How To Be Less Judgmental + More Empathetic

Are you trying to be less judgmental? It's so hard! But being judgmental affects our careers, our friendships, and our relationships. Read on for how to how to dial it down. #empathy #compassion #selfhelp #selfdevelopment
A few months ago on a flight to warmer locales, a friend and I spent an hour discussing our greatest personal failings.

Over tiny bags of peanuts and plastic cups of Diet Coke we dissected our most disappointing qualities. Luckily (?) we share the same less-than-pleasant tendencies:

1. a tendency to judge others’ “bad decisions”
2. an equal-if-not-greater tendency to lack empathy for the fallout of “bad decisions”

“I hate this about myself but I can’t stop. And I can’t seem to reason my way out of it. I really, deeply believe that life is about choices and if you make the wrong choices, that’s not my problem,” she said.

“I know. I know! Intellectually, I realize that I’ll never know anyone’s back story or why they made those choices. But in practice I’m just SO SURE I’m right. And I’m not, of course. I’m not any more ‘right’ than anyone else. It’s so gross. Like, I need to read a book about how to be more empathetic,” I mumbled through three bags of peanuts.

Of course, we weren’t talking about things that are beyond anyone’s control – we were busy being judgmental assholes about things like credit card debt and drinking Mountain Dew with every meal and bringing 35 items into the 10-item-only express check out.

We landed, enjoyed our trip, and didn’t mention our shared asshole-ery again but it was a conversation that lodged itself deep in my heart + mind. How could I get past my judgmental habit? How could I have empathy for people who annoyed me, disappointed me, took too long in the express lane?

The answer, for me, lies in this phrase + mind shift:

'I'm willing to see that this person did their best.' Click To Tweet

We all have extenuating circumstances and ‘best’ can vary a lot from person to person and day to day. I’ve had days where my personal best was driving 40 miles an hour along the shoulder of the highway, panicking about that orange engine light.

I’ve had days where my personal best was putting on a video for my students and crying in the bathroom and days where my best was wearing yesterday’s clothes and eating Cheetos for breakfast.

And in those moments and days of weakness and misery, I would have loved if others could see that this mess was my best. If I want that for myself, can’t I extend that grace to other people?

I can’t see into that person’s morning or their week or their life. I don’t know what lead them to that express lane with 35 items, but I can make space to acknowledge that maybe this is what their best looks like today. And I can be thankful that (at least today) my best doesn’t look like crying in the bathroom, eating Cheetos.

Do you struggle with being judgmental? How do you get past it?

P.S. 5 things to do when you fail 

Welcome to Yes & Yes!

Want to spend your time, money, and energy on purpose? I'll show you how.

You might also like…

5 Ways To Deal When Your Day Gets Off Course

5 Ways To Deal When Your Day Gets Off Course

I wish my day got off course for a cool, sexy reason but the truth is this: My 19-year-old cat started coughing in a “doesn’t sound like a hairball OH GOD IS THIS THE END” way and I had to panic / soothe him / soothe myself / fall down a Google hole about cat...

read more


  1. Anne

    Not that cultivating empathy isn't a fantastic ideal, but (and maybe it's just me) do you ever have people take advantage of your acceptance? From "oh she won't call me out on carrying way too many items into the express lane" to more extremes of "if I deny taking money, of course she'll believe me." I don't think I'm gullible… but I've certainly had to find a balance between letting it go and learning to lay on the judgement.

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      That's a really good question, Anne. For me (at least at this point) I'm still pretty judgmental so using this method is just getting me into a normal, healthy heads pace … I've head to become so zen that anyone would/could take advantage of my acceptance.

      Does that make sense?

    • Anne

      Oh yeah. We're on opposite ends of this empathy chain, but I don't think either are wrong. I'll work on being a little more critical, you'll work on being a little more accepting and the entire world will benefit (because we have global impact of course)!

  2. Manisha

    Along with all that you said, I also think about the fact that mistakes happen. If someone cuts in front of me in a car, I think about how I've unknowingly done that before. I remember taking a left at a green light not noticing the car coming towards who had the right of way. I stopped and then got a eyeful of her middle finger and we were close enough that I could see the intense fury in her eyes. It was over-the-top and slightly scary, but I knew I made a mistake that fortunately didn't result in an accident. Everyone makes mistakes but sometimes people forget that.

  3. Emilee Land

    I needed this today. This is something I really need to work on. In parenting, it's really easy to judge choices that other parents make that are different from your own. But like you said, they are probably doing the best they can. When it comes to kids, parents make the choice that they feel would be right for their child and their family.

  4. Vanessa

    It's funny, I notice it when I tell a stranger about my cancer story. The "what caused it?" is really a way for people to ask, "what did you do wrong so I can not do that?" When I point out it was bad luck, folks get really defensive about it.

    People are oddly fascinating and complicated.


    Ah I love this! Sometimes (but not always) when I'm judgmental of other's decisions I think it's a way of shoring up a sense of control, of promising to myself that I won't end up in that predicament.

    Ultimately, though, I struggle more to realize that I'm doing my best. It's easier for me to extend empathy to friends and family–or even strangers–but always expect my best to be, well, better.

  6. Veronique

    For a number of years I carried credit card debt because I was struggling with an unexpected and debilitating chronic illness (and I'm the kind of person who has always paid her bills on time and believes in paying credit card balances off every month). I was shocked when a family member who knew about my health thought I was just being irresponsible. I realized that he really didn’t know the level of difficulty I was having and that it was in part his lack of listening, but also partly my lack of expressing myself clearly and with confidence in myself that had influenced his opinion.

    I’ve found my challenge to be about how to stay open to other people’s ideas while believing in myself and in my choices and decisions. Sometimes others are right and I realize that I’ve accidentally picked that 10 item express lane with my cart of 20 things. Ultimately, I’ve been finding that as I develop greater self-compassion I am learning to judge myself less and express myself more clearly. This has been the most powerful tool for me in getting better at judging others less too.

  7. Anonymous

    I loved this post, and it speaks to the more unsavoury parts of my character. For me, I've found, that for myself, I've become quite obsessed with 'always making responsible decisions'. Really to such an extent that most of the time I just do nothing, out of fear of people saying "Well, that was very irresponsible.". I realised today it has a lot to do with the fact that I sometimes feel this 'claim to sensibility' is the only thing I have. If you were a judgemental biatch like me, you could say that I have 'failed' on the adult points of job/house/car/partner/kids, but 'at least' I say to myself, 'unlike other failing fools, I álways make responsible, decisions.' If you/I would take that away from me, there would be nothing left of my identity.

    Or something like that

  8. Ronna

    I struggle with judgement. . . a lot. There are a couple of things that helped me, first, open my eyes to the fact that I WAS judgmental (because for a while I was in denial–or I would justify it). One of the first things, for me but not for everyone, is that I usually am judgmental out of insecurity. I am afraid of being judged (for any and everything) and not good enough, so if I label someone as "arrogant" or "thinks they're so cool", then I don't have to care what they think about me. So, as I've learned to love myself more and give myself grace (which is so, so hard–from big things in my life to small things (like eating Cheetos for breakfast)), I've then been able to turn around and (try) to give that grace to others. The other main thing is that I've learned that I'm missing out on some really great relationships when I judge others. Some of my closest friends are people that I really thought I didn't like, were "too cool," or just plain rude/mean. When really they are some of the most fun, loving, hilarious, and amazing friendships I've had once we actually got to know each other. I also am pretty upfront when I've learned I've made a mistake and misjudged. I have had people say to me let's be friends, and I say back, "Yes! But, before we're friends, I have to tell you that I used to not like you for very much." In one way or another. Sometimes, I learn the feeling is mutual and we laugh, other times it's a more emotional apology on my part (meaning tears).

    Sorry, I know that's a lot that doesn't even really have to do with that form of branding. But, it's a theme I am pretty passionate about. And a lesson I have relearn quite frequently.

    • MeetMrs.Robinson

      I love your answer! Loving yourself is a big part of loving others imo!

    • MeetMrs.Robinson

      I love your answer! Loving yourself is a big part of loving others imo!

  9. Lisa

    I love this. Thank you for sharing.

  10. MeetMrs.Robinson

    I actually had a deep conversation on this yesterday. I take a similar approach. I try to look at others as a person just like me, and treat them with the grace I hope to be treated with! It is still not 100% effective, but that is my best tip.

  11. MeetMrs.Robinson

    I actually had a deep conversation on this yesterday. I take a similar approach. I try to look at others as a person just like me, and treat them with the grace I hope to be treated with! It is still not 100% effective, but that is my best tip.

  12. Katie Lee

    I LOVE this takeaway! Thanks for sharing what you learned at camp. It was such a pleasure to teach you and I can't wait to see what lessons show up as you go.

  13. Morgan

    Wow, that is EXACTLY how I feel. Thanks for the post! BTW, when I get that way, I stop myself and either 1. Make up a backstory for them, or 2. Think of 10 good things they did, or could have done. You never know what someone does in their life, so you might as well imagine.

  14. N Edwards

    It’s a struggle for sure. Especially when one feels that they are being taken for a ride or being taken advantage of. I also realise one needs to reach the stage where these feelings (of feeling wronged) don’t arise. I’ve always struggled with this balance and what works for me is to determine my boundaries. Define the limit of what I am willing to put up with, as I grow and I achieve more patience and empathy, the boundary gets pushed back further

  15. Whitney

    I relate to this so hard. I’ve taken up the practice of mindful meditation and recently did a guided meditation titled “just like me”. It totally put things into perspective for me! We are all more alike than we are different and working through those thoughts really helped me build empathy. Highly suggest!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! Me, too! Where did we both read about that?

Pin It on Pinterest