Ladies, I’m going to throw myself under the bus right here but I’m hoping it is for a worthwhile cause in the end.  The other day at work, I was chatting with a group of colleagues when a cute, 20-something young lady walked in to talk to us wearing a to-die-for outfit.  I’m embarrassed to admit this but before it all even registered in my head, my first thought was: “Well, she clearly spends too much time obsessing over her appearance if she looks that cute!”

The lightning speed of these thoughts, not to mention their judgmental spirit, even caught me off guard.  I’m a positive person who generally sees the best in others and in fact, critical people feel like an aggressive choke-hold to me.  So where on earth did this snap judgment come from?  And just as importantly, if I can resist the urge to get mad at myself letting this critical thought happen, what can it teach me?

We hear a lot about humans being wired for love and connection and believe that with my whole heart.  What I also know about humans is that the most primitive parts of our brains are wired for something very different: survival.  The lower part of our brain has only one job: keep us alive.  Keep us breathing. Keep us vigilant. Keep us safe.  It just so happens that this part of our brain is also the quickest to respond, especially when a threat is perceived.  This primal, reactive part of the brain is usually more reflex than conscious choice.

So back to my snap judgment of the cute 20-something who has the audacity to wear a trendy outfit in my presence.  Given the vigilance of my lower brain to constantly be on the lookout for threats, it doesn’t have to look hard to find them.  In an effort to keep me “safe,” my brain by default is sizing up everyone around me.  It is constantly asking the question: “Who am I better than so I can know where to compete?”   Vigilance, to the lower brain, is sizing up everyone and everything in the new environment and reporting back where I beat the “competition” and where I’m outgunned.  This darling young thing had me outdone outfit to hairstyle and for some reason on that day, it was a threat to my place in the room.

So my fast-acting lower brain raced in with the report of where I’d been outdone and offered some reasoning for why someone could possibly be younger, cuter, and more fashionable than me.  Apparently the answer was simple: She was obsessed with appearance—it was the only possible explanation.  So, my lower brain (and probably some combo of my ego) consoles me with the verdict that while “yes, she does outgun you in some superficial categories, our deep reconnaissance ensures us that we are still more focused on the important things in life than she is and that actually makes us the winner! Yay!”

Before she’s even had time to introduce herself fully, my fast-acting lower brain has sized me up against her, figured out where she must surely be weak and offered a solution for how to ‘defeat’ her.  That might be handy if we were about to engage in a fight to the death but damn, she was just joining us for coffee!

It’s ugly folks.  Judgment always is.  It’s not based in truth.  It’s divisive.  It feels gross and cuts us off from the connection we truly crave with others.  But it is our default wiring that was once designed to keep us safe.  Our snap judgments were essential when we needed to outwit predators and it would still be the quick thinking that keeps us safe if we were truly in a state of physical threat.  But thankfully, 99.9% of the time, we aren’t.  And our job is to tame these overzealous first-responders that view life only in terms of threat and safety.

So knowing this, what can I do when moments of harsh judgment like this strike?

  • Call it what it is. Say to yourself: “Ah, Girl, you’re feeling threatened and this is pressing your “I’m not Enough” button, isn’t it?”  Basically, offer a truer assessment of the situation that you and offer yourself grace.
  • Circle back later: When you’re out of the moment and your biology is no longer hijacking your thinking, spend some time asking yourself why that particular person or incident seemed to trigger you.  Not so that you can beat yourself up over it but so that you can know your tender areas and anticipate potential triggers.

Also, here are two things that will not help in a moment of snap judgment:

  • Don’t go into a shame spiral: Don’t get mad at yourself for the knee-jerk reaction that was out of character for you. To do so is to give it too much mic-time.  Your default settings over-reacted, you see it for what it is, and rework your thoughts.
  • Don’t lean over and corrupt others with your lower-brain’s over-reactions by turning the snap judgments into juicy gossip or a chance to laugh at someone else’s expense. Again, it gives the thoughts more real estate than they deserve and that is the opposite of the goal.

We are not our thoughts.  Yet, when our thoughts go unchecked, they can bleed into our way of being in the world.  Let’s see our judgments for what they really are: a map to the tender areas in us that may need some of our time and attention.