How to stay joyful amid judgment

By Ingrid Fetell Lee
How to stay joyful amid judgment. Tips for how to avoid being hurt by the judgments of others, create space for joy, and live an authentic life.

Lately I’ve received a lot of questions about joy and judgment. We know that judgment is one of the most potent ways to squelch joy. It makes us feel self-conscious, triggers self-doubt, and can elicit feelings of shame and embarrassment. Judgment is a tool for enforcing conformity and proscribing difference.

So how do we maintain our joy in a climate of judgment? If joy is light, playful, colorful, and carefree, how do sustain ourselves when faced with someone (or a group of people) who condemn our choices as frivolous, superficial, childish, or just plain wrong?

Some people seem as if they were just born impervious to the judgments of others. They live their lives with bravery, as oblivious to the stinging criticism of others as a waterproof jacket is to the rain. I am not one of those people. I have always felt the judgments of others intensely, painfully. But over the years, I’ve realized that to live the life I want to live, I have to venture out as my full self and recognize that judgments are going to come my way. It’s not that I’ve learned not to care about judgment. Rather that I’ve learned to care less about those judgments than I care about living the life I believe in. I am more excited about what I can do and create, and more committed to what I can offer to others, than I am afraid of what others might say about me. And maybe I’ve gotten a little bit more practice over the years.

With this in in mind, in this post, I wanted to offer some tips and tricks that have helped me find space for joy when I’m feeling judged. I hope some of these are helpful to you too.

What will matter when you’re 80?

This question always helps me zoom out from whatever is preoccupying me in the moment, and tune into what really matters. Everyone’s answer to this question will be a little different, but one thing that’s consistent is that it’s how we live our lives day to day that determines what our lives will look like when we’re older. If I hold back from joy because of the fear of others’ judgment, I may find that old age is filled with regrets. There may be many things left undone because I didn’t dare to face the fear of what others might say.

On the other hand, if I go ahead and do the things that bring me joy, and end up being judged, I might feel sad about their reactions. But will I remember that at 80? I hardly remember the names of the kids who teased me in middle school, the ones who made me so afraid to be myself. Will I really remember those judging me now? More likely, I’ll remember the joy of the experiences I got to have because I ignored the whispers.

When my grandmother was 89 and dying, I used to visit her and sit with her. Her vision was poor and she struggled to read, and her hands were too arthritic to knit, which had once loved to do. So I always asked as I was leaving if I could turn on the TV for her. She always said no, she preferred to be alone with her memories. “It’s a wonderful thing to be old and have such happy memories,” she said. And I don’t think you get those memories without braving a little judgment.

Recognize that it’s not all about you

Judgment can feel incredibly personal. After all, usually someone is reacting to how we look or behave, how we laugh or wear our hair or decorate. But the thing is, judgment always says more about the judger than the judgee.

This can be hard to detect, because judgments often come out sounding like facts. When someone says, “You laugh too loudly,” if feels as if we’ve run afoul of some standard that we didn’t know about, but definitely exists somewhere. But this judgment is entirely about how they perceive your laughter, not about how your laughter really is. It might be that they got shushed by their parents for laughing loudly as a child, and came to believe that loud laughter is shameful. It might just rub them the wrong way for some reason they don’t even understand. But whatever the reason is, it doesn’t have anything to do with you.

When you encounter judgment, instead of considering it information about you, consider it information about the other person. If you’re close, you might even ask them in a calm voice, “That’s interesting that you say that. Can you share more about why that bothers you?” Understanding that it’s not about you can create an opportunity for deeper understanding, rather than a wedge between you.

It’s worth noting that this strategy also is helpful if you’re not sure whether you’re facing a judgment or a complaint. What’s the difference? A judgment declares that you’ve done something wrong, offensive, uncool or otherwise less than, and serves to make someone feel ashamed of their behavior. A complaint, on the other hand, is an expression of personal displeasure, and the object is to have someone act to remove the displeasure. You can think of a complaint as a poorly worded request. The complaint “I don’t like your loud music,” is not saying that music should never be loud, or that you’ve done something wrong by playing loud music. It’s simply a clumsy request to turn down the music.

If you’re not sure whether you’re being met with a judgment or a complaint, asking “Can you share more about why that bothers you?” will illuminate the difference. If it’s a complaint, the answer will be relatively straightforward: “Loud noises make me anxious” or “I’m trying to watch a show and it’s distracting.” Then you can choose how to negotiate the conflict. If it’s a judgment, however, you might find this question reveals deeper personal biases or beliefs about loud music in general, which really have nothing to do with you.

Get curious about your own judgment

When I was single, I used to have weekends where I wouldn’t have plans. I secretly loved these afternoons by myself: I’d ride my bike to the park with a book and a journal, get a sandwich and an iced tea and read and write on a park bench. But when people looked at me, I felt immediately self-conscious. It felt like I could almost hear their thoughts: “How pathetic. A single woman in her 30s, all alone. Clearly no one wants to be with her. I wonder what’s wrong with her.”

Has this ever happened to you? You see someone looking at you and you start telling yourself a story about what they’re thinking about you — even though you have no idea. Depending on the day, I’ve convinced myself that people think my outfit is ridiculous, that I’m an awful public speaker, that I’m a complete imposter and an embarrassment to everyone who knows me.

I struggled with these anxiety-provoking thoughts for years until one day, someone asked me why I thought these things were true. I realized, I had no idea. So, if I didn’t know these thoughts were true, then where did they come from? Well, they had to come from me.

It occurred to me that I thought these terrible things about myself because I also thought them about other people. For example, I believed that having a partner meant that you were worthy of love, and that was better than being single, which was like being the last one left without a partner at the school dance. When I saw other single women, I thought of them through this same prism. My judgment about these women was not that they were free, independent, living their own exciting lives. It was that they were sad and unloved.

Notice that this had absolutely nothing to do with these women. It had everything to do with messages I had internalized from popular culture and social interactions that had pronounced “single-ness in women” as undesirable state. And because I believed this to be true in general, I also believed it about myself.

It felt awful to think that I was so judgmental of others. So one by one, as I noticed myself judging someone else, I started to ask myself why I felt that was true. Why did I even care how that person lived their life? Nine times out of ten I realized that it wasn’t true and I didn’t really care. And the magic is, as soon as I let go of the judgment of other people, it was like POOF! The judgment of myself vanished into thin air.

I would see women in the park and think, “Wow, now there’s a woman who knows how to enjoy herself on a nice afternoon.” Then I would wonder what she was reading.

Next time you find yourself imagining others judging you, try asking if this same judgment is one you hold about other people too. Ask yourself: “How do I know this is true? And why do I care?” When you allow yourself to let it go, you free yourself from caring what others might think of you and you create space for a lot more curiosity, creativity, and joy.

Learn to say “it’s not for me”

I got this one from marketing expert Seth Godin, who I met right before Joyful hit shelves. Seth said that whenever you see a negative review of something you created, just think in your mind, “Well, it’s just not for them.”

Nothing is for everyone. No one is for everyone. But in our world of online and anonymous criticism, it’s become easy to say, “That movie was terrible.” “That book sucks.” “That store is trash.” And even, “She’s a hack,” or “He’s worthless.” Ugh.

The problem with judgment is that it makes a pretense of objectivity, when in reality, all any of us has is a subjective viewpoint. When we get into the habit of passing judgment instead of offering opinions, we create the illusion that these judgments are reflective of fact. When judgments like this are directed at you, use Seth’s tool to reframe the criticism. “I guess it’s not just not to their taste,” recognizes their right to dislike what you’re offering without making it bad or wrong.

Similarly, when you don’t like something, resist the urge to pass judgment. (This can be hard sometimes! It feels good to be right, to be the connoisseur who knows what’s up.) Instead, you can just say, “I didn’t care for it.” You can be specific. “I thought the special effects in the last Star Wars movie were better.” (Just an example, I haven’t seen it yet 😉 But frame it as your opinion, not a fact. It will be easier to reframe judgment directed at you when you get into the habit of reframing your own.

Remember: this is your life

Many times, judgments from family and friends are offered with the best of intentions. People may see you doing something that they experienced as a mistake in their own lives, and they believe that by speaking up they can spare you pain. But the thing is, it’s not their life. It’s yours.

Making choices to please others or avoid their judgment surrenders the trajectory of your life to them. And this creates tremendous risk, not only to your joy, but to the relationship as well. Let’s say you follow a piece of well-meaning advice to go to medical school, despite your inner yearning to become an artist. Every day while studying chemistry and anatomy you fantasize about painting. And then one day, you’re officially a doctor — and you’re miserable. Your parents are proud, but when you think about them, you feel a knot of resentment.

When people want “what’s best for you,” they are using their own standard of best, which might mean safest, most secure, with the least struggle. But your own definition of best could be wildly different. To you, the best career, for example, might be the boldest, the most creative, the greatest outlet for your inner fire. Right now I’m reading the book Ninth Street Women, which chronicles the rise of the abstract expressionist movement in art, through the lens of five women whose stories and work have often been overlooked in favor of their male contemporaries. For many of these women, a good life meant one in which they could paint and be among other artists, and they found intense joy in this life, even if it meant they often went hungry, or without heat.

That said, it takes courage to show up as our full selves with people who judge our choices. We can even feel like we’re hurting the ones we love when we reject their definition of a good life in favor of our own. (Reminder: that reaction is about them, not you.) If it’s been awhile since you’ve showed up as your full self, take baby steps. I learned this from relationship therapist Nedra Tawwab, who I spoke with this summer as part of the the Joy Makeover. “Joy starts with authenticity,” she says, and points out that sometimes, we hide parts of ourselves to make it easier to get along with other people. If you’ve been living away from home for awhile, and changed over time, give your parents a chance to get to know who you’ve become little by little. Maybe they will surprise you with their reactions, or maybe they won’t, but either way, you are living your own life in an authentic way.

Turn should into could

Should is a signal word for judgment – when someone says “you should…,” they’re measuring your actions against a standard they believe is correct or valid. Often shoulds are offered as helpful advice.

  • “You should dress more conservatively at work.”
  • “You should give up this dancing stuff and get a desk job.”
  • “You should stop being so ambitious and be grateful for what you have.”

Shoulds feel bad because they contain an implicit judgment that we’re doing it (whatever it is) wrong, and if only we were smarter, more responsible, or more loving, we wouldn’t be making such obvious mistakes. Shoulds are especially insidious because they cause us to doubt ourselves, making us feel like we are going down the wrong path in life.

To take the sting out of should, try changing it to could in your mind whenever you hear it.

  • “You could dress more conservatively at work.”
  • “You could give up this dancing stuff and get a desk job.”
  • “You could stop being so ambitious and be grateful for what you have.”

You can even do it verbally, acknowledging a should comment with “I could do that.”

Changing should to could turns a judgment into a suggestion. It restores your agency, reminds you that this is your life, and ultimately you have the option as to whether to act on this suggestion or not.

Realize you could be an inspiration to others

This has been my most unexpected lesson on judgment. For years, I experienced a kind of mental paralysis, afraid to dress or write or act the way I really wanted because I could almost hear the judgments I might receive in my head. There were years when I wrote little on this blog because I could imagine what people I knew might think, and I felt too afraid to say what I really wanted to say. I remember thinking about a post about joyful manicures for months, but I was too afraid that my readers would think it was a frivolous thing to write, and that it would harm my credibility.

And then I started doing it. I started writing what I wanted to write, dressing how I wanted to dress, posting on social what I really wanted to post. And I’m sure there were people who thought mean things about me. But you know what? I never heard from them. Instead, the people I heard from were people who said, “Thank you.”

The people I heard from were the ones who said they too had wanted to do or say things I was doing or saying, but had been afraid to. People who said, that post gave me the courage to dye my hair pink or start taking dance lessons or paint that wall in my kitchen even though my husband said it was silly to care so much about it.

This completely changed my mindset around judgment. Instead of looking at the world as a bunch of people waiting to judge me, I saw instead a bunch of people wanting to express themselves, waiting for a signal that it was safe to do so. Every time I braved judgment for myself, I created a possibility that someone else who was afraid of the very same thing might decide to take their own risk. And in that case, how much could be gained braving judgment? And how much might be lost if I chose not to?

The problem with judgment is that it makes us afraid to be ourselves. When we take the risk to put ourselves out there, we create permission for others to do so as well. That permission is self-reinforcing. It attracts other like minds, engendering its own community of bravery that supports authenticity, and locks judgment out.

Seek joy, not perfection

Lastly, one for my fellow perfectionists. This phrase has become a mantra for me over the years, because for so much of my life, perfection has been the definition of success. And perfectionism and judgment often go hand in hand. After all, perfectionism, like judgment, is defined by the idea of an objective standard. Perfectionists often fear the judgment that they have fallen short, that they have produced something substandard, that their shoes are a slightly different shade of black than their skirt.

Joy is the ideal foil for perfectionism because joy isn’t perfect. And perfectionism, with its obsessive focus on details and appearances, often sabotages joy. Where a natural inclination toward perfectionism orients us toward how things look, joy reconnects us to how things feel.

Take the example of a dinner party. In perfectionist mode, I’m thinking about making a good impression on the guests, making sure I’ve chosen the right foods (judgment) and the right wines (judgment) and that everything goes together just right. I’m imagining people oohing and ahhing over the dessert and if they don’t I wonder, have I done something wrong?

But if I’m thinking of joy, not perfection, then I’m thinking about what we’re going to talk about at the table. I’m thinking, is there a sense of abundance so everyone feels taken care of? Does the place look festive? (Not perfect, but festive, celebratory, fun!) Can we do something surprising? Do we want to play a game? And, have I left enough space so that I can be a part of this, and not just watching from the kitchen?

Bringing your mindset back to joy inherently takes the judgment out of a situation. It diffuses perfectionism, removes the false questions of right and wrong, and puts the focus on experiences instead of appearances.

As the judgment dissipates, you are left with a far more interesting set of questions: What feels good to me? How do I want to express the love and care I feel for others? How can I create and share my joy with the world?

December 21st, 2019

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    Discussion (21 Comments)

  1. LIly on December 21, 2019

    Wow, that’s a lot of goodness in one article. Thank you, thank you!

    Reply
  2. Barbara Schwartz on December 21, 2019

    I am 80 and you are right!

    Reply
    1. Janel Barthe on December 23, 2019

      Recently I asked my son to book a reservation at a drag brunch…my first, but seems to be trending here in New Orleans. He did and the queens were beautiful. The main performer told me she would be calling me up on stage. She did! I went! We performed the Nancy Sinatra number “These Boots are Made for Walking.” Fun, fun, fun. I will be 81 in February and life has given me many happy memories…still is.

      Reply
  3. Erin on December 21, 2019

    Great article! Great advice! And I absolutely love your manicure posts!🥳

    Reply
  4. Julie on December 21, 2019

    Joyful insights and reminders! I screen shot the section about thinking about joy at the dinner party and added calendar reminders about joy foiling perfectionism. Your thoughts are such a gift to me. Thank you and joyful holidays to you.

    Reply
    1. Jodi on December 21, 2019

      I SO needed to read this right now Ingrid. I have been in an unhealthy emotionally abusive relationship for sometime and even though we are separated, I have lived in fear of his reactions and not knowing the next thing that will set him off.
      I am a full time carer of our two year old who spent 18 months in hospital. I out of 4 months of being on my own, I went out one night to see a band with my older son. I was excited but also fearful of his reaction when he found out. I had the best time with my son, it reminded me as a full time carer it is essential to have time out and joy for myself, I was not being selfish. My ex partner maintained that my actions proved I didn’t make him a priority, etc and could not understand that time with my son was important. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but his angry reaction had me so upset and shaken at the time that I have not gone out again since.
      Your article has reminded me to have courage and learn not take his judgement and criticism on board.
      Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece of writing.

      Reply
  5. Lisa Lawmaster Hess on December 21, 2019

    I love everything about this post. Sharing with my daughter, who is a senior in college, contemplating what next year will bring.

    Thank you 🙂

    Reply
  6. Suzanne cecala on December 21, 2019

    What a great post, Ingrid. As someone who is often concerned about what people think, I will certainly investigate how I am judging others and where these standards come from. I will reread this post and share it with my family and friends. And as we host gatherings over the holidays and beyond, I will remembers to focus on joy, not perfection. Thank you!

    Reply
  7. Sharon on December 22, 2019

    Great post! I cannot even begin to explain the difference is my life since I have let go of most people’s judgements. I was at a time in my life when I felt judged all around: for my career, the type of mom I was (working) etc. I had just lost my mom and people also had opinions/judgments on how I handled that….. I read a Bene Brown book and when I got to the section about the ” man the arena” it completely changed my life. I know that sounds dramatic but it really did. I realized that 99% of the people passing judgement were no where near being in the area with me. Now, when people say things to me that I consider judgment or criticism, I always think to myself… are they in the ring with me? In the cheap seats? sitting in their lazy boy at home ( here is looking at you dad!) and decide what to do with what they said to me. I recently spent a week touring European Christmas markets solo. When I told people about my plans, I got it all : from the you are brave, to the you are crazy, selfish to the… that is awesome, you deserve this and will have an awesome time. The people in the arena where the ones telling me to go…. I did and had a blast!!!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 22, 2019

      I love love love this concept. I hadn’t heard it before, but it makes so much sense. I almost shared a story in this post about the time I went to Iceland by myself. I remember telling some extended family members and their reaction was shock. “You’re going… BY YOURSELF?” I very calmly replied, “Yes, who else would I be going with?” It was like they believed as a single person I should just be sitting around waiting for “the one,” and the idea that I might go and live my life on my own was unfathomable. Meanwhile my close family and friends could not have been more supportive.

      Reply
    2. Annoesjka on December 24, 2019

      Thank you for mentioning Brene Brown’s “man the arena”! Another very good insight that I’m going to remind myself of when I think I’m the crazy one. 😉

      Reply
  8. Cherie on December 22, 2019

    What a wonderful post full of loving reminders! Perfect timing as I judge myself for not having enough Christmas lights compared to the neighbors. On my walks, I have been obsessively judging neighbors who don’t clear their sidewalks of ice and snow instead of feeling joyful that I can walk and enjoy nature.

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 22, 2019

      Oh, I’m sure your Christmas lights are an absolute joy, Cherie! Glad you are letting go of both judgment and self-judgment, and enjoying your walks!

      Reply
  9. Susan on December 22, 2019

    This is so timely…thank you! Your dinner party is a great example. At this time of year, I find myself wanting to give a great (i.e. perfect) gift. When I do it’s a downward spiral and I lose all the joy of giving. The joy questions feel so different than the perfection (judgment) ones. Thank you!!!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 22, 2019

      I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I have to remind myself over and over again!

      Reply
  10. Sarahkate on December 22, 2019

    I was judged extremely harshly my entire life by my abusive father, a self-made wealthy businessman. I have tried to move past the decades of negativity including him trying to “recruit” others to agree with him about what a horrible person I supposedly was – and sometimes this was done right in front of me. I almost succeeded in setting aside so much of the feelings of hurt and shame but then he passed away and I learned that he had left his entire fortune to my sister because I was “such a worthless person and such a disappointment” to him. My alleged crimes? Working as a paraprofessional in a field he despised – he wanted me to be a secretary in a big company; keeping contact with my mother, whom he also despised; and always having a dog – because he hated dogs. While I strive to live my best life and stop apologizing for who I am, the final blow was to learn that he judged – and despised – me so much that he didn’t even leave me a single penny. I am proud of and take JOY in the fact that I have provided for myself and it hasn’t been easy as I always seem to feel like I’m never good enough, despite accolades from my work. But imagine how sad and angry he must have been for decades to be able to treat others the way he did. PS very little brings as much joy into one’s life as a dog!

    Reply
    1. Ingrid Fetell Lee on December 22, 2019

      I’m so sorry to hear of the abuse you suffered at the hands of your father. It seems you have emerged strong and resilient, and having learned the most important lesson: that however painful it is to be judged, it is far worse to be the one who judges. (That, and that dogs are a sure fire route to joy!)

      Reply
  11. Nancy on December 23, 2019

    Thank you Ingrid, for this and so many of your posts. You’ve opened my eyes and heart to what’s possible when I seek to create joy rather than be ruled by perfectionism. This is such a gift. I’m so grateful for all you’re sharing!

    Reply
  12. Nancy Brent on December 24, 2019

    Thank you for this article! I too was quick to judge & consequently worried a lot about being judged. A year ago I made an effort to let go of the criticism & focus on acceptance of others standards. I’m excited to try out making joy my focus for this holiday week & upcoming year and am hopeful it will be helpful in my struggle to be my true self.

    Reply
  13. Annoesjka on December 24, 2019

    I read this. Shared it on Twitter. Reread it.
    And then decided to save this in my gmail-archive of “Things I sometimes need to remind myself of’. (And that archive is not meant to be immensely huge and a precious sort of personal bible with all kinds of psychological wisdom.)

    Sooooo many good insights in this blog post. THANK YOU, thank you.

    Reply
  14. E J Fisher on December 30, 2019

    This is a wonderful blog. I can feel judged but this turns the whole thing on its head beautifully. Now we can practice compassion and self-compassion. I want to learn – why is this true? Where does this come from like mantras.

    Thank you for such an honest column.

    Reply

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