Coming Together When We’re Coming Apart

It feels like our society has lost its sense of unity. All we do is take sides: Are you on the right or the left, Democrat or Republican, white or are you black, Christian or Muslim, male or female…? You get the point.

In order to take sides, or to figure out who isn’t on your side, you make a judgment about them. We can form opinions based on analysis or careful consideration, but when we make judgments, they are usually quick, in the moment decisions. Judgments are based upon visual clues, emotional cues, and the way we process, categorize and make sense of things. We can then fit whatever we’re judging into our mental picture of how we see world.

Judging Others

 Judging others can cause us stress and anxiety.

Judging others can cause us stress and anxiety.

For instance, I was in a bookstore recently. The man ahead of me in the checkout line was white, and had a long ponytail, lots of tattoos, a leather jacket and boots, and a chain wallet. I hate to admit that my immediate thoughts were, He seems tough. He’s a biker. His motorcycle is parked out front. What is a guy like him doing in a bookstore? As soon as I started this process I chastised myself, for I had no way of knowing who he was, or why he was there. After we struck up a conversation, I found out that he had a lifelong meditation practice, and was buying a Jon Kabat-Zinn book for his girlfriend. When I made the effort to see him outside my narrow vision of him, and talked to him, I found out we weren’t so different.

Stressing Out

Constantly judging others who seem different from us takes mental energy and can cause stress and anxiety. When we feel threatened by people who are different from us, our nervous system gets activated, because our bodies think we are in real danger. If we see the world as a threatening or unsafe place because it includes people whose skin is a different color than ours, who are from a different culture or who practice a different religion, then we are living with added stress.

Each time we hear messages that reinforce our fears, our stress response activates, making us feel uncomfortable, and increasing our feelings of fear and distrust. All of that stress can overwhelm us.

An article in PsychologyBenefits.org noted that when we don’t take the time to learn about each other, and we respond from fear or anxiety, instead of empathy and compassion, we are more likely to:

  • Smile less
  • Maintain less eye contact
  • Use a less friendly verbal tone
  • Keep greater physical distance
  • Avoid interactions with people of other races altogether

Being Empathetic

 Approach others with empathy and compassion.

The good news is that we can change, and all it takes is getting to know the people who might seem different from us. Studies have shown that when we approach others with empathy, curiosity and compassion, the racial and cultural anxieties lessen and positive interracial relations increase.

How To Stop Judging Others

Here are five steps to help you reframe your thoughts if you find you are quick to judge others:

  1. Be mindful or pay attention to your thoughts when you see someone who looks different from you.
  2. If you find you are making a judgment about the person ask yourself, “How do I know this is true? Have I met him or spoken to her?”
  3. Create a different story about him that doesn’t feel threatening.
  4. Be curious. If it feels right, talk to her and ask questions.
  5. Be empathetic. Try seeing the world from his eyes, and work to understand her experiences.

How To Stop Judging Yourself

Empathy and compassion not only affects how we see others, but also how we see ourselves. If we can see suffering and struggle as a common human experience, instead of being hard on ourselves when times are tough, or when we make mistakes, we can learn to be compassionate towards ourselves. You can find more about self-compassion here and here.

If you're feeling overly anxious or stressed and think that counseling might help you please reach out.


Elizabeth Cush, MA, LGPC is an Annapolis therapist who helps people manage their stress and anxiety. She owns and operates Progression Counseling in Annapolis. For a free 15-minute consultation call me 410-340-8469.