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Why judgment? I'll tell you.

Why judgment? Why I have honed in on judgment as a prime source of unhappiness and killer of motivation?

I am not talking about judgment in the sense of “good judgment” – critical thinking, careful weighing of options, thoughtful decision-making – we could all use as much of that type of judgment as our brains can possibly manage.

I am talking about passing judgment, upon others or ourselves. Being judgmental. Finding ourselves or others wanting in a way that shuts a person down rather than providing encouragement and energy.

Let me go back in time and provide some context.

I was born with a completely outsized sense of responsibility and commitment. From an early age I was determined to do as many different things as I could in school and out, and to do each one to the absolute best of my ability and with the maximum effort I could muster. And I could muster a LOT of effort – in fact I would say that for about the first 44 years of my life, up until my cancer diagnosis, I was practically unable to pull back on anything, for any reason. I had gone to the energy well over and over for years and never found it empty, so I assumed that would continue to be the status quo.

This can’t be blamed on my parents, who did not push me, so it must be in my genes somewhere. In fact my parents found themselves working to slow me down, often denying requests to add more pursuits to my life. In fact a few times a year during high school when I seemed close to hitting the proverbial wall, my father used to make me stay home from school to rest. I slept a lot on those days. Sometimes, I recall, I couldn’t even wake up in time to catch The Price is Right (11 AM airtime, in those days before TiVo and On Demand).

My high expectations of myself drove me to excel through college and graduate school, pushed me to perform at the top of my capabilities in any work setting (from a Kelly temp job to writing a textbook for an international publishing house), and compelled me to be the best possible friend, spouse, daughter, sister, niece, aunt, and mother I could be, no matter my circumstances (being young and naïve, I saw all circumstances as surmountable). It worked for me. For a while.

At the time, I didn’t realize there could be a point at which being the poster child for the Protestant work ethic would begin to exact a toll. It took years to get that point, because I had the energy to keep it going, and also because the society I live in tends to reward qualities like responsibility and stick-to-it-iveness, so I was widely and continually reinforced. My path is sort of like a bell curve, with satisfaction as the Y axis, and the X axis charting the years of running on all cylinders. Here is a crude drawing of what I mean. You can see the slope I was sliding down, even though I couldn't figure out what was happening at the time.


Somehow I thought that even as my life circumstances changed, often radically – one, two, and then three children, ever-increasing responsibilities as a self-employed writer, unpredictable employment status of my actor and musician husband, cancer diagnosis and treatment – that my habitual approach would continue to serve me. It always had before, right? A phrase came to me that I began to use constantly to myself, with my family, and in my work: “Misery lies in the gap between expectation and reality.” I gave examples to my children, explaining that if they expected an ice cream sundae and received a banana, they would be unhappy, whereas if they expected a banana and received a banana, they would be satisfied. I showed them over and over how their various frustrations could be linked to having an expectation that ultimately differed from reality (a scheduled playdate broken because a friend was sick, an outdoor plan cancelled due to bad weather). But I had no sense that I needed to adjust my own continually-excessive expectations, and when I was unhappy, I was unable to apply my own “catch phrase” and do something about it. Instead, I judged myself as wanting, failing, falling short. The house not clean enough. The children not having enough time outside. My office not maintained well. A barely-there social life. My anxiety and frustration levels too high. Dinner not planned in advance (resulting in the customary 5:45 PM freakout). Not enough clothing in my closet for the times I had to look presentable for work. Forgot to call this friend or that one, didn’t write a note to a relative, not enough exercise, unruly landscaping, computer files disorganized, I could go on, and on, and on, nothing I managed was up to my own standards. Sinking way down into a self-made supersized gap between expectation and reality, I couldn’t see that continuing to push was not working anymore. I couldn’t see much at all, it’s dark down there.

I had begun to blog during my cancer treatment. As I continued blogging into my post-treatment life, moving away from talking about day-to-day happenings and focusing on my reactions to the experience of this illness, judgment popped out as the common denominator inherent in my issues both during and after my treatment. I found that what stalled me the most, and what often derails other cancer patients I know, are the judgments – the ones from others, the ones from ourselves, the ones that seep out of media and literature and into our consciousness. We hear and read that we should be able to get better or even cure ourselves with certain foods, with positive thinking, with religion. When we shy away from these choices, we may judge ourselves for being frightened. When we try an option and don’t experience the promised result, the result others seem to have, we often find ourselves to have failed somehow. Did we not try hard enough? Did we choose the wrong option? Did we not spend enough time or in some other way do it incorrectly?

Judgments can stem from interactions with medical professionals as well. One tells us that this surgery or drug or treatment is best, another tells us differently. We risk judgment if we choose other than what is advised, and then we have to fight off the self-doubt that may accompany the choice. Even our bodies can be subject to judgment by medical professionals. I met with two different plastic surgeons in the process of choosing one to perform my breast reconstruction. One recommended a particular procedure for me – a lat flap reconstruction – rather than a TRAM flap, which was what I was leaning toward, or implants. In no uncertain terms he told me that I was not a good candidate for the TRAM, that I would not be able to regain abdominal strength and would regret the choice. The other said I was a candidate for all three procedures, laid out the pros and cons of each, and left the choice to me. I chose the TRAM and the second surgeon, of course. But over the few months following the procedure, as I slogged through a challenging and slow recovery, I had to contend with the judgment of the first surgeon. Was he right, would I regret this? Is my recovery normal, or will it show that my muscles are too weak to handle it? Looking back now, I know my choice worked for me. But judgment made the journey to that knowledge harder than it had to be.

People in crisis are often living in a miles-wide gap between their expectation and their reality. I didn’t expect to have cancer or to have to turn my life upside down to fight it. I didn’t expect to find my brother gone from the earth one Saturday morning. No matter if it comes from others or from inside, judgment of how the crisis is being handled makes it even harder to close the gap, to adjust expectation slowly, painstakingly, until it maybe lines up with reality, or comes close enough to be tolerable.

Lower your expectations, lower your expectations, I began saying to myself as I came out of cancer treatment, sensing the need to close that gap. Even as this led me in a productive direction, I judged myself for having lower expectations as a goal. Was I giving up on aspirations? Minimizing my potential and my value? Appallingly, even my attempt to reduce judgment brought new judgment.

Maybe that’s what finally led me to say to myself: What would happen if I take the toxic judgment – the self-judgment, and the real or imagined judgments from others – and set it aside? What if I try to accept what is and what I am able to do, in any given moment, and not compare it to any past moment or future imaginings? What if I looked at the reality of a day and lined my expectation up with it right then as best I could, aiming to eliminate the gap before it even appears?

That made sense to me as a path I can walk down with intention. It has a destination that I can conceptualize, although I can’t actually see it ahead of me. It's a long path, and it takes effort to walk it every day. But I find that working to set judgment aside helps me to not only accept what is, but also to take back that energy I spent judging myself and thinking about the judgments of others. And I want to spend that energy elsewhere. I want to use it to take risks and try new things and help people become their whole and best selves.

So, today’s work of releasing judgment and lining up expectation with reality means working to accept the “way things are right now” collage, featuring items like how many days it took me to get this blog post out (several more than I had planned), and like my good camera, broken for the fifth time, needing a repair or a replacement that is not in the budget. Things like the ongoing monitoring of my health in the hopes that the cancer will not recur, and like my seesawing emotions when I think of my brother. The anticipation of another rough winter (predicted by the Farmer’s Almanac), the uncertainty of employment in the fields my husband and I have chosen to pursue, the wild ups and downs of the total on the SEP-IRA, as well as the equally wild ups and downs of the teen and preteens in the house. And yes, these darker colors are dotted with brighter spots. Cars that work and have modern safety features. Coffee from Cape Cod. An afternoon run. My teenager finding that scented candles bring her a little bit of peace. The student I was worried about who showed up to class and came to talk to me. A day of work shooting an episode of a TV show for my husband. My youngest having a Halloween costume all ready to go without my having to buy anything (the Laura Ingalls dress my grandmother made for me when I was 9, still in perfect condition, sunbonnet hanging down the back and all). Folded laundry. My son fitting into the Vans his cousin handed down to him. Northeast leaves turning colors.

It all makes me think of a walk I took in the woods in the midst of chemo and then wrote about – a walk where I looked at the forest floor and realized it was, as I described it at the time, “a perfect lesson in acceptance. Anywhere you look, one glance contains living things, dying things, dead things, growing things, beautiful things, diseased things, moving things, still things…all part of a whole, which wouldn’t function or make sense if any part were missing. It is what it is, all of it, together.” So too is the daily collage of "what is," a lesson in acceptance that I’m ready to study, and when judgment blocks the door I’m going to push it aside, over and over, as many times as I have to, and come to class.

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