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Jumping the judgement gap

Explore the pros and cons of our innate judging mind

The human mind is a judging mind. It has to be. To ensure our survival, it must constantly identify and respond to threat.

This means every encounter, conversation and circumstance is assessed and categorised - pleasant/good, unpleasant/bad or somewhere in between.

Image copyright: Alex Radelich, Unsplash

Those experiences that we judge to be pleasant/good, we’re attracted to and often want more of, whilst those that we judge to be unpleasant/bad we avoid or resist. Those that are neutral are simply ignored.

We share this innate judging capacity with all other animals. Even those with relatively simple nervous systems (worms, fruit flies) when faced with negative stimuli show forms of avoidance behaviour.

How judgement motivates action

Although essentially developed for survival, the brain’s towards/avoid auto-response can help get things done.

Let’s say, this morning, you ran out of something that you would like to eat again at breakfast tomorrow. As you wish to avoid the unpleasant state of not having it, you’re motivated towards the shop to ensure that you have it in the morning.

The towards action is driven by internal discrepancy monitoring. A process that continually checks our current state against an internal model or standard (an idea that is desired, required, expected or feared) (1).

First, we have an idea of how we want things to be, next we compare the ideal with how things are right now. If the discrepancy monitor identifies a mismatch between how things are and how we think they should be, we find ways to close the gap. In the above example, make plans to go to the shop.

The brain continues to monitor progress to determine if the gap is increasing or decreasing and we adjust our actions accordingly. We know we have reached our goal when our idea of how things are coincides with our idea of how we want things to be.

How judgement causes distress

When the factors at play are within our control, the discrepancy monitor works extremely well. But, in our personal inner world of ideals and expectations, the gap cannot always be closed.

For example, it's been announced that our role is being made redundant. We’re naturally shocked. A gap has opened between how we expected things to be and our new reality.

Depending on how we judge this announcement (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral), we’ll feel particular emotions as our nervous system responds and readies us for action.

With our discrepancy monitor switched on, we may begin to consider potential solutions to the problem of not having a job - engage with network, contact a recruitment agency etc.

We may also think about what we have to offer a new employer which is where things may go awry. We might start to think there's something unwanted or wrong with us, something fundamental to us as a person that was unwanted and cannot be changed. We're too old to get another job, perhaps we conclude. In this case, there's no solution to move towards and the ideal and reality mismatch remains.

But this doesn’t stop the discrepancy monitor from noticing and needing to close the gap. With no solution available, our thinking will likely go round and round about our not-rightness and what's to be done. Such brooding often leads to a drop in mood, reinforcing our belief there’s something wrong with us (2).

It's just the same when an experience doesn't match our expectations.

The discrepancy monitor detects a mismatch between our mental constructs of how things should/ought to be and our reality, and we can again get hooked into pointing out the not-rightness.

I've personally wasted a lot of mental energy dwelling on the not-rightness of my own or another’s behaviour, as well as fretting about things that are out of my control.

Suffering is optional

It's hard to admit but we cause much of our own distress. And, whilst we cannot stop the automatic judgement the mind makes (we want it for survival), we can choose what comes next.

In Buddhist teachings, the parable of the two arrows seeks to explain how suffering is optional.

When we encounter a problem, it’s as if we've been shot by two arrows. The first arrow is the challenge or unexpected event which, like being hit by an arrow, brings difficulty or discomfort.

The second arrow is our response to the first, how we think about the issue and the meaning we make of it. When we get caught up in compare and despair thinking, we're firing a second arrow.

Being able to notice and step back from our secondary reactions lessens distress, restores agency and puts us in choice.

Letting go of judgement

Acceptance, sometimes called non-judgement, is a key principle of mindfulness. It's characterised by the way we relate to what’s going on inside and around us.

The Oxford Learner's Dictionary offers these definitions of accepting

  • To take willingly something that is offered

  • To agree to or approve of something

It isn't to be confused with being passive.

We take appropriate action where we can but, if there is no action we can take, we practice accepting and opening up to what's here, instead of taking ourselves on a negative ride of resistance and not rightness.

With practice we can become a detached observer, noticing our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations but not being driven by them. We separate, what Eckhart Tolle calls, the Watcher from the Thinker (2).

Jumping the gap

It sounds simple but in practice it can be difficult. We've been grumbling all our days, we're experts at it!

As with any change it starts with awareness. We begin by noticing when we're shooting the second arrow with our mental chatter. Recognising when our attention is focused on the gap between experience and expectations.

Taking a helicopter view we name what's going on inside.

We might observe:

  • I’m having the thought that...I'm too old to get another job.

  • judgement is here

  • worrying, worrying, worrying

This compassionate pause detaches us from our thoughts and returns us to the here and now. In that moment, we become the watcher.

And then, just as a friend would, we ask ourselves what a helpful thing to do would be.

Below are some ways I jump the gap and remove the second arrow.

With practice you develop a personalised way to let go and let be.

Ways to remove the second arrow

Create an affirming statement (process)

As well as processing the emotions that naturally arise in response to the situation, it's helpful to create a positive statement that relates to accepting it.

For instance, when faced with unsettling times, I have used "This is going to be hard. I've done hard before. I can handle this," and "I accept x. I feel sad and disappointed. It is not what I wanted but I'm not going to dwell on it."

Fact find (process)

The mind is really good at meaning-making and thanks to our negativity bias we overestimate threat and underestimate our ability to cope.

Determining truth from imaginings, by seeking further information can often help us make peace with something.

Journal (observe)

To see if what I’m saying to myself is rational, I get it out of my head and onto paper where I can examine my thinking.

Seeing things written down helps you detach from your thoughts, notice thinking patterns and process your emotions.

Listen to music (process/reset)

Often forgotten, music is a powerful healer. I use it to move an emotion through, lift my mood or prepare for something important.

Move (reset)

Movement is known to help change our emotional state and neuro-biology. Going for a walk helps me to process difficult thoughts and emotions.

Notice the good (observe/reset)

Remembering that whilst there may be this unpleasant situation, there are also things that are going well. I've found the best way for me to do this is to list three things and what's good about them.

Relax (reset)

Breathing exercises like Benson’s Relaxation Technique can calm the nervous system helping us to feel safe and reduce feelings of panic.

Talk with someone (process/reset)

Sometimes talking with another helps. The key is telling the person what I need. Perhaps it's empathy as I process the disappointment, the sadness, the anger. Another time I may want someone to share an alternative viewpoint, as I might be tangled up in a negative thinking track.

From a young age we’re taught to be problem-solvers so unless we tell someone what we need, their righting-reflex may switch on which can lead to us feeling judged, fixed or unheard.

Timeout (reset)

If it's very distressing, try to limit engagement with the difficulty or upset by stepping away from the situation or person for a time.


The human mind is a judging mind. It naturally assesses and categorises our experiences. But when we turn this on ourselves or circumstances beyond our control, we can get stuck in downward, brooding spirals.

Finding ways to jump the gap when our expectations are not met, reduces stress and restores wellbeing. Letting go is an ongoing practice.

Take care of you.

Many situations can bother us. Developing a mindful approach can help.

Get in touch to explore how I can support you in developing an observer stance. Nothing changes if nothing changes.

Further reading

(1) Higgins, E.T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: a theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review. 94 (3) 319-340

(2) Caselli, G., Decsei-Radu, A., Fiore, F., Manfredi, C., Querci, S., Sgambati, S., Rebecchi, D., Ruggiero, G. M., & Sassaroli, S. (2014). Self-discrepancy monitoring and its impact on negative mood: an experimental investigation. Behavioural and cognitive psychotherapy, 42(4), 464–478.

(3) Tolle, E. (2001). The power of now. Hodder Paperback

Goldstein, E. B. (2020) The Mind: Consciousness, prediction and the brain. The MIT Press.

Higgins, E. T; Roney, C. J. R.; Crowe, E; & Hymes, C (1994). Ideal versus ought predilections for approach and avoidance distinct self-regulatory systems. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 66 (2): 276–286

Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2013). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

Williams, J.M.G. Mindfulness, depression and modes of mind. Cogn Ther Res. DOI 10.1007/s10608-008-9204-z

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