Just Finished

Just Finished, part one

Brainstorm, The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.

Back when I chose Brainstorm, I had not read Dr. Siegel’s previous works and had no idea that the crux of his point of view is what he calls “mindsight.” “Mindsight is the ability to truly ‘see’ or know the mind.” (p. 39) In other words, he is a staunch proponent of the use of mindfulness techniques to help us in our interactions with ourselves and others, especially our teens. If you read my post on Brené Brown’s talk in Santa Monica, you’ll be sensing a theme here! (Read that gratitude post here.) Mindfulness is one of the tools I learned about and then used to navigate difficult times during the course of my daughter’s illness, and it continues to enhance my life today. I will be writing more about mindsight and mindfulness in my next post about Brainstorm

First, I want to employ Dr. Siegel’s help to address a couple of questions I received on the Just Finished post I wrote about empathy and Paolina Milana’s book, The S Word (read full text here.) I provided the following definition of empathy out of the NAMI Family To Family material:  Empathy is “The intimate comprehension of another person’s thoughts and feelings, without imposing our own judgment or expectations.” The questions were specifically related to judgment.  

This is tough stuff, I think, and why I wanted to address it further. One reader asked, “I feel there is a fine line between empathy and being judgmental. If we are that which we have experienced, where do those lines intersect?” And the second reader asked, “Is it ever okay to be judgmental? Like when someone says, ‘We ate at Outback on Friday night, CPK on Saturday night and on Sunday we saw a movie at the theater and then ate at the Lazy Dog Cafe. Oh, and did I tell you that the phone company turned off my service because I hadn't paid my bill on time?’”

I logged into dictionary.com to double check judgment’s definition and found several, most of which did not carry negative connotations — i.e., the ability to form an opinion objectively (objectively being the key word), and the exercise of capacity. However, one word that also popped up as related to judgment was “doom.” When we apply judgments relative to another person’s thoughts or actions we get into trouble because judgment implies comparison to a moral standard, a standard to which the other person might not ascribe. Usually, even if we don’t admit it, when we judge we think we are taking the moral high ground. I can’t think of a single time I judged someone that had a positive connotation. When I inflict my judgments onto another person, I doom our relationship to be one of distance and distrust not one of connection and intimacy. 

Now, relative to the first question and being that which we have experienced:  We sure are; we cannot be otherwise. The answer to where those lines intersect is, in the Siegel – Yokas model, reflection and awareness. To be truly empathetic, we first have to understand our biases. To understand our biases we have to study our thinking; to reflect on where we come from, the lessons we’ve learned, and the meaning we make from those lessons. “Self-understanding,” Siegel writes, “is how you connect your past from memory with your present experience.” (p. 163) Making sense of our history, he goes on to say, is how we can be as fully present as possible in our relationships. Only by being acutely aware of how we got to be who we are can we lift that veil of perception from our relationships.

For example, I have a bias, because of my upbringing, against the use of religion as a tool to tell people they are evil or wrong. I’ve reflected long on hard on where this bias comes from and why I have it. I am not talking here about a difference of opinion. I am talking about the attitude of superiority. Right and wrong. Good and evil. It is equally judgmental of me to think negative thoughts toward those who embrace this point of view. So what do I do? First, I make the thoughts conscious. I acknowledge them, and why I have them. I don’t try to squash them because that would only make them stronger. Then, in my mind’s eye, I envision those thoughts as fiery embers, like coals in a barbeque. I watch the glow of the embers turn from red to neutral grey and watch the embers disintegrate into dust. I change my self-talk. Sometimes this practice works to eradicate my judgmental thoughts and sometimes it does not, but it’s a start. The work is to keep at it. 

Second, relative to the question, “Is it ever okay to judge?” Well, I think answering that would be judgmental! Look, the bottom line here is that we’re all human. It’s not okay to judge people, but we’re going to do it anyway because judging is human nature. The key is to own up to it and to work on doing it less, and, if we judge the people in our lives, to make the effort to excavate our vulnerability and offer it up in the form of an apology. I have learned over the last couple of years that I sure don’t like feeling judged (I don’t know anyone who does), and I feel just as bad when I engage in it. Afterwards, I almost always learn about extenuating circumstances that change my original perception of the person and the situation that precipitated my judgment.

If someone had told me the story about eating out all week and not having enough money for bills, before I could stop myself, I’d probably have made unkind assumptions about the scenario and the person telling it to me. I’d have wondered why she wasn’t more responsible with money, and why she didn’t make better choices. Even with a friend I may have thought, Why can’t you get your shit together? Now, I try to interrupt that pattern by remembering the too numerous to count crappy choices I’ve made, the reasons I made them, and what I needed from the people I talked to about them. I don’t have to agree with someone’s choices to listen empathetically and compassionately, and you never know what positive influence kindness may engender in the person who receives it. Aside, that is, from a deeper connection and a stronger relationship.  

One final point from Dr. Siegel on judgment as it relates to parenting. He writes, “We as parents need to be very conscious of the depths of our responses to unexpected developments with our children so that we don’t unwittingly make them feel judged, condemned, or even invisible. . . Studies of temperament, for example, reveal that the ultimate developmental outcome for children is not what temperament the child has, but how accepting the parent is to that child’s individual characteristics.”

Let me tell you, not judging our kids can be harder than it sounds. We parents have expectations for our children, and we think we have control over the people they will become. I know I had and did both relative to my daughter. I expected her to be able to go to school every day, do her best, and to have fun. I expected that she would grow up and go to college, and that eventually she’d get married and have a family of her own. I expected her to want to be alive. When her illness threatened these expectations, I got scared and sad and angry. I didn’t understand that depression was consuming her mind; I just wanted the behaviors to stop, and I told her so in every way I could think of. I made every mistake in the book, literally.

On page 218, Dr. Siegel writes, “So often we want to help the people we love fix their problems. We want to show them how to solve a dilemma, resolve a conflict, or get rid of painful emotions. But in order to give them what they need most of all, which is to make them feel felt and connected with us, we need to not do these well-intended things first and instead simply be present for our loved one.” What parent doesn’t want to fix or solve problems for their child? I sure did, and it took a long time for me to realize that my desire to do so blocked my ability to be present for my daughter when she needed me the most. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read these lines, if Dr. Siegel ever had to “simply be present” for his child in the face of brutal self-destructive behavior, because I can tell you that to do so challenges every thought and feeling you ever had about what it means to be a parent.

I think the fix-it/solve-it trap is one that every parent can fall in to, but there is an extra terrifying tightrope that parents with mentally ill kids must walk between safety and acceptance. It feels impossible to accept behavior you know can land your kid in the hospital or worse. The two are not, however, mutually exclusive. I learned the veracity of Dr. Siegel’s lesson the hard way, after much trial and error. My well-intentioned demands that she stop doing “bad” things and start doing “good” ones did nothing but exacerbate the emotional void between us. I didn’t use those exact words, but my meaning was clear. I can’t fathom how alone and afraid she must have felt during those days. 

The foundation to rebuilding my relationship with my daughter was to understand her illness for the biological condition it was, and to do the work to put my judgment of her behaviors aside. I had to understand the behaviors as symptoms of her illness and learn how to look deeper, to the root causes of those behaviors and to understand what they meant to her. Accepting her need for them and the comfort they gave her were the necessary precursors for me to stop trying to control her. I had to let go of my assumptions about what was right and wrong and from this common ground we began to rebuild. This is not a one and done. The balancing act in our interactions between what, as her mother, I think is beneficial for her and what isn’t continues today. The key, as is often the case, is all in the presentation.   

That’s my two cents. What’s yours? Do you feel you’ve been judged? If so, how did it affect you and what, if anything, did you do about it?


  1. Tracey, So much hard-won wisdom in this post. You've given me a lot to process. I'm also reading this book but at a much slower pace. You've inspired me to return to it and move it higher in my reading pile.

  2. Fantastic post. It really gets me thinking. I absolutely hate being judged. I hate to bring up being a dancer yet again, but that is a huge part of the job description. "She's too fat to get a job." "She's not good enough to be in a company." "Her technique sucks." It makes me so self-conscious and it has most definitely crossed over to my everyday life. Not necessarily what I look like, but how I act towards others. Am I nice enough, did I offend that person, did I say the wrong thing? And I know I am overly-judgemental of myself. As I've gotten a little older, I've eased up a tiny bit, but it's still an issue:-) Thank you for this post, Tracey! It's pretty brilliant.

  3. Great post, Tracey! Yes, we shouldn't judge others, but it's difficult not to in certain situations. Now that I've read this post, I think that for every judgment I've made about others, I could come up with what their judgments of me would have been had they known what I was thinking. Like you say, I need to be more mindful when it comes to judging others.

    If I want to live by the Golden Rule, then I surely shouldn't judge others, for yes, I've felt judged and I felt lousy about that. Some relatives on my husband's side of the family feel my husband and I are not tough enough on our child. Even though we've told them we are dealing with a mental illness, these relatives just don't get it. They don't seem to have empathy for us or our child. They tell us what we should or shouldn't do, as if our child were like theirs, one without mental illness.

    Ultimately, their attitude makes us keep our distance from them. We don't like their suggestions because they do not understand our situation. We don't feel they have tried to understand. They are quick to tell us what we are doing wrong. I don't like having relatives thinking my husband and I are parenting wrong. So best just to avoid these people, and tell them as little as I can about our child on the rare occasion they ask. So sad, really, for all of us, because instead of connecting, getting support from family, or getting together for fun times, emotional distance is so much easier.

    They have judged us; now we judge them as the "holier-than-thou" types who don't care enough to understand why we don't parent the same way they did. This is all so wrong. Instead of judging them, I need to realize we all have problems of some sort, and their problems did not have to do with mental illness in the family. To empathize with where they are coming from, I can see that their experience as parents has been very different from mine. I am surely thankful that their children have not lived with mental illness. That said, I still have no desire to seek them out. I am very fortunate to have friends that can empathize and be supportive of my situation.

  4. Thank you very much for sharing this comment and some of your story Brenda. It's just so hard. One comment I would make is to your statement, "This is all so wrong." Well, maybe, but look. We all do it. As I say in the post, it's human nature. But to recognize and start to move beyond is such a powerful tool because we can feel better about ourselves…I had a therapist who used to say to me all the times, "Don't cast your pearls to the swine." This means, there are people in this world who don't deserve to be intimately connected with us, for perhaps, a variety of reasons. Or, as Ram Dass says, there are people with whom we can refuse to play in the sandbox. That doesn't mean we can't be friends, but they haven't earned the right to receive our most precious thoughts and concerns because they have not learned how to have compassion and empathy. My difficulty is in making this determination. If I continue to learn and grow, I hope eventually to figure out how better to make these distinctions. In the meantime, I try to be more gentle with myself, to judge less, and to be grateful more. It's not easy, my next post will attest to that. Thank again for your support, Brenda, and your feedback.

  5. I absolutely have been judged! Much like Katie's experience, as a dancer, our entire careers are based on the judgement of others. It's a huge reason why I quit competing and doing a lot of commercial work. After worrying so many years about what other people thought, I realized I didn't even know what I thought about myself. I've also grown up with an extremely judgmental mother. She thought she was helping me to become better, but actually, she was hurting me. All I wanted was to know I was loved and enough. That would have given me the confidence to take bigger risks and make bigger strides. Thank you for the wonderful post!

  6. Thank you so much for the comment Crystal. I cannot even imagine how hard it must be to have a career or passion that includes so much focus on the body. It so hard to grow up with a positive body image period let alone when someone is pointing out all the flaws. Although you don't have to be a dancer for someone to point out body flaws! I had some pretty unfortunate nicknames as I was growing up and not just from bullies in school. My dad, who was my hero, called me fatso-foggaty. I don't even know what that really means, but I know he wasn't trying to be cruel. Not a great name to be called regardless. Thanks again Crystal.

  7. Thanks, Tracey, for that saying, "Don't cast your pearls to the swine." Unfortunately, I've done that, more than once sometimes to the same party, expecting a different reaction. But I've learned that if the first reaction is not empathetic, or at least sympathetic, it doesn't pay to try again. It's just that with family, it would be nice to have that support. But the reality is that not everyone gives a damn, family or not.

    So not only does it feel that these relatives are judgmental of our parenting, it feels like they are also judgmental of our child. Well, I'm pretty much over caring what these people think. But because they are family, they are in our lives, and oddly enough, they ask about our child, hoping, I'm sure, to hear what they want to hear, as opposed to what the reality might be. So in turn, not caring to be judged, I don't say much. I mention the good stuff lightly and avoid what I think will inspire them to tell us what's wrong with our little family unit.

    I should never have been surprised at their reaction, actually. They have been judgmental in general, even before we had a child. It just took me a long time to realize you can't make someone care, even if it's a family member. But now I see that this is completely OK. It's reality. Thank goodness I have other family members, as well as friends, who care!

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