Judgment vs. Judgmental

I feel a pang of pain in my heart whenever I’m a witness to women verbally attacking one another. That’s why you’ll never catch me watching any reality television show where women are berating, arguing, or physically fighting each other in the name of entertainment. In fact, I struggle to find any appeal in these types of shows. Truth is, I feel sad and embarrassed when I see this type of behavior.


If it sounds like I’m judging, it’s because I am. We all should be judging the environment, information, and people that we expose ourselves to because it all has a tremendous influence on our behavior.


A close friend told me once that I was being judgmental. I replied, “there’s a difference between judgment and being judgmental”. Thankfully she didn’t ask me to explain at the time because I’m not so sure I understood the difference myself. Plus, I couldn’t help but question if she was being judgmental when she called me judgmental. The whole discussion left me confused so I set out on some personal and professional research to see what exactly is the difference.


Just the Facts Ma’am


If you look up judgment in the Merriam dictionary, it’s defined as the process of forming an opinion by discerning or comparing. It’s a noun and has additional meanings in relation to legal matters but we’re going to focus solely on judgment as a process.


Basically, our judgment is a tool. It’s a mental process whereby we gather evidence and make an assessment that then defines our perceptions. It is a logical process meant to be based more on evidence than emotion. It seems that when our biases and emotions such as fear come into play, we can easily cross over into being judgmental.


Merriam also defines judgmental, which is an adjective, as relating to judgment and characterized by a tendency to judge harshly. Which means that there is an implied negativity to being judgmental.


So, it appears that the act of judging is not really the issue. Knowing how to use judgment is a skill that’s necessary to our survival and growth. We need it to help us make decisions about relationships, money, careers, morals, etc. The reason our judgment gets a bad wrap is what your office IT person would refer to as “user error”. It’s judgment that’s based on faulty information or emotional responses that get us into trouble.


The Difference


The difference between the two is perhaps better explained by example. For instance, I know that my judgment has kept me safe and helped me to make good decisions, especially in times of crisis. As a social worker, I’m often charged with the task of assessing situations, people, and environments in a short period of time, and sometimes, with little information.


At times, I would need to quickly scan a room and draw conclusions based on what I observed. If I went to a home and encountered a dazed and confused man, drug paraphernalia on the kitchen table, dirty diapers on the floor, and muffled voices coming from a back bedroom; I would use my judgment to draw conclusions from what I observed.


In judging the situation, I might conclude:

  • The man is intoxicated or under the influence of drugs.
  • A small child is in the home.
  • Other people are in the home.
  • This may not be a safe environment.


In being judgmental, I may allow my fear to get the best of me or relate what I see to past negative experiences. As a result, I might conclude:

  • The man is a drug addict. (I don’t know enough to prove this so this would be an assumption)
  • The child is neglected and the man is a bad father. (Again, no evidence to support this)
  • There are other drug addicts in the home. (Assumption)
  • The man is a threat to my safety. (Fear response)


In short:


Using sound judgment based on gathering logical evidence to make decisions = Good


Being judgmental and drawing conclusions based on negative opinions and emotions = Bad


We should always attempt to see the whole picture and gather as much information and evidence as possible before drawing conclusions. If that’s not possible, then it’s important to be aware of any biases or negative opinions or emotions that may influence your perception. Yes, it can be a fine line. And yes, sometimes you will unknowingly cross it. The goal is to own it when you do. I still have my moments of negative reactions despite all my training and experiences. What can I say? I’m human. Don’t judge.

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