Being the victim of a judgemental rant can hurt. Such criticism quickly jumps to conclusions about ourselves. How dare they assume they have the right to critique us in this way? Whether or not the message itself is beneficial is besides the point.
Today’s independent, isolationist culture asserts that judgementalism is an egregious character flaw. The receiver of the rant is the victim. The sender, the oppressor. Or so we believe.
In fact, the receiver truly is a victim. But they are victimized, not by the sender, but by their own inability to benefit from the critical feedback.
While it is true that the sender may be crossing boundaries and may be communicating inadequately, the receiver is the one missing the opportunity for growth. For this reason, judgementalism exposes only poor communication skills, not a character flaw.
Judgementalness is not a Character Flaw
Consider, first, the definition of judgementalism. Being judgemental is the quality or state of being too willing to criticize the actions and behavior of others and say they are wrong. The subjective word “too” is key to its defining characteristic. With subjectivity existing in the eye of the beholder, it’s easy to see how receivers attribute the judgemental label subjectively and even opportunistically.
Now consider the meaning of constructive criticism. While criticism itself is the act of considering the pros and cons and judge accordingly usually resulting in an unfavorable evaluation, constructive criticism, often regarded as the acceptable form of criticism, is criticism that identifies ways in which improvement can be made. In other words, it is criticism that evaluates and offers potential solutions.
Is there not an overlap in definitions between judgementalism and constructive criticism? All things being equal, logically, judgementalism can transform into constructive criticism simply by the sender adding suggested next steps.
However, here is an example which might suggest that in practice, logic does not prevail.
Scenario: A grandfather expresses to a father (his son) that he could improve the education of his son (the grandson) by using a different curriculum.
Version 1 – Grandfather being judgemental: You are not educating him properly.
Version 2 – Grandfather offering criticism: You could improve his education by using a different curriculum because he doesn’t seem to be learning.
Version 3 – Grandfather offering constructive criticism: Your education curriculum seems to be working at some level. However, I would try a this other curriculum to see if that makes it easier on the child to learn.
All three convey the same message, the father needs to consider changing the curriculum for his son. The first version illustrates perceived judgementalism. The second version presents criticism. Finally, criticism transforms into constructive criticism in the third version. The three cases differ merely by the sender’s lack of tact or insight in proper communication skills.
In all three cases, the grandfather (sender) is looking out for the best interests of the father (receiver) and son. In all three cases, the message, that the current educational strategy needs to be improved, is clear and relevant. While the second and third messages add additional value, this does not necessarily indicate that the first message does not have value.
Regardless of how the first message is perceived, the grandfather’s communication method is not indicative of a character flaw needing correction. However, the father’s inability to receive all three messages equally as constructive criticism IS a character flaw to the detriment of both father and son.
The following essay will prove that the character flaw exists in the receiver, not the sender. First, the sender is only guilty of poor communication. Second, the receiver has the power to authorize the sender to provide feedback. Third, receivers typically revoke this authority when their personal identity is associated to the sender. The receiver manufactures the judgemental label to protect this identity. Finally, there is an alternate source of identity which can remove the receiver’s insecurity, making them accepting of feedback. We will carry our grandfather example all the way through this discussion.
Poor Communication – An Underdeveloped Skill
Growth happens only by feedback loops. Feedback loops only occur with criticism. Therefore growth, whether in relationships, skills, or any other aspect, is dependent on criticism. Only then can direction and progress be corrected. For this reason, all social and academic settings embrace criticism.
Consider a classroom discussion between a teacher and a student. The teacher (sender) provides feedback to the student (receiver), as they should. In fact, a teacher that DOES NOT provide feedback to the student would be failing at their job. (I would say the same is true for the job of a parent.)
The message benefits the student. The teacher’s intent is for the benefit of the student. It is splitting hairs to think that a teacher might have ulterior motives. The overarching goal is the child’s improvement. (Again, the same is true for the case of the parent.)
However, if the teacher conveys the message in what is deemed a “judgmental” way, the student might become defensive, closing themselves to receiving the beneficial criticism. Though the teacher has poor communication skills, it is not a character flaw.
To prove that poor communication skills are not character flaws, consider the rectification. While the correction for poor communication skill is to improve that skill, the correction if the criticism were a character flaw would be to stop providing criticism altogether. As stated earlier, a teacher must provide criticism.
The student is the loser in this situation because they are not benefiting from the feedback. The student is sabotaging their own development. By improving their communication skill, the teacher is attempting to stop the child from sabotaging their own learning experience.
Alternatively, if the child could “withstand” the teacher’s poor communication skill and remain open to receive the criticism, they could benefit and further their own growth.
Considering our original example of the grandfather, if the second and third messages were successfully received by the father, it may have resulted in follow up questions of “how should I improve?” or “why do you think this is not the best way?”, the message is effectively communicated and the feedback has been embraced. Even if the father had a thought such as “my father can be so frustrating, but perhaps I should consider what he is saying about my son’s education,” he opens the door for his improvement and his son’s benefit.
In fact, most resources that discuss negative criticism teach techniques to improve the criticism, not prevent the criticism. They focus on how to clearly convey intention along with meaning. In the best interest of the receiver, the sender should make the effort to improve this underdeveloped skill. Thus, feedback, in and of itself, is always constructive if the intention is constructive. The intent and message for improvement should be embraced, regardless of the quality of the message delivery.
In the grandfather example, the grandfather was merely giving feedback. That was the intent. The grandfather did not reject the father. Neither did he disown the father, nor did he suggest that the father was unfit to be father to his son. He only displayed disapproval in the progress of education being administered by the father.
While there is such a thing as destructive feedback, feedback meant to harm, the vast majority of the relationships we are in can be safely assumed as with senders seeking our growth. Therefore, the onus is on both sender and receiver to overcome the underdeveloped skill and ensure the message is received.
If all criticism can be considered constructive, rejection of the message reveals something about the relationship between the sender and the receiver, not the message itself.
Authority is the fundamental characteristic of this relationship which enables the critical feedback mechanism. Authority must be given. Does the receiver authorize the sender to give feedback?
There are many methods by which authority is given. The first and most common is position. A sender in a position of authority (i.e. teacher, parent, boss, etc…) is by default authorized by the receiver to give criticism.
A teacher conveys feedback to the student under the assumption that they have the authority to provide feedback and the equal assumption that the student is obligated to receive it. When the relationship is first formed, it has this authority built-in. Initially, the student might concur and receive the feedback. The same is true for the parent, boss, or any other sender speaking from a position of authority.
However, the authority given to the teacher, even if implicit, is in fact given by the student. When a young student walks into a classroom, the student and teacher enter into this relationship. The teacher believes it is their right to have this authority. This is true, but a right must be granted nonetheless, and it is granted by the student.
Initially, the teacher’s authority was granted due to the authority granted the parents to choose a teacher. Teachers see the truth in this everyday. Some students grant teachers the “right” to teach them from Day 1, while others force the teacher to earn the “right” to teach them. Just as easily, the student can withdraw that right at any time.
In our grandfather example, the grandfather, having been father to the father, had at one point been authorized to provide feedback. If his son, the father, chooses to reject the feedback, it is because he is no longer authorizing the grandfather to provide it.
In all cases, authority to provide feedback is granted or rescinded by the receiver.
A second method of granting authority is inclusion. Studies have shown that in-group feedback is much more readily accepted. The out-group feedback is received with skepticism or out-rightly rejected. A receiver is more willing to accept feedback from within an inclusive group.
The definition of in-group versus out-group is somewhat arbitrary, but what is clear is that it is in the eye of the receiver. The receiver is the one who determines when the sender is within the group or without.
A parent-child relationship is a very clear example of this. When the child was young, the parent and child were part of the same group, named family. However, as time went on, especially as is the case with most teenagers, a division begins to form within this group. The child begins to consider the parent as outside their group. The dynamics of the parent-child relationship is complex, but the net result with regards to feedback is that the child begins to consider revoking the authority of the parent to give feedback.
The dangers of this inclusion method of authority is that, since the group identity is in the mind of the receiver, they can form the in-group with whomever they choose. Often the group becomes only like-minded people, which then slowly eliminates any potential feedback from outside perspectives.
While a sender may or may not desire to be part of the group with the receiver, this group is manufactured in the mind of the receiver. Thus it behooves the receiver to form a group that is inclusive of the sender.
It follows that the receiver should seek group identity with all those in a position of authority, not just those who are like-minded. This is not to say that the receiver authorizes the sender to command, but merely to provide feedback.
Authority is provided to those who are within the same group as the receiver.
This fact brings us to the final method: authority that is granted to all who enable free choice.
Feedback, by itself, is simply information, it can not force the receiver to do anything. However, in many relationship, especially those that stem from a position of authority, the receiver believes that the message eliminates choice, even though this is rarely the case. When the receiver understands they have a choice, they will automatically authorize the sender.
Authority is provided to all by a receiver who embraces their power to choose.
This final mode of authorization, embracing choice, is the key to accepting criticism, and it is completely within the power of the receiver.
Defensiveness Against Threats
There are some cases in which choice is forcefully removed. The message alone cannot do this. It must be accompanied by a threat. That threat can be either physical, relational or personal.
The physical threat transforms the receiver’s power to choose into a choice between compliance or persecution. While this is still a choice, it is not a choice in response to the criticism itself. That freedom is blocked by this threat-driven choice.
A teacher who uses a stick to compel a student to do their homework is utilizing a physical threat. The student is not responding to the criticism about homework but to the threat of the stick. The receiver, the student, must first evaluate the threat before considering to evaluate the message.
Similarly, the relational threat requires a response to the threat before a response to the message. This threat entails either an implicit or explicit rejection of the pre-existing relationship between sender and receiver. The fear of this broken relationship is the force behind the threat.
It is unfair to fault only the receiver in these cases. The willingness to threaten is in fact a character flaw on the part of the sender. The sender is not able to maintain a just relationship with the receiver.
However, in our grandfather example, this is not the case because the grandfather made no explicit or implicit insinuation that he was breaking ties with the father. Thus, we are not concerned with physical or relational threats. For the remainder of this argument, we will discuss only the following case: the personal threat.
The personal threat is a threat to one’s identity. This is the most common threat. However, this is also the only threat which is unsubstantial and wholly in the control of the receiver.
The threat exists based on the location of the receiver’s identity. In the teacher-student relationship, if the student’s identity lies in their success, then criticism is a challenge to this belief that they are successful. In the parent-child relationship, if the child’s identity lies in their status as a “good child”, then criticism again becomes a threat to that status.
In the grandfather example, if the father had found his identity in either being a “good son” or a “good parent”, then the grandfather’s words become a personal threat.
The only threat to the receiver is a threat to their identity.
An Insecure Identity hides behind Judgementalism
The sad truth is that we are insecure beings. We are constantly seeking an identity which provides security.
For well over a decade, parents were the source of our security because we found our identity within them. Criticism starts eroding that identity, thus weakening that security.
Insecurity, which stems from a weakened identity, can become so terrifying that we build walls protecting the identity that remains.
This is the only reason why a father would resist even so much as hearing educational advice about his son. The wall that protects the father’s fragile identity blocks all feedback from the grandfather, even at the expense of his son’s improvement. The same advice given from another source might be accepted because his identity is not threatened.
In the case of authority bestowed by position, the receiver consents primarily when the source has no influence on the receiver’s identity. However, when the receiver identifies themselves with their status as employee or student, the boss or teacher (authorized by position) inadvertently sends a personal threat. In this case, the message runs the risk of failing.
On the other hand, when authority is granted by inclusion, the receiver accepts feedback because of the acquiescing nature of the in-group reduces any risk to the identity. There is no personal threat.
In both cases, the receiver’s identity makes the personal threat possible. The personal threat, in turn, challenges the receiver’s freedom of choice. The location of the receiver’s identity creates a handicap upon the receiver’s ability to accept criticism.
In response to the fear of these personal identity threats, the receiver applies the label “judgemental” as a defense mechanism. It qualifies the sender as unfit to provide feedback. The authority for the sender to provide criticism is revoked.
A sender who has the following characteristics is prone to be given this label:
- They have poor communication skills, and so cannot effectively express criticism without minimizing the risk to the receiver’s identity.
- They are individuals in a position of authority, and they are connected with the receiver’s personal identity.
Both points stem from the receiver’s security within their perceived identity. The first point, the subjective evaluation of “poor” communication skills, is quantified by nothing more than the message’s impact upon the identity of the receiver. The second point is valid only to the extent that the sender has access to attack the identity of the receiver. In both cases, whether the message attacks the identity or the sender attacks the identity, it is the receiver’s identity which makes them vulnerable to personal threats. This is the character flaw.
One’s personal identity must never be susceptible to attack by another, be it the message or the sender.
The Truth of Our Identity
If the receiver places their identity in the hands of the sender, then that identity is always under threat at all times. The sender can either accidentally or purposefully challenge the receiver’s identity.
This is true in both a shame-honor culture or in a merit-based culture. The receiver derives their identity from a belief that their value is relative to their ability to conform to the society’s subjective measure.
In a shame-honor society, the receiver’s identity stems from their ability to bring honor to their parents and family. In a merit-based society, the receiver’s identity stems from their ability to gain merit from whichever random individual or group holds and evaluates the desired merit. Either way, the receiver places their identity in the hands of a sender dictated by the society.
Thus, when criticism comes from a sender possessing power over the receiver’s identity, the sender cannot distinguish a critique intending improvement from an attack on their identity.
In other words, we want the sender to validate our identity, not invalidate it. Criticism becomes (in the our minds) a rejection of our identity.
However, the solution is not to simply look for a less threatening sender (authority by inclusion). It must be to have an identity independent of any and all senders. In both shame-honor or merit-based cultures, one’s individual identity was not meant to be derived from a sender outside of ourselves.
In the grandfather example, the father placed his identity in the hands of the grandfather. This turned the grandfather into a potential personal threat. Rather, if the father attaches his identity to his own potential to be father to his son, that identity is disassociated from the grandfather. Therefore, the father would not feel a personal threat from the criticism.
In a shame-honor society, one’s identity should be found in one’s potential to bring honor to the society, even if that honor is unrecognized by the society. In a merit-based system, one’s identity should be found in one’s potential to contribute to the overall social system, even if that contribution is unknown. In both cases, it is an identity based on potential that is pre-existent and thus independent of the society itself.
Identity from Within
One’s identity must derive from this inner, pre-existent potential. Many religions preach to this innate potential. A potential that is out of the reach of the fickleness of external sources. A potential that is equal and absolute.
Each religion approaches this problem with its own solution. Christianity derives this potential from an identity with God. This potential was pre-existent and absolute before creation itself. It is infinitely validated by the forgiveness that God affords through the work of Christ. For Buddhism, detachment provides the separation of personal identity from all things external. The only real potential is one’s potential to attain nirvana. For Hinduism, identity is derived from the potential to fulfill one’s ultimate goal of reuniting with god, Brahman. In both Buddhism and Hinduism, one’s potential is insured by the infinite lifetimes of opportunity provided by the cycle of rebirths. For atheists or agnostics, it may be that the identity comes from the internal reason engine. However, while reason may seem absolute and independent of external human relativity, in all cases this engine is itself a product of external sources.
Whichever approach is chosen, the goal is to establish an identity from something within and not something outside of oneself. If one’s identity is centered externally, its security can only be assured by the constitute pursuit of external acceptance that validates that identity. The receiver’s purpose becomes a life-long effort to receive that validation.
Rather, the receiver must locate their identity from within. Only then can the personal threat to their identity be eradicated, and criticism itself becomes a valuable tool for growth.
Judgementalism, Insight into our Soul
Finally, we come to the real insight illuminated by the judgemental label.
Upon the sender, the one identified as judgemental, it is a commentary upon their communication skills. If they truly are interested in the receiver’s improvement, the sender should consider the defensive reaction of the receiver as a litmus test both for their communication skill and for the strength of their relationship with the receiver. Out of concern for the receiver, they should strive to improve their communication skill.
However, upon the receiver, the one feeling judged, in identifying someone else as judgemental, they expose two characteristics about themselves.
First, it reveals the barriers they have created. These barriers restrict their ability to receive feedback; a tragic realization in that their ability to self-improve is obstructed.
Secondly, and more importantly, it reveals a self-imposed identity that depends on the sender for validation. An identity built on any external dependence is a position of great anxiety and uncertainty. Their identity is precariously teetering on a ledge, with the world ready to push it over the cliff. There can be no security found in that situation.
In the case of the father who is defensive against the grandfather’s comments, he has identified, first, that barriers exist that inhibit his development as an educator for his son, and second, he has identified that his identity is still dependent on his father, the grandfather.
Both of these personal truths limit the receiver’s personal well-being and development.
Judgementalism in individualistic cultures is considered a character flaw. This couldn’t be further from the truth. After all, how could concern for another be considered a character flaw?
Accepting feedback is an important ability. So much so, that much of communication literature focuses on improving the receiver’s ability to receive. In fact, techniques exist to aid the receiver in overcoming the sender’s lack of skill in communication.
The key is personal choice. Personal threats remove the receiver’s freedom of choice. The receiver must unburden themselves from personal threats by making their identity inaccessible to the sender; thus they become free to make the choice of response to the criticism.
While physical or relational threats are justly identified as cruel, most feedback originates from sources without substantiated physical or relational threats. In these cases, the receiver’s identity is linked to a source outside themselves and within the grasp of the sender. This debilitating identity creates the personal threat to the receiver, through no fault of the sender.
One must disassociate personal identity from external sources and locate it within one’s self. Only then are personal threats permanently removed, making room for personal growth.
Therefore, the next time you feel the urge to label someone as judgmental, use it determine why you are not able to receive the feedback constructively, and more importantly why your identity is dependent on the judgemental person.