“What are you afraid of?” The wily voice challenged as Common Sense screamed her rebuttal at the top of her lungs. The inner battle was fierce as I stood at the edge of the gaping crevasse. My summit destination awaited me just a “short” 3-foot leap across a void in my beloved terra firma that dropped to a rocky ending some 2000 feet below me.
Three of my companions had managed the death-defying leap and stood triumphantly on the other side, beckoning for me to follow suit. My mind, however, was dwelling on my less than graceful tendency to trip over my own shadow rather than how I bested the long-jump record in the elementary track and field meet or how I had, just moments before, lithely navigated through a keyhole notch with hand and foot holds of less than 2-inch widths and a similar death-drop, to my current vantage point. What indeed was I afraid of? Obviously – certain death!
Mustering all that I had within me and giving thanks to my God for the life I had lived, I took inventory of my physical being, surveyed the earth far below me one last time, and leaped across landing solidly on the other side. In jubilation and relief, I let out an exhilarated whoop! Forgetting, for the moment, that I would have to repeat this feat on the way back. I had faced down my fear and lived to tell many, many tales about it!
In fact, I have done this sort of nonsense as my mother would call it, over and over again ever since – at water crossings, on narrow ledges, in punk rock mosh pits, and on the back of a motorcycle – challenging my physical capacity and venturing beyond my “normal” to new heights.
But when it comes to the less tangible aspects of life – my fearless abandon seems to have run away and hid. It’s hard to be a risk-taker when the risks and fears you are facing down are of the innermost kind.
I know I am not alone in this. None of us are immune. All of us are managing some kind of pain, facing some fear, struggling with something inside that we hide from the world. At a recent class I am taking on leading and living with confidence, one of the exercises we were asked to do was to write down on a sticky note what we were most afraid of in coming to this class and then post it on a board. Without any sharing of ideas in the process, the one overriding fear was the fear of judgment. This word showed up so many times on the sticky notes that we all looked at each other and hesitantly laughed. As we discussed the fear we all had in common we also admitted that each one of us had walked into the room that night and made a mental note of how everyone else had it so much better than we did. If we had met any one of these individuals on the street or at a social gathering, we would have wished our lives were half as put together as theirs.
The ironic – and frankly rather funny – part of it all was that we all wanted the class to be a “judgment-free” zone. And yet here we all were with our inner struggles fighting a battle we presumed was unique to us, all the while judging each other based on our assumptions of one another.
There is no such thing as a judgment-free zone. Judging others is inherent to our survival – it is a basic instinct we use to assess the safety of our surroundings and its inhabitants. Our fear of judgment comes from our need to belong, our fear of being rejected, and it is most often a reflection of our own insecurities. We tend to judge other people based on what we think is acceptable or not – and we judge ourselves by the same criteria.
Our judgments are formed by the culture we have grown up in, the expectations of our family, and the lenses through which we see the world: our personal experiences, our peer groups, the social media we follow, our religious or spiritual background, the political viewpoints we choose to follow. The nature of judgment is not static but unique to each individual.
When you fear judgment by another, what you’re really doing is judging yourself AND those around you. All those beliefs you have about yourself – that you are a failure, a waste of space, that you are not thin enough or rich enough or smart enough or have it together enough – of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose – those are self-judgments based on the shame you feel and the failures you hold on to but try to hide. You assume that you’ve done something, or will do something, that is going to cause a negative judgment. This is a reflection of your own fears and a projection of your own thoughts onto those around you. You assume they feel the same way and will also judge you.
So, if everyone judges but seemingly fears being judged what are we to do? How do we deal with the fear of judgment so that our lives are not limited by it?
It begins with vulnerability. By vulnerability I mean being honest with others, allowing them to see who you really are, how you actually think and feel and in turn, seeing others as they really are – take the time to listen to what they think and feel. Rather than isolating yourself, engage in the give and take of relationship.
Remember that everyone around you – people you respect and turn to – may also be struggling AND those struggles don’t define us any more than our competencies do…Fight the comfort you find in hiding your struggles. As Brené Brown, a TED Talk phenomena, author, and research professor at the University of Houston who studies courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame writes, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Be brave like I was standing over that yawning chasm of nothingness in my pursuit of a summit and muster all that is inside you and share it. Be brave and be known for who you really are.
Start with someone you trust; someone your gut tells you will be supportive and share what holds you back then, offer them an invitation to trust. You may just find that you are not alone in the fight and find a fellow encourager rather than judgmental foe.
My own fear of judgment has been paralyzing at times – preventing me from making decisions and embracing opportunities that have come my way. My hope is that in finding fellow fear fighters and sharing the journey with them, reaching new heights in my life won’t be limited to mountaintops.
“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Let your light so shine!