How to be less judgmental and becoming discerning instead

Feb 06, 2023

Follow the show

Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | Everywhere Else

Evaluation. Our brains are performing this function nearly nonstop as we go through our day. It’s part of our decision-making process, how we make sense of the world, and how we keep ourselves safe. However, due to various influences, our brains trend toward the negative more often than the positive. The judgmental mind strategy or pattern we use to protect ourselves actually leaves us feeling unhappy, dissatisfied and hyper-focused on what’s wrong.

But what if we can retrain our brains by replacing judgment with discernment? This subtle but freeing shift still involves the evaluation we naturally perform but it uses the information input differently. Rather than looking for what is wrong, discernment considers facts without assigning so much personal meaning and emotion. This fosters an environment of problem solving with less stress and calm, something we all desire. Let’s explore together how to become less judgmental and more discerning.

“Dropping judgment can actually allow us to achieve more… It can allow us to be more innovative and creative… enjoy our work and personal lives more… improve our relationships... [and] tap into our own inner wisdom and see possibilities where before we saw only problems.” – Dr. Sara Dill

What You’ll Learn

  • Our evaluative brain
  • Saboteurs and no win questions
  • Negative effects of judging
  • Positive effects of discerning
  • The science of discernment
  • Nickname your judgy brain

Contact Info and Recommended Resources


Positive Intelligence by Shirzad Chamine

Podcast Episodes that pair well with this one:

Connect with Sara Dill, MD, The Doctor’s Coach

Have anything you’d like to hear me talk about on the podcast? Or have questions about working with me? Email me directly at [email protected], I personally read and respond to my own emails and would love to correspond with you.


I'm Dr. Sarah Dill, and this is the Stress Less Physician Podcast, episode number 52.
Welcome to the Stressless Physician Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Sarah Dill, MD. Using my unique combination of coaching and mindfulness tools, I will teach you practical ways to reduce your stress level, feel happier at work, and create a better balance between your medical career and personal life. If you are a busy practicing physician who wants to design a life and medical career that feel good to you, you are in the right place.

Hey, everyone, happy Monday, or happy whatever day of the week you might be listening to this. Welcome back to the podcast. I just had a fun weekend. I don't know about you, but I actually really like little mini vacations. I live in Santa Barbara in California, and I am lucky that I am close to an amazing place. It's actually about 45 minutes away called the San Inez Valley. There are a bunch of cute little towns there, and it is the heart of Santa Barbara County's wine growing area. And so I went up there and spent the weekend with my boyfriend and my dog and his dog.

And I will say, in light of the episode, the subject that I wanna talk about today, which is about how to be less judgmental, I, as a human being, had a lot of judgments about how I thought it was gonna be beautiful and relaxing and quiet, and how it actually was, which involved a lot of dog barking and dog activity and dog stuff. So it was a great time and sometimes our expectations can get in the way of how we actually experience something.

So I had a great time, and it was interesting, especially in the middle of the night when my puppy Teddy was barking at the coyotes, all of my judgmental thoughts. I was not at my most discerning. Which brings me to what I wanna talk to you about today and something I've been thinking about and actually working on personally a lot, which is how and why to be less judgmental and why we should strive to become more discerning.

And so I wanted to start just with the idea of judgment and how I wanna define it. Of course we all make judgments or have opinions. We're constantly viewing our actions or others' actions through an evaluative lens, our own evaluative lens. That is mostly impossible to not do, right? We are storytellers. We make meaning out of things that happen, right? We all have a point of view. And the human brain is an evaluative ever-judging organ. It's the way I think about it. There's nothing wrong there.

It's pretty easy, in fact, for us to judge things. This was an exercise I did on a retreat one time. I would just ask you to just experiment with me here and just look around yourself right now, wherever you are. You could be at work, you could be driving. Just look around and I would like you to find three things that you don't really like. How easy was that for you to do? It's pretty easy. I can do it right now. I'm standing here in my office and I can easily identify way more than three things that I don't really like right now.

What if I asked you to do the same thing, but to find three things that you do like? Can you look around you and find three things that you do like, was that easy? Was it easier to find things you don't like than things you do like? Or was it pretty easy to do both. I actually find it pretty easy to do both, but it is way easier in general, I think, to find things I don't like. And we're just more practiced at this typically. Sometimes it's way easier for us just to focus on the negative. And often we can come up with things we like too.

It's very easy for us to judge and assess things around us as physicians as well. If you're a physician listening to this, we practice doing this all the time. We're always assessing, we're always judging, we're always evaluating, if I wanted to use those words interchangeably.

I'm super interested in recent work in positive psychology, and I'm also in the middle of doing a training with the author of a book called Positive Intelligence. His name is Shirzad Chamine. So positive intelligence takes some of this work in positive psychology, and then he has his own perspective. I think I might have talked a little bit about it on the podcast. But a lot of this work in Positive Intelligence in particular is focused on identifying our own sets of automatic, habitual mind patterns that we have typically, that we form an early childhood.

These are often strategies that we come up with as children or young adults to stay safe and to make sense of the world and how to survive and right get by in it. And the author of this book, Positive Intelligence, calls these sets of automatic, habitual mind patterns, saboteurs. Because although they may have been strategies for success and survival early on, they often work against our abilities now. They're habitual ways we show up that maybe create problems for us, and they work against our ability to find lasting happiness, success, and fulfillment.

These might be strategies like people pleasing or being hyper irrational, maybe hyper-vigilant, always looking for danger or seeing danger. It includes strategies like needing to be in control or correspondingly a tendency to play more of a victim role. We all have different aspects of these strategies. We all have different tendencies to engage in different saboteur patterns or survival strategies. These unconscious, automatic, habitual patterns.

But the one that he points out that we all have in common is the judge pattern, which I refer to as the judging mind that keeps each one of us typically feeling pretty unhappy, negative, and dissatisfied with ourselves, with others, or with our life in general, or maybe with the world in general.

So the definition of judgment here that I want to work with in this podcast is not just having an opinion or a perspective, but in particular, judgment here really means finding fault or what is wrong with ourselves, finding constant fault or what is wrong with other people and finding constant fault or what is wrong with our circumstances or with life in general or with the world or all of it. So the judgmental mind, maybe I'll call it that, rather than judging.

Judgmental mind finds fault with ourselves, with others, and with the world and circumstances at large. Common emotions, you'll notice, that will clue you in often to being in this judgmental mind pattern or strategy might include disappointment, anger, regret, guilt, shame, anxiety. Sometimes it can be fear or worry, all sorts of things.

Common questions you might notice your mind asking when you're in this judgmental mind strategy or pattern might include: What's wrong with me? Why do I keep doing this? Why do I keep messing up? This might be, what's wrong with you? What's wrong with them? Why are they like this? Don't they see how wrong they are? Or it might be, what's wrong with this outcome? What's wrong with my current circumstances? What's wrong with the world? But you'll notice this sort of focus on what's wrong, and it feels very negative. Notice how these kinds of questions - what's wrong with me? What's wrong with them or you, what's wrong with this situation? - keeps us focused on the negative and then we spiral downwards.
These are examples of no win questions. These are not questions that we wanna ask ourselves because they despiral us down, and all we do is find more evidence for why I, or others, or our lives, are wrong or mistakes.

So this is why in the work that I am doing for myself, and have done, and the work I do with clients, we often try to notice our thoughts and separate those. Those are usually judgments or judgmental. We try to separate our thinking from the facts and from more neutral circumstances.

And I would like to offer that it is often, this habit of judging, this judgemental mind - whether we're judging ourselves or others, or life in general, or circumstances that we find ourselves in - it's this habit of judging that keeps us from finding peace and happiness in daily life. How many of us keep telling ourselves that once we achieve something, or once we make a certain amount of money, or once we find the right person to marry or be with, or once we retire, or maybe once we find right a better practice or once we have enough office staff or get a promotion, or anything, we'll finally be happy, we'll feel more content, everything will be better. That's judging life and circumstances.

And what it does is it causes us to always be chasing what needs to change, what needs to be different, and then we can be happy. Then we can feel successful. Then we can have accomplished enough and then we can be enough. Then we'll be happy with ourselves or proud of ourselves or feel good about ourselves or other people or our life. And that's the lie of this judgmental mind. That's the lie of judgment is that it's never enough because we're always looking for what's wrong or where we are wrong or where other people are wrong or our circumstances or situation is wrong or not enough, or not quite right.
So when we start talking about dropping this pattern or strategy of our judgmental mind, of negative judgments, and fault finding with everything, to focus on a more positive outlook, many of us, myself included, might start to worry that then this will cause us to lose our edge. Maybe we'll become a little lazy, or maybe we'll become too overconfident. Maybe we need to focus on our mistakes or the mistakes of others, or we'll just keep making them, and other people will just keep making them or there won't be consequences. It's very common to worry that we might lose our drive and not be very ambitious and not achieve anything. We'll just sit around, we'll just be content with the status quo.

I think it's very common to worry, if we are suddenly not particularly judgmental, that people could just take advantage of us if we aren't identifying and pointing out their mistakes. Maybe we have a role as a boss, or a leader. What would it look like if we were suddenly not judging our employee's behavior or performance? I think many of us, especially physicians, also worry that without the ability to be critical and analytical, we'll miss things and possibly cause harm to our patients. It's a super common fear in medicine that we always need to be looking for mistakes or potential mistakes and focusing on what's wrong, what we've done wrong or other people have done wrong. And I've talked about this before.

It can be useful up to a point, but not when it's our habitual strategy, not when it's our habitual mindset, not when it's on automatic pilot. So we need to be able to be aware of this and turn it off not only in our professional life sometimes, or at least dial it down, but in our personal life. Otherwise, we just continue to always be looking for what's wrong in ourselves and in other people, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And this does not create a happy and fulfilled or stress-less life. It doesn't create stress-less relationships either, whether personal or professional.

So what I wanna talk about, and I believe I've mentioned on the podcast before is, can we be discerning, without being judgemental or overly negative? When we're in judgmental mode, whether that's self-judgment or judgment of others, or judgment of our situation, you'll notice it because it usually feels harsh and personal and negative. It often involves blaming or shaming. The overall tone is negative. It's not pleasant. Often your body might feel tight, might feel tense. You could notice what is the flavor of your own personal, judgy mind.

In contrast, discernment is a word I love. I know I've talked about this before in terms of how you assess your past. I like the idea that we've always done our best. Maybe my best wasn't that great, but I can learn from it without beating myself up over it. So that would be more discernment.

Discernment is when we can evaluate ourselves in our behavior, whether past, present, or future, whether we can maybe evaluate the performance or behavior of others or the circumstances in which we find ourselves and not necessarily think everything's amazing and wonderful. But can we state the facts and assess them, without making it personal or taking it personally and without being in judgment, without being judgey, without being super critical and negative and fault finding? It's about accepting this is what we have.

That might look like an employee who shows up late three days out of five, or we had an employee who basically called in sick or had accidents or lots of things that I think were legitimate, but pretty much she missed a day of work every week for months. That's not judgmental. That's stating the facts. Judgmental might be making it personal, adding a lot of adjectives to it.

Without being judgey, discernment is often accompanied by emotions like curiosity, or calm or acceptance. To me, it feels more open. I might not be happy about it. It doesn't mean everything's amazing, but I can just be observing it and stating it and discussing it, and investigating it with curiosity.

A personal example that I've experienced a lot lately is the problem of not having enough office staff. And I think this is very common. In fact, I know it is not just in medicine, but in all walks of life, airlines, and airports, and restaurants, and everything. Everyone seems to be hiring. So my medical office has had a lot of times in the past few years where we don't have adequate staff, either front desk staff or back office staff, medical assistants. And if I am not particularly self-aware, and I can, and have sometimes, approached this situation, this set of circumstances with a lot of judgment. And I start getting upset and frustrated and angry, and it feels negative. I feel negative. And that attitude, just focusing on the problems, and fault finding, and being critical doesn't help me solve the problem. It doesn't help anyone in my office solve the problem.

So discernment light might look like sticking to the facts, noticing and discussing how many staff members we have and what our staffing requirements are, and brainstorming with others about what we can do. Not only how do we deal with being short-staffed in the meantime, but how can we also continue to find more staff and train them and prevent this problem in the future? Because it seems to be a pattern. Is it possible? How is it possible? How can we do both? It's similar, but it feels very different from being in that judgmental mind state.

And again, I'm not perfect on this. My office mates can tell you. Sometimes you gotta just pull yourself out of there. But when you're in judgment mode, you often do not have access to your creative problem solving brain. When you're focused on the problem and just getting worked up over it, we often get this tunnel vision. We literally focus down and just see the problem. When we are in discernment, we will be in a less stressed place, where your stress response, your cortisol reaction isn't activated.

And this actually allows us to problem solve much more effectively and creatively. Not only because we aren't angry and upset, but because this allows us to use more of our brain capacity to focus on alternative, maybe more creative solutions.

And I will just put a little caveat in here that there is actually a lot of science that supports this from the positive psychology background and looking at functional MRI scans and some other research. So we're in this judging mind when we're feeling very judgmental and negative when you're in this stress response, and feeling frustrated or angry, upset, afraid, worry, or any of those emotions, we tend to be activating our more primitive parts of the brain. We're triggering that stress response and we're in more of a survival mode.

That's why this habitual pattern is more of a survival component. There's usually, again, that fear and anxiety present. What's happening is we're activating our limbic system, which includes our amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the pituitary gland. It's all part of that cortisol cascade - the stress response. I like to actually remind myself when I catch myself that my cortisol is up when I'm feeling stressed and cortisol and the stress response, while helpful for life and death or survival situations, is not helpful for long-term decision making, and it's certainly not good for my health to be in that mode a lot. Our elevated cortisol and stress response is not helpful or particularly useful for creative problem solving or solutions or innovation, and it's not good for happiness and contentment and well.

But in contrast, when we are able to mentally step back and be more in this discernment mode and not in a stress response, we tend to activate other parts of our brain more widely. This can include parts of our brain, like the middle prefrontal cortex, which helps with our ability to observe ourselves and others. This is activated when we might need to pause before taking action, to respond rather than just react. This allows us to empathize with ourselves and with others and to stay more centered and it can even allow us to soothe or reduce our fear response. We also activate other parts of the brain.

And again, I'm not a neuroscientist or anything, although I'm fascinated by it. But it includes things like the mirror neuron system, the insular cortex, and the ACC as well as more right brain activation. All of these help us to connect with others and with ourselves and to consider more big picture perspectives of possibility and solutions, in ways that we can't access when we are more hijacked by our primitive brain structures. Which we will notice because of the negative emotions and because of that feeling of judgment and hyper criticism right and fault finding.

And I would just say try it. I would start by just asking you just to try noticing how often you are in judgment, that judgmental mind about yourself or others, or the circumstances of your life or situations in which you find yourself. I find that I'm much more judgey about other people and situations than I am about myself and for other people, friends and clients.

It can be very different. You might notice, is it different in work or relationships? One thing I've noticed in doing this work is how often it shows up still for me. And sometimes it can be sneaky. Sometimes our judgmental mind can be loud and angry and harsh, and even sound a little bit abusive. Mine sounds a little bit more snooty and arrogant and hotty, quite honestly, but it feels the same. It feels negative. It doesn't feel kind, not to myself or to others. And once you start noticing that you're in a judgmental mode, just that noticing, that observation can significantly weaken the habit.

I know I've talked about this before on the podcast, but just observing ourselves is how we step out of the pattern. So if you can notice and label, are you judging? Or I sometimes say, "There's my judge again", or "There's my judgy mind". I literally say that to myself in my mind. That will often get you out of that habitual pattern enough to give you the time and space to decide to intentionally redirect or respond in a different way.

I think bringing humor into it is always helpful or can be helpful. I always like that. So you know, some people like to give their judgmental mind or tendency a nickname or a funny name. Sometimes I like to refer to that part of my mind, or that tendency as like negative Nelly or judgy Judy, as a way to depersonalize it as well. It helps me identify it and step out of it and notice that it's not me. It's just a habitual thought pattern that is not particularly useful and that I would like to change. And let me just say, I apologize to anyone named Nelly or Judy who might be listening to this. It can be anything. You can pick any name you want.

Sometimes, I picture that part of my mind or that personality, tendency, or whatever as a very snooty, aristocratic-looking figure from a fairy tale or a movie or something. Something that I can picture and identify and separate from, and have a little bit of a sense of humor.

And again, when I notice that I'm reacting that way, then I can redirect and focus on what are the facts? Is there actually a problem here? And what do I need to do? Or what can I do that might look like having a conversation with staff members about performance or staffing? That might look like having an honest conversation with friends or family about something that could be bothering me. That might look like, honestly assessing my own performance and figuring out what is stopping me from showing up how I want to, or achieving results that I wanna achieve.

Dropping judgment, or that judgmental mind, doesn't make us unambitious, unintelligent, weak, or a pushover. Dropping judgment can actually allow us to achieve more. In my experience, it can allow us to be more innovative and creative, and it can certainly allow us to enjoy our work and personal lives more and improve our relationships with both ourselves and with other people. It can allow us to tap into our own inner wisdom and see possibilities where before we saw only problems.

Again, when we are in distress, when we're in that judgmental mind state, tunnel vision tends to set in. When we're in more discernment and a more evaluative mode, more neutral, we can see possibilities that were perhaps invisible to us before. And we can take action, not from feeling bad, but more out of inspiration, maybe out of our desire to create or contribute, and from a sense of purpose, not from not enoughness or failure.

And I know this might sound too good to be true, but I would say just try it out. With anything I mention on this podcast, try it out and see for yourself. You are your own expert. But the more I move away from critical fault finding with myself and with other people and with the world at large, the easier my life seems to flow.

It's not that my life is all magical and rainbows and daisies and everything is perfect, but that when I'm faced with problems, I don't have to spend so much time getting stressed out and upset and then recovering. But I can just dive into problem solving mode and be more effective. That is what I have for you this week.

Thank you for hanging out with me, and if you need help with this, as always, please send me an email or contact me. You can always send me an email at [email protected] or reach out on my website, which is I answer all my own email. All right, have a wonderful week and I will talk to you later. Bye.
If you are a busy practicing physician, ready to start feeling less. Enjoy work more and learn how to create a more balanced and sustainable medical practice and life. Sign up for a consult call with me It would be my privilege and pleasure to work with you.

Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive my weekly tips to create a happier life.