Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Non-Judgmental Attitude

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A common stumbling block for people attempting to integrate mindfulness into their daily lives is the idea of the non-judgmental attitude. While leaving judgments of all kinds at the door sounds nice in principle, it seems impossible, not to mention inadvisable, in practice.

Don’t we have to make judgments every second of every day in order to navigate a complex world? It’s a strength, not a weakness, to be able to discriminate amongst the barrage of incoming stimuli in order to choose the best course of action.

But actually the mindful attitude of non-judgmental acceptance and the capacity for discrimination are not at all at odds. What we’re really concerned about is not the initial observation but rather the resulting value judgment placed upon that observation, a value judgment that from the cognitive behavioral point of view can often be characterized as a faulty thinking pattern, a cognitive bias riddled with subjectivity that feels objectively valid but is actually an error in perception.

In other words, it’s the ‘therefore’ that wreaks havoc on the cultivation of the non-judgmental attitude. Let’s say for example that you’ve just given a presentation and you performed poorly. The non-judgmental attitude doesn’t ask you to ignore the fact that you performed poorly if this is indeed true. It does ask you to sit with the thought “I just performed poorly” without adding a bunch of value judgments. “I just performed poorly, therefore I’m an incompetent person.” “I just performed poorly, therefore I’m sure to be fired.” “I just performed poorly, therefore my work colleagues have lost all their respect for me.” It’s all of these ‘therefores’ that are the real problem, they are the judgmental attitude that mindfulness helps to correct.

These value judgments tend to pull us further away from what is really there, not bring us closer to it. The best way to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude in daily life is to cultivate it in the practice of meditation, a time where thoughts of all kinds come bubbling up to the surface even as you’re trying to focus all your attention on your breathing. The non-judgmental attitude isn’t interesting in suppressing these thoughts or in getting rid of them, it’s only interested in noticing them and accepting them without trying to distort them, in sitting with them without adding a bunch of ‘therefores’.