking. We seek, as a way of life, other people's
endorsement, approval and validation. What others think becomes the guiding force in our lives. Our constant concern
is how our behavior will affect someone else. We do things that will be pleasing, voice opinions in agreement with
others and stay within the boundaries of someone's favor. We'll out-please the voice of self-judgmentalism. Surely this
will keep our self-contempt at bay. Thus, our lives will not be lived from the inside out; instead, they'll flow from the
outside in. We'll read and evaluate our performance from other people's faces, comments and reactions. Our self-
esteem will be in their hands. Naturally, this will create enormous anxiety. After all, our acceptability will be continuously
in front of an examining board. Their opinions matter, ours do not; their feelings are significant, ours are irrelevant;
their perception of us must be accurate, while we know little of ourselves.
This approval-seeking puts us in a most precarious position. The sad fact is that we easily abandon ourselves as we
focus on outside reactions. Other people dispense approval to us, and we seek it like starved creatures. We elevate
their opinion to a godlike status and painfully ignore our own.
When we constantly seek approval from others we assume that someone else's opinion is better simply because it is
someone else's. Because nothing inside of us counts, we must find something outside of us for validation.
Consequently, we believe we cannot depend on ourselves for an accurate picture of who we are. Others must have
some secret information or inside dope on us. We are untrustworthy interpreters of our own experience. Eagerly, we
look to others to tell us what we mean, what we've experienced and what we're all about. Unfortunately, there are plenty
of people quite ready to offer their expert advice on our lives. These outsiders may never have felt our feelings,
understood our past, nor appreciated the struggles of our experience. Yet we allow them to tell us what we should do
and ought to have done. Further, we give them power to decide the way we see ourselves. Their opinion defines us.
Our hunger for outside confirmation sets us up to be under their authority. This may seem really exaggerated, but I
have seen some approval-seekers who are very much like this.
Eventually, however, most of us approval-seekers run out of steam. We become depressed, lose energy and
sometimes feel like giving up. Life becomes an obligation, a burden, a curse. It is only when we start becoming aware
of our pattern of self-avoidance that we can begin to regain strength. The unique individuals we are have often been
neglected and abandoned long ago. We may have much sadness and anger about selling ourselves out. In fact, we
may become outraged about the number of people we have put on a pedestal as more important than we are. We may
begin to notice a long pattern of approval-seeking. We may discover that caring for others should not exclude taking
care of ourselves. In fact, we may realize that self-care is essential if we are to have anything to give others. We may
start to seek out friends with whom we can be ourselves, mutual friends who give as well as take. In fact, we may feel
more inclined to let other people handle many of their own conflicts and not feel that our entire worth depends on
solving everyone's problems. Recognizing our inability to control what anyone thinks about us can be a liberating
experience. All that energy we poured into approval-seeking can be available for other pursuits.
Chronic approval-seeking will also leave us indecisive. There are many conflicting people to please. When we cannot
count on ourselves for direction, we go through inner turmoil, frustration and confusion as we listen to others. Because
there are so many voices, we often wander aimlessly trying to decide which one to follow. Many people will have
opinions about what kind of car we should buy, whom we should date, where we should attend church, where we should
go to school or how we should spend our day. Opinions are abundant, and without trust in ourselves, overwhelming.
Careful thinking and consideration of outside opinions are one thing; attempting to please every advice-happy person
we know is quite another. Indecisiveness often results from lack of confidence in our ability to handle a confusing
situation, face a stress and choose for ourselves.
Related to this, when we desperately need the approval of others, we set ourselves up for being manipulated by them.
When we need others' approval, they have power over us. This power can be used against us. They have the "fix" we
need, so the relationship is really out of balance. They have a secret weapon available - our neediness. We simply
need their approval too much to be honest.
Changing our approval-seeking habits takes practice. We may have significant insights into our approval-seeking,
understanding how we became this way and recognizing what this interpersonal habit has cost us. The solution to our
problem, however, is in practicing a different way of life. Each time we face disapproval and maintain integrity, we gain
inner confidence and strength. This is something we must do, not just something we think or feel. A change in behavior
then reinforces our thinking, and we recognize the futility of chasing what we don't need. Until the time we do this, we
may know it in our heads, but it has not yet become a gut-level reality.
It is important for us to fully see that chasing someone's approval can actually be a form of idolatry. No human being
should be our god. The relentless pursuit of people's acceptance involve treating them as if they are divine. While
this approval may be nice, it is not pivotal for our existence.
All change begins with awareness and assessment. Where has our approval-seeking gotten us? Well liked?
Sometimes. Respected? Probably not. Most likely, others will not respect us until we respect ourselves. And all self-
respect begins with paying attention. But paying attention to whom? Ourselves. This does not mean cosmetic
attention, and it does not mean let's-impress-others attention. Instead, we offer ourselves a peaceful, private attention
that encourages growth. It means noticing what we like, dislike, think, hope, dread and hate. This is the first step
toward self-respect. We can learn to await, like expectant parents, what emerges within us. We don't have to avoid the
voice of self-condemnation by pleasing everyone. In fact, we don't have the energy for it.
Against others. Horney's second interpersonal trend is moving against others. Out of our anxiety about differences,
we attempt to dominate and control others. Threatened by these differences, we feel as if we must somehow conquer
another person. We are not comfortable enough with ourselves to simply allow them to be who they are Instead, we
must turn them into a clone of ourselves. If the first movement toward others involves possible masochism, this second
movement against others may well involve sadism. It tends to drain the life out of another person because any type of
liveliness is too threatening.
Judging, blaming and harshly criticizing others appears to have little to do with low self-esteem or a lack of self-
acceptance. After all, judgmental and critical people are often loud, overbearing, dominating, arrogant and abusive.
They do not look at all like the insecure approval-seekers I just discussed. Instead, they appear to be too self-assured,
always right and never to blame. They have a built-in ability to excuse themselves from all mistakes and a keen ability
to find fault outside themselves.
When we cannot admit mistakes and accept our human errors, we feel psychological pressure to locate all faults
outside of ourselves. Any internal problem must be externalized. Of necessity, we must explain our problems on the
basis of other people's behavior. Perpetual excuses are made to keep our image pure. It's their fault. They are to
blame. Some villain outside of us is at work again. Blaming becomes the backbone of our refusal to emotionally grow
up and be responsible for our lives.
It is very frightening to drop our blaming mask and look in the mirror. What will we find? Will we survive the inventory?
Can we admit our mistakes without feeling defined by those mistakes? A shaky, fragile self-image will be too scared to
explore very far. Living under the threat of excessive judgment pushes us to the outer world. The fault must be found
out there because it is too painful to locate it in here. Blaming is thus a primary way of running away from ourselves.
When we're blaming others, we are actually eliminating the possibility of self-knowledge. Firing away at the enemy out
there keeps us away from inward discoveries. We actually need these culprits to escape ourselves. What would we do
with no one to blame?
Blaming, then, is a stubborn block to self-ownership. We must recognize, admit and accept shortcomings as our own if
we are to move beyond them. Any person or group that encourages blaming, either directly or indirectly, is an obstacle
to healthy living. When we blame others, we sink deeper into a victim role. Blaming is born out of weakness, not
strength. It has no vision, no hope, no motivation. It is giving up. It is allowing the power in our lives to be somewhere
other than within us.
Blaming also poisons our relationships. Balance, fairness, perspective-taking, negotiating and responsibility are wiped
out in a blizzard of critical accusations. It's always someone else who creates our mood, causes our behavior, makes us
react, hurts our feelings, ruins our day or upsets us. We assume a passive, victim status and claim that others have
contaminated and disabled us. How awful they are!
Recognizing our mistakes actually brings a liberating and relaxing willingness to be human. We can use our energies in
productive ways rather than avoid self-contempt. The question is this: Do we use our psychological energies to
protect, defend and stubbornly maintain our false self, or do we use those energies to explore, understand and improve
ourselves? Is our posture primarily open or antagonistic? Fear of exposure can easily shut the door on self-discovery.
Judging, evaluating, assessing and analyzing others functions as a drug for many of us. It becomes the fix we need to
escape our inner lives. By obsessing on the depravity of others, we distract our attention, gain a euphoric buzz of
superiority and experience an adrenalin rush from policing someone else's behavior. Gossiping and criticizing become
more and more necessary as we continue to avoid self-reflection. Once again, the simple rule is this: When we're
judging others, we're avoiding ourselves. We can forget about what we need to change, how we are lacking and how
we contribute to problems. Our accusations against others temporarily release us. We alter our moods by dissecting
and ridiculing others. Deep within, our ongoing suspicion of inadequacy must be relived through blaming someone. Yet
the painful reality is this: No amount of external judgmentalism will heal our internal need for grace.
So once again, judgment of others is often a form of self-disgust. Others pick up the tab for our refusal to embrace,
accept and become familiar with our own feelings of inadequacy. The battle within gets pushed outward. The enemy
becomes projected so that we can crusade against what we secretly hate in ourselves. Others are manipulated into
scapegoat carriers of our shame. We rail against them, denounce them and proudly wonder how they became so vile.
They are the targets of our own self-contempt.
It's very helpful to begin monitoring our blaming and judging patterns. We need not berate ourselves because of them.
Then we'll have two problems: our judging habits and our judgmentalism about those judging habits! Instead, we can
more gently ask ourselves what we may be dodging or avoiding through our judgmental mentality. Again, the way out of
judgment is compassion, not more judgment. And this process requires ongoing divine support. We must recognize
both God's love for us and God's love in us.
Away from others. Horney's third movement is away from others. This interpersonal trend involves compulsive
isolation and disengagement from others. It attempts to solve the problem of anxiety and insecurity by a lifestyle of
noninvolvement. It prefers detachment. Interpersonal involvement, it believes, tends to be messy and runs the risk of
engulfment. The sense of self is not strong enough to risk any form of intimacy. It is far less threatening to remain
unknown by anyone.
Sometimes we can attempt to escape our own self-judgmentalism by trying to appear detached, aloof, or too cool to be
insecure. We may claim some form of invulnerability beyond what is humanly possible. Unconfident in our ability to get
close to anyone, we may try to eliminate our need for human contact and appear quite self-sufficient. Our world
remains carefully guarded. Self-disclosure is perceived as weakness and, hence, off-limits. Under all circumstances,
we must remain calm, collected and unemotional. We must convince ourselves that we simply don't need anyone.
Further, people who do need others are weak. In order to hide our self-judgmentalism we must remain unexposed.
Intimate relationships have a way of exposing us not only to others but to ourselves as well. We certainly don't need
that. Thus, in order to dodge ourselves, we must compulsively keep all matters on the surface. Introspection is a
dangerous thing. Shallowness is essential to escape self-judgmentalism.
God's grace allows us to invest fully in this world even though we know life will break our hearts. C.S. Lewis once wrote:
"Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it
intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal...The only place outside Heaven where you can be
perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell." The adventure of loving, caring and throwing
ourselves into the world is still worth it. Fear of involvement is based on a deeper insecurity that we could never survive
disappointment. As Reinhold Niebuhr put it, "Faith in the providence of God is a necessity of freedom because, without
it, the anxiety of freedom tempts man to seek a self-sufficiency and self-mastery incompatible with his dependence on
forces which he does not control." God's grace allows us to fully love because we have been loved.
being loved. Love exists only as a response to being loved. I cannot love out of the poverty of my lovelessness.
I cannot love merely in response to the idea of being loved, but only to the event, the reality of actually being
MAKING JUDGMENTS WITHOUT BEING JUDGMENTAL, by Terry D. Cooper, Copyright 2006, InterVarsity Press.
|LIFE IN JESUS-MINISTRIES