Nonjudgmental stance is the last of the “What” skills in the Mindfulness Module of DBT.
First was Observe, in which we paid attention to ourselves, our environment, and others around us. When observing, the trick was to just notice things like, “I notice I’m thinking about the future,” or “I notice my pulse is faster when I’m talking to my mother.”
Next was Describe, in which we would put words on the things we observed. Some people described very simple things like washing the dishes or going for a walk, but found that by describing, they felt like they were better able to pay attention to the present moment.
Next was Participate, where we allowed ourselves to be completely immersed in the moment, focusing in a way that made us forget everything else.
Nonjudgmental Stance, I think, really pulls it all together. We are very conditioned to placing judgments on our observations. To use the examples above, I may notice that I’m thinking about the future, but it’s likely my next thought will be something like, “I’m not doing DBT correctly since I’m thinking about the future. Therefore I am bad or wrong or incompetent.” This is a judgment of the observation and it is not at all helpful.
The point of taking a nonjudgmental stance is to give ourselves an opportunity to observe the same old things that we always observe in our minds or in our environment or about other people, but open ourselves to thinking about it in a different way. So if I withhold my judgment about what my thought means, but simply observe it, note it and let the thought move away, I have an opportunity to treat myself more gently. Even if I still have the judgmental thought, I can observe that I had the thought, then let it go. That’s the beauty of nonjudgmental stance; all the negative garbage we’re so accustomed to telling ourselves is suddenly cut off and a gentleness takes over so that healing becomes possible.
I was recently reading the book “Writing as a Way of Healing,” by Louise DeSalvo and in it she said, “In the end, isn’t healing just another way of seeing?” When I thought about it, one reason that statement is true is because I’m backing off from taking a judgmental stance and opening myself to another way of thinking (which is where many of the other DBT skills come in – offering suggestions for alternative ways to behave/react/think about any given situation).
If you look at the second example of an observation above, “I notice my pulse is faster when I’m talking to my mother,” we can see how the nonjudgmental stance can change a potentially volatile situation into a healing moment in which I can learn something about myself. My temptation is to think, “my pulse is faster because she’s a bitch and I can’t stand listening to her and now she’s yelling at me because she hates me” and so I react and yell back. This has happened to me many times.
But sometimes, in the midst of the moment, I notice my pulse and let’s say I resist making a judgment about WHY my pulse is fast or what my mother is doing. Instead I notice that the pitch in my mother’s voice is higher and I resist making the judgment about WHY her voice is higher or what it means to me. Or, if I can’t resist the judgment, I just observe it and let it go. Then I notice that my face is becoming red and that I feel the impulse to react and I force myself to simply observe and withhold judgment. And slowly, I find I’m regaining my composure, freeing myself from the prison of emotional pain. I feel less need to react. As my feelings of anger dissipate, I begin to hear the pain in her voice and I don’t judge that pain. Instead, I let her have her pain and I just listen. I don’t take it on, I merely observe. And somehow, the entire situation feels different. “Healing is just a different way of seeing.”
I am especially aware of the impact of a nonjudgmental stance when I use it on the more complex observations and descriptions of EMOTIONS! Nevertheless, I think it’s good to practice with more benign things like taking a nonjudgmental stance about my walk in the park.
I can practice by not making a judgment about the guy who just walked past me and pulled his dog in closer to him quickly and sidestepped my path. I might be tempted to think he was avoiding me because he thinks I’m ugly, dangerous or any number of things. But if I notice myself doing so and consciously make a decision not to judge my observations, I am able to practice this skill and gain some competence with it. In this way, later on, when that argument with my mother happens, I will have practiced observing and describing without judging. In so doing, I’m in a position to gain even more actual healing.
What exactly does it mean to judge an observation?
Observation = I notice that I am feeling sad.
Observation and Description = I notice that the corners of my mouth are turned down, my jaw muscles are tense, my eyelids seem heavy. I notice that I am tired and feel like I could cry. I notice that there is an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.
Judgment = Sadness is a bad emotion. When I am sad I am bad. Something is wrong with me because I feel sad.
Nonjudgmental Stance = Sadness is an emotion. It is not good or bad. The fact that I exhibit the symptoms I associate with sadness does not make me a bad person, nor is experiencing the emotion a good or a bad thing. It simply is. Right now, I am experiencing
sadness, that’s all. It’s okay to feel sad.
Possible results = When I judge the sadness, I am more likely to react negatively to it by acting out with destructive behavior. When I do not judge the sadness, I am more likely to experience the emotion until it dissipates.
1. The next time you do a mundane task, try observing and describing as you complete the task. Notice when your mind begins to make a judgment. Do not get caught up in the judgment or the fact that you’ve made one. Just notice that your mind is judging and let the judgment go. See if you can continue to pay attention in more circumstances, like when you judge an observation, like when you see someone at the office or across the street or your dog greets you at the door. Whatever. The point is to begin noticing when you “judge what you observe” so that you can begin to see what it feels like and gain skill in catching yourself in judging observations.
2. See if you can observe and describe in more emotionally charged situations. Remember to notice your judgments, but not get caught up in them. Notice the judgment in the same way that you notice tone of voice, for instance. See if it is easier to let go of volatile reactions when you withhold judgments. Part of observing is also withholding assumptions. Describe your observations to the other person. “I’m noticing that you are raising your voice. Why are you doing this?” Does the situation seem different to you? Are you seeing it in another way? Is the other way more healing?