The ego’s need to judge

For the last 2,500 years or so, prophets and sages have admonished us to refrain from judging others. Here’s what a few of them have said:

“Do not be the judge of people; do not make assumptions about others. A person is destroyed by holding judgments about others.” – Gautama Buddha

“Judge not, and you shall not be judged.” – Luke 6:37

“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” – Carl Jung

“If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” – Mother Teresa

“Love is the absence of judgment.” – Dalai Lama

“Real magic in relationships means an absence of judgment of others.” – Wayne Dyer

Yet with all these words of wisdom, we continue to make judgements about others on a continual basis. We judge people on their level of education, on their political or religious beliefs, on what kind of car they drive or clothes they wear, on their favorite sports team, and countless other things. We can even make judgments based on what kind of food someone likes, which has got to be one of the least important things about a person. But we do it. Often we don’t even realize we’re doing it, because it has become so commonplace as to be automatic.

Why do humans continue to engage in such a negative habit? The short answer is this: because we all have an ego. The ego is the part of our mind that looks at everything in terms of “me” and “not me.” The ego lives in a perpetual state of fear. The ego loves to feel superior, and fears feeling inferior. We all have an ego, and we can’t get rid of it. We can’t kill it or kick it out of our head. We can, however, recognize it when it pops up. We don’t have to let it run our lives.

I live in Dallas, Texas, which has a reputation around the state as being a very ego-driven town. This is expressed in the unofficial Dallas motto, “Keep Dallas Pretentious.” To be honest, it does seem to have a culture of egotism. But there is egotism wherever you go. It can manifest individually, or as a group. That’s what drives a clique – the belief that “we’re better than them.”

The ego is insidious. Many years ago, when I was a student, I was talking with a friend about the concept of ego, and the prospect of trying to rise above it. My friend made a statement to the effect that he had done a lot of work to keep his ego in check, and I very nearly blurted out, “Well, I’ve done more work on my ego than you have.” Which is, of course, a purely egotistical statement. I actually told my friend what I almost said, and we had a laugh about it, which is often the best thing to do when one recognizes one’s ego.

Because the ego lives in fear of being inferior, it causes a great deal of suffering. In my practice, I hear a lot of statements of anguish that comes from individual’s experiences with Facebook, of all things. Clients express emotional pain because their latest post didn’t get enough “likes,” or someone has more friends than they do, or they have seen photos of others out having fun while they are sitting at home. Facebook seems to have the ability to bring the ego to the forefront, in the form of either bragging or suffering, or, most likely, both.

Let’s say there is an individual whom we’ll call Tom. Tom is not a very nice person. He talks badly about people behind their backs. He tears down their accomplishments and revels in their flaws. At the same time, he is prone to exaggerating his own strengths while minimizing his faults. He comes across as an egotistical jerk. Is Tom a happy person? Absolutely not. His behavior is actually a defense mechanism against his own fears of inadequacy. In fact, his self-esteem is actually quite low, and this is how he compensates. People regard him as conceited, narcissistic. But deep down, he doesn’t believe all these grandiose statements he makes about himself. This is true of most narcissists. At the core of narcissism is shame.

When we make judgments about others, what we are doing is trying to make ourselves feel better by comparison, plain and simple. Judging someone else as bad temporarily elevates us above them, in our minds, at least. The ego loves this, but the effect is short-lived. In the case of Tom, what he doesn’t realize is that when he goes around talking about others, he is revealing a lot more information about himself than the people he talks about. He is revealing his doubts, fears, perhaps even self-hatred. There is a little bit of Tom in all of us. We may not be quite so blatant as Tom, but if we were to be presented with a tally of all the judgments we made about others throughout the course of a day, most of us would be shocked.

Fortunately, there is good news. While we can’t get rid of our ego, it is not who we are. There is another part of us that is capable of kindness and brotherly love. Occasionally, something happens that blows our ego away, for a time. A brush with death, a major disaster, a profound spiritual experience – these things, and others, have the power to temporarily displace our egos, and we feel connected to others as equals. It’s a great feeling. It feels good and right. Sadly, the feeling will often gradually fade away, and our egos reassert themselves. But that doesn’t mean we are doomed to let our egos run our lives.

A great deal of therapy involves improving one’s relationship with oneself. Often, this requires self-forgiveness, which can be extraordinarily difficult. It can be done, however. The more this relationship improves, the less our egos are running the show. When we are no longer plagued with doubt and shame, there is less need for our ego to compensate for those feelings. This makes it easier to regard ourselves and others with kindness. We often think of kindness as something we do, which it is, but sometimes, it is something we don’t do. To interact with others without judgment is in itself an act of kindness.


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