A Coaching Power Tool Created by Elena Chen
(Leadership Coach, UNITED STATES)
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines judgment to be an opinion or estimate formed by discerning and comparing. According to Springer, self-judgment “results from thoughts individuals have about themselves and the meanings attached to those thoughts”. Self-judgment is not simply an opinion or conclusion but usually associated with strong negative feelings and repercussion effect, which can hold us back from achieving our full potential. In many ways, self-judgment is similar to judgement. However, it is quite interesting that some people who don’t believe that judging others is right can be very judgmental towards themselves.
Compassion is defined in Merriam-Webster as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Similarly, self-compassion limits the target of such behaviours to be oneself. Neff (2003) stated that self-compassion consists of three main components, self-kindness, common humanity and mindfulness. In the same paper, he mentioned that such self attitude could “protect against the negative consequences of self-judgment, isolation, and rumination.” Therefore, self-compassion and self-judgment are two sides of a coin. An individual can view oneself from two distinct perspectives and the respective implications are drastically different.
This article will first layout examples of self-judgment behaviours, then dissect root causes and effects of self-judgment, and finally introduce a step-by-step coaching plan to empower clients.
Examples of self-judgment
People who are used to self-judgment often show lack of confidence, are hesitant to take actions or seem harsh on themselves. Below are some examples of self-judging behaviours.
An investment banker felt that he has fallen behind his colleagues on technical knowledge because unlike his colleagues, he didn’t study finance in colleges. He thought that he would never catch up with others due to such disadvantage.
An MBA student would like to recruit for full-time jobs in top US management consulting firms. As a non-English native speaker, she felt that language was preventing her from achieving the best outcome. As a result, she believed that she was definitely worse than other applicants who spoke English more fluently.
A working professional had lots of past experience in talent development. Once, she attended a talent development seminar with other colleagues who didn’t have such a background. Ironically, despite her expertise, she couldn’t raise a single question to the speaker. It turned out that she was so worried that her questions were not outstanding enough that she couldn’t focus on listening to what the speaker was saying.
Reasons behind self-judgment
Self-judgment, which often appears as negative thoughts and opinions about oneself, can stem from different causes. First, ego, a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance, may lead to self-judgment. This is because high self-esteem drives high expectations about oneself and their performance. Even though the evaluation of oneself against high expectations can motivate oneself to constantly challenge themselves and perform better, sometimes the expectations can be perfectionistic or unrealistic. As a result, the gap between reality and expectations may cause various levels of disappointment, anxiety, and even anger or depression.
Another type of self-judgment is less reality-based and more like mental manipulation. A person with a strong ego tends to perform reality testing by comparing oneself with external benchmarks, e.g. historical average score or peer performance. When one is afraid of hurting his or her self-identity, self-judgment may be used to put oneself down first to prevent an unsatisfactory outcome from hurting one’s ego later.
Third, self-judgment can also come from a fear of rejection and failure. When one is so afraid of unhappy results, he or she may use self-judgment to discourage oneself from taking any action. Without any action, of course, there will be no risk of failing.
Impact of self-judgment
Judgment often emerges when we don’t feel on top of our games. It usually targets aspects of ourselves that we don’t like or value. Similarly, we judge ourselves when we face certain challenges or suffer from certain weaknesses. As a result, we often feel the loss of control, anxiety and disappointment.
It is like a downward spiral. When we are not good at something, we believe that we can’t do it. Then we don’t dare try, leaving us at a more disadvantageous situation than before. This is because now we are not only constrained by the objective challenges but also our limiting beliefs.
If not careful, one can be consumed by self-judgment. It won’t create but reduce motivation. It deprives us of self-confidence because those negative opinions will add up to a negative overall impression on oneself. Lack of motivation or self-confidence leads to immobility.
Self-judgment is particularly harmful if one also has a fixed mindset, namely, the belief that a person’s capability is born with and cannot be improved over time. With a fixed mindset, one would interpret the gap as a sign of his or her incapability of performing certain tasks and there is no way out.
The first step towards overcoming self-judgment is to recognize one’s situation, whether it’s one’s own weakness or external disadvantage. The client needs to fully understand on which matter he or she is not on top of and accept the fact that more work is required. An objective perspective of the situation will bring calmness to the client.
Second, the coach can work with the client to create awareness around the client’s self-judgment. The coach may describe the definition of self-judgment and encourage the client to identify examples from his or her past experience. An Insight Journal published by Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in fall 2002 described how counting the number of times when one judges oneself can help increase awareness of self-judgment. The client could be very surprised by his or her number after the exercise.
The third step is to identify the root causes and impact of self-judgment. As mentioned earlier, self-judgment is driven by unrealistic expectations, strong ego, fear of failure, etc. Helping the client understand drivers behind self-judgment and the harmful effect it imposes on the client’s life can increase their motivation and confidence to overcome the problem.
Lastly, we will work with the client to reframe perspectives by introducing two powerful tools, self-compassion and growth mindset. Self-judgment comes with denial and rejection whereas self-compassion comes with recognition and love. As soon as the client stops being hyper-critical about oneself and demonstrates compassion and tolerance, the negative emotions will also die down. For clients who judge themselves but not others, coaches can guide them to talk to themselves as if talking to a friend in the same situation. Separately, the coach may invite the client to visualize the inner self that always creates self-judgment and guide the client to reimagine how the inner self can become more self-compassionate by shifting its facial expressions, colour, figure or clothing.
The second tool is a growth mindset. In Buddhism, there is a similar concept called impermanence, or nothing is permanent. Dweck (2008) described a Growth Mindset as the understanding that abilities and intelligence can be developed. If ability and intelligence is a formula of effort and learning, then the client can be less concerned about their own identity as “smart” or “dumb”, “good” or “bad”, “capable” or “incompetent”. This helps the client get out of the vicious cycle of fear of failure and losing one’s self-identity.
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House Digital, Inc.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-compassion: An alternative conceptualization of a healthy attitude toward oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85-101.
Paul, M. (2018, Jan 2). Are You Addicted To Self-Judgment? [Web log post]. Retrieved Aug 16, 2019, from https://www.huffpost.com.
Winston, D. (Fall 2002). From Self-Judgement to Being Ourselves [Web log post]. Retrieved Aug 16, 2019, from https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/from-self-judgement-to-being-ourselves/.