DBT Mindfulness How Skill Nonjudgmental

The skill of being nonjudgmental is a fundamental component of mindfulness, which is essentially about being present in the current moment in a way that is open, aware, and, most importantly, nonjudgmental. To be nonjudgmental in DBT mindfulness means to take a stance of observation and description of the current moment without assigning labels of “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong” to experiences, interactions, events, and other people. It involves seeing things as they are, rather than through the lens of our own biases and preconceived notions. This practice encourages an attitude of curiosity and openness, which can lead to a more genuine and compassionate understanding of oneself and others.

The practice of nonjudgmental observation has several facets:

1. Recognizing Judgments: First, individuals are trained to become aware of when they are making judgments. This can be thoughts like “this shouldn’t be happening” or “this is bad.”

2. Acknowledging without Reacting: After recognizing a judgment, the goal is not to judge oneself for judging but rather to acknowledge the judgment and let it pass without reacting to it.

3. Descriptive Language: Individuals practice describing their experiences in factual terms, focusing on the “what” rather than the “good” or “bad”. For instance, instead of thinking “I am a failure,” one would observe “I am having the thought that I am a failure.”

4. Focus on the Present: It involves grounding oneself in the present moment, noticing the physical reality, and avoiding getting caught up in interpretations or emotional reactions based on past or future concerns.

Nonjudgmental stances enable individuals to break free from automatic, habitual reactions that may be destructive, harmful or unproductive, creating space for more intentional, thoughtful, and curious responses. This can be particularly beneficial in reducing the intensity of negative emotions and the impulsivity that can accompany them. By approaching experiences with a nonjudgmental attitude, individuals can begin to disentangle themselves from the web of their own judgments, which often amplify emotional distress.

This skill is not about enabling others behaviors, or not holding others accountable, or suppressing one’s values, assertiveness, or discernment, but rather about cultivating the ability to notice when these judgments are not serving one’s well-being or interpersonal effectiveness. It’s a powerful tool for enhancing emotional regulation, increasing psychological flexibility, and fostering a more patient, compassionate, confident, calm, and authentic way of engaging with the world. Nonjudgmentalness is letting go of evaluating and judging reality.

You will need to spend more time on nonjudgmentalness the first time through the skills, as the concepts are difficult for many people to grasp. They were difficult for me to grasp clearly, when I first started using them 12 years ago. I was adept at using them before I took the mindfulness teachers course, and started teaching them to others. Please be sure to review the educational information carefully before you start to practice the skill in a formal routine.

Nonjudgmentalness is fundamental to all mindfulness teaching and thus must be taught redundantly until you completely understand what the practice is. It is important to pay attention to the nuances of this skill. Be sure to engage fully in the practice exercises for nonjudgmentalness before moving to the next skill. You will have a chance to process the lessons on these skills during the reflection journaling homework. These skills are best learned through practice, feedback, and coaching.

In the next lesson, Ideas for Practicing Nonjudgmentalness, the first five practice ideas for
nonjudgmentalness are organized in order from easiest to hardest. For individuals who are having difficulties reducing judgmentalness, these practice exercises can be assigned in order, one exercise per week. I also encourage you to complete the Mindfulness exercises (on this website and in the Quenza app). The exercises are the same as those used in teaching the “what” skills of observing, describing, and participating. Each asks you to describe your mindfulness practice. When the exercises are used for this skill, you will be asked to practice the skills of observing, describing, and participating nonjudgmentally.

Two Types of Judgments

In DBT Mindfulness, we believe that there are two types of judgments: judgments that discriminate and judgments that evaluate.

Judgments That Discriminate

To “discriminate” is to discern or analyze whether two things are the same or different, whether something meets some type of standard, or whether something fits the facts. Some people are paid to compare things to standards or to predict consequences—that is, to judge. Teachers give grades; grocers put out “good” food or produce and discard “bad” food. The word “good” is also used to give children and adults feedback about their behavior, so they will know what to keep doing and what to stop.

Discriminations are necessary.

Discriminating between a swimming pool with water in it and one without water is essential before a swimmer dives into it. A person who can discriminate is often called a person with a “good eye” (e.g., a butcher who can select the piece of meat that will be most tender when cooked). Discriminating the effects of angry versus conciliatory behavior toward other people is essential to building lasting relationships.

Judgments That Evaluate

To “evaluate” is to judge someone or something as good or bad, worthwhile or not, valuable or not. Evaluations are something we add to the facts. They are based on opinions, personal values, and ideas in our minds. They are not part of factual reality.

Letting Go of Evaluations, Keeping Discriminations

Our aim in nonjudgmentalness is to let go of judgments that evaluate as good and bad, and to keep judgments that discriminate and see consequences. “Good” and “bad,” however, are sometimes used as shorthand for describing consequences. But it is easy to leave out stating consequences and simply call other people or events “good” and “bad.” When we use “good” and “bad,” we often forget that we are adding something to reality. We forget that we are predicting consequences. We treat our judgments as facts. People also treat their judgments of us as facts.

Discriminations can easily become judgmental as well. Discriminations can turn into judgments when we exaggerate differences between two things. That is, we describe what we believe to be factual rather than what we observe to be factual. Discrimination against various people or ideas is based on judging certain characteristics of the people or certain ideas as “good” or “bad.” When we feel threatened by differences, it is easier to become judgmental.

The Nature of Evaluations

Judgments that evaluate as good or bad are in the mind of the observer. They are not qualities of what the observer is judging. We are judgmental when we add an evaluation of worth or value to what we have observed. “Good” and “bad” are not objective and are never observed. They are subjective qualities put on things by the person observing. If something can be worthwhile, valuable, or good in the eyes of one person or group, it can always be viewed as worthless, of no value, or bad by another person or group. An important mindfulness skill is not judging things in this manner.

The Nature of Nonjudgmentalness

Nonjudgmentalness is describing reality as “what it is,” without adding evaluations of “good” and “bad” or the like to it. What do you think the difference is, between discriminating and being judgmental. Can you think of times when people have been judged as good or bad, and when something they have done has been judged as meeting a standard or not. For example, a person may get a B on a math test, but may not feel that the teacher is judging the person or the performance as “bad.”

Can you think of times when discrimination between characteristics of people leads to unjust behaviors, as, for example, in discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability. Knowing that two things are different may be an important discrimination, but it may be far more important to be an accurate judge of whether the observed difference makes a difference. Refusing to hire a man without hands as a pianist does not mean he cannot be hired as a tap dancer, for instance.

Why Be Nonjudgmental?

  • Judgments Can Have Damaging Effects on Relationships:
    • Negative judgments create conflict and can damage relationships with people we care about. Very few of us like people who are judgmental of us. Judging others might get people to change temporarily, but more often it leads people to avoid or retaliate against those who judge them badly.
  • Judgments Can Have Negative Effects on Emotions
    • Adding judgments can have a huge impact on our emotions. When we add evaluations of “good” and “bad” to people or things around us, it can have a strong effect on our emotional responses to the persons or things we are judging. It is then often difficult to recognize that we have created the judgments, and thus have created the very events that can dysregulate our emotions.
    • Do you have more difficulty judging yourself or judging others? Do you often feel judged by others? What about judgments you hear around you, or on radio, TV, over the internet, or on Social Media? Are you judging the people who judge? Are you being critical of people who are critical?
  • Changing the Causes of Things Works Better Than Judging
    • Everything that has happened in the universe has been caused. Changing the causes of things works better than judging things we don’t like. In other words, saying that things “should” not have happened, or saying that they are “bad” and “should” be different, is ineffective and does not change things.
    • If we want to eliminate drunk drivers from our roads, we need to develop circumstances that cause them to stop drinking and driving. We could alter our work, recreation, social, and leisure culture so that it doesn’t revolve around drinking as the sole means of connecting people. We may need a better health care system so that problem drinking could be detected earlier. We may need stronger laws against drunk driving or more police patrols to enforce the law. We may also need to provide effective treatment for people with alcohol problems, and to persuade other people not to drive with people who are drinking.
    • Similarly, if we want people to vote for something we believe in, we have to give them a cause to vote our way. We will need to provide persuasive arguments that they will believe, or arguments against voting against our position. Or if we want a new dog to urinate outside instead of on our new carpets, we have to cause a new behavior to develop by training the dog.
  • Nonjudgmentalness Is Fundamental to Mindfulness
    • Nonjudgmentalness is stressed in all mindfulness-based treatments (including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, and Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention), as well as in all treatments that emphasize acceptance of others and of oneself and one’s own behavior. It is central to all spiritual traditions of mindfulness.

Nonjudgmentally: How to Do It

Let Go of Good and Bad

View and describe reality as “what is.” Let go of evaluating people, their behavior, and events as good or bad. Let go of saying that a person or the person’s behavior is either “bad” or “good.” Let go of saying that a person or characteristic is “worthless” or “worthwhile.” Let go of calling oneself a “bad person” or a “good person.” The goal here is to take a nonjudgmental stance when observing, describing, and participating. Judging is any labeling or evaluating of something as good or bad, as valuable or not, as worthwhile or worthless. Letting go of such labeling is being nonjudgmental.

Replace Evaluations with Statements of “It Is,” or Descriptions of What Is

The goal is not to replace “bad” with “good,” to switch “worthless” for “worthwhile,” or to make other similar replacements. If you are good, you can always be bad; if you are worthwhile, you can always be worthless. Second, changing a negative judgment into a positive judgment can obscure the negative consequences of an event. For example, saying that a rotten piece of meat is good instead of bad could cause someone to eat it and then get sick. The idea is to eliminate evaluations entirely. When buying a new house, rather than asking, “Is it a good house?”, we might ask, “Is it a house I will like?” or “Is it a house that will last a long time without a lot of repairs?” or “Will I be able to sell it for more than I bought it for?” If we call a pillow a “good pillow,” we are using judgmental language instead of saying, “I like this pillow.”

Let Go of “Should”

Nonjudgmentalness involves letting go of the word “should.” That is, it means letting go of being persons who define how the world should be, and letting go of demands on reality to be what we want it to be simply because we want it to be that way. When being nonjudgmental, we let go of saying and thinking that things should be different than they are. We also let go of saying that we ourselves should be different than we are.

Replace “Should” with Descriptions of Feelings or Desires

Nonjudgmentalness involves replacing “should” with describing how we feel or what we desire: “I want things to be different,” “I want to be different than I am,” or “I hope you will do this for me.” An alternative is to replace “should” with “This is caused”: “Everything is as it should be, given the causes of the universe.”

Getting the Concept of Nonjudgmentalness Across

Nonjudgmentalness Does Not Mean Approval

Being nonjudgmental means that everything is what it is, and that everything is caused. Rather than judging something as good or bad, it is more useful to describe the facts and then try to understand the causes. When things happen that are destructive, that we do not like, or that do not fit our values, we have a better chance of stopping or changing them if we try to understand and then change the causes. Yelling “Bad!” doesn’t stop that many things. Even if we believe that there is an “evil force” or a “devil” in the world, understanding how it works and why it does what it does when it acts is a more effective strategy for getting change.

Nonjudgmentalness Does Not Mean Denying Consequences

A person who stops judging can still observe or predict consequences. It is often very important to observe and remember consequences of behaviors and events, particularly when consequences are either destructive to things we value or highly rewarding to us. And it can be very important to communicate these consequences to other people. Saying, “This piece of meat is bad,” is a shorthand way of saying, “It is filled with bacteria and may make you sick if you eat it.” Saying, “This paint will look really good in my house,” means “I will really like this color if we use it in my house.” Behavior that is destructive to others or to ourselves can still be labeled “bad.” Behavior that is constructive or helpful to others or ourselves can still be labeled “good.”

Judgments are often easier than describing consequences of things. People often use judgmental statements as a shorthand for consequences all the time, and eventually forget what consequences they are referring to. When there are a lot of negative consequences to a behavior, it can be easier to use “good” and “bad” as shorthand all the time. Saying a person has “good judgment” means that when the person makes decisions, the outcomes are ordinarily beneficial to the person and/or to others. All societies judge murder as “bad,” because the consequences of allowing people to kill others whenever they want to harms the community as a whole. In politics, one side says, “This is good, good, good,” while the other side says, “This is bad, bad, bad.” However, these are only personal evaluations. It is easy to simplify “good” and “bad” events or behaviors to “good” and “bad” people.

Nonjudgmentalness Doesn’t Mean Keeping Quiet about Preferences or Desires

Asking for change is not judgmental. But preferences and desires often become judgments on reality as it is. Saying that things “should” change (simply on our say-so) is judgmental. Saying that things “should” be different puts a demand on reality. Saying that things “should” be different implies that there is something wrong or bad about reality as it is. Saying that things “should” be different implies that a consequence that is caused should somehow not occur. This would, of course, require changing the rules of the universe.

The important point here is this: Who says so? If each person gets to determine what “should” be at any given moment, we could say that each person has the power to be “God” of the universe. This would, of course, be a mighty responsibility, as changing one thing to fit our preferences on a particular day might have unintended consequences for the entire universe.

Then when the person gives an answer, you ask again, “Why?” For example, if the person then responds, “Because when people are more loving, there is less war,” you would ask, “And why should there be less war?” For each answer the person gives, you continue to ask, “And why should that be so?” You do this even if the person says, “Because it is God’s will.” In that case, you ask, “And why should God’s will be carried out?” Ultimately, you will get to a final answer: “Because I want it to be that way.” At that point, you can point out that the person is turning his or her own wishes into a demand on reality. Even if the person’s wish is shared by most people on earth, even if it would be valued by most people, even if it is praiseworthy and wonderful, it is still a preference turned into a command. Alas, reality as a whole does not work by our commands. Changing reality requires changing causes.

Saying that one thing should (or must) occur in order for a second thing to occur is not judgmental. Saying, “I should turn the car key if I want the car to start,” “I should study if I want to make good grades,” or “I should look for a job if I want to find a job” is not judgmental. The trick here is to avoid the implication that “to be a good person, I should turn the car key, study, or look for a job.” It is also important to avoid the implication that “to be a good person, I should want to start the car, make good grades, or find a job.”

Values and Emotional Responses to Events Are Not Themselves Judgmental

A person can like something without also saying that it is good or bad. For example, many people dislike certain foods without judging those foods “bad.” Values are principles, standards, or qualities that are considered desirable and admirable. Things that we value are things we believe are important for our welfare or the welfare of society at large. Generally, we have an attachment to our values (i.e., positive emotional feelings about our values). This is why it can be so difficult when someone disagrees with our values. We feel threatened. It is easy to view such people as “bad.” Wanting, desiring, or admiring something, however, is not itself judging. Hating or feeling disgusted by something is not necessarily judgmental.

Judgments are often shorthand for describing preferences.

Saying that a room looks “bad” or a book was “terrible” is based on a personal preference in decorating or in reading material (or sometimes on a personal or community standard for how rooms should look or how books should be written). Saying, “I should get the job because I am more experienced,” is really just my preference that they give me the job, or my value that more experienced people should get jobs over less experienced people.

We often forget that such judgments are shorthand and take them as statements of fact. When values and preferences are very important, we feel threatened by people who disagree with us. Being threatened can easily lead to our calling others “bad.” Judging is often a way of getting out of responsibility. If I don’t like what other people are doing and want them to stop it, I can say, ‘That is bad,’ and I don’t have to own up to the fact that the real reason they should stop is that I (and maybe others) don’t like it, don’t believe in it, or don’t want the consequences.” Are there times when others have tried to control your behavior by stating judgments as facts.

Statements of Fact Are Not Judgmental, but

Judgments Often Go Along with the Statements of Fact

Many words have literal meanings that are not judgmental, but are almost always used as judgmental
statements. A statement of fact may be a judgment because the fact is simultaneously being judged. For instance, “I am fat” may simply be a statement of fact. But if one adds (in thoughts, implication, or tone of voice) that being fat is bad or unattractive, then a judgment is added. A favorite judgmental word of participants I work with is “stupid,” as in “I did a stupid thing,” “I am stupid,” or “What a stupid thing to say.” Judgments often masquerade as statements of fact, so they can be hard to catch. Mental health professionals are very good at this sometimes. I once had a therapist try to convince me that calling a client “narcissistic” (for saying she felt more “real” when she was around me) was not a judgmental statement.

Some will dogmatically believe that there really is an absolute “good” and an absolute “bad.” You need to be dialectical here and search for a synthesis of different points of view. I do not expect you to throw out judgments without a fight! I imagine you, like others, will bring up Hitler (or, more rarely, sexual abuse) as an example of “bad” with a capital B. Thus the next point is important: Judgments have their place. Letting go of judging is an idea that will grow over time. Don’t force it at the beginning. You can usually get more mileage out of focusing first on reducing self-judgments.

Don’t Judge Judging

It is important to remember that you cannot change judging by judging judging.

Nonjudgmentalness Practice Exercises

As it is for developing the “what” skills (observing, describing, participating), practice is important
for developing the “how” skills. You can do one exercise and then share your experiences of it, or record your reflections, or you can do several of these sequentially and then share or record your progress.

Any Participating Exercise

When asked to participate in a task like practicing nonjudgmentalness, many people have judgmental thoughts either about themselves, their therapist, or the process of therapy homework. You can use the practice homework exercises to practice nonjudgmentalness. It works best if you first start the exercise and then, after a few minutes, stop and ask your critical parts whether they are judging. For example, are they thinking, “I look silly,” or “I’m really stupid, I can’t do this”? Almost always, when the exercise
restarts, people find it easier to let go of judgments.

Walking Slowly in a Line

During the week, find the time or place to stand in a line, around other people. What almost always happens is that you start judging the person in front of you or behind you, or you judge the person serving you. In this instance it is useful to stop in the middle of your judging and be curious instead. It is also possible that the other people around you are judging you. Then, send them a wish for loving kindness.

Describing Something That Is Disliked

During the week, write in your journal about an interaction you disliked with someone or a disliked characteristic of another person or of yourself. Practice describing these things without using
judgmental words. If you share the experience with someone, pay attention to your tone, avoid a judgmental tone of voice.

Starting Over without Judgments

During a disagreement or uncomfortable interaction, stop your “protector” part from using a judgmental voice tone or judgmental words. Ask the part to soften, step in with Self, start the sentence over and drop your judgmental words and voice tone. Do this several times this week, even when other skills are being practiced, and you will ultimately get in the habit of being nonjudgmental, and asking parts to soften.


Practice Exercises for Between Sessions

  • Practice observing judgmental thoughts going through the mind. Remember, do not judge judging.
  • Count up judgmental thoughts each day. You can do this in one of several ways. You can tear up pieces of paper, put them in a pocket on one side, and move them to a pocket on the other side each time you notice a judgment. Or buy a golf or sports counter, and each time a judgment goes through, push the counter. Or record judgments on a cell smartphone each time one comes by. At the end of each day, write down the count, and start over the next day. Remember that observing and recording behavior can be an effective way of changing behavior.”
  • Replace judgmental thoughts, statements, or assumptions with nonjudgmental ones. (See below for tips on how to do this.)
  • Observe your judgmental facial expressions, posture, and voice tones (both internal and external). It can sometimes be helpful to ask caring others to point these out.
  • Change judgmental voice tones and expressions to nonjudgmental expressions and, if necessary, apologies.”

Tips for Replacing Judgmental Thoughts

  • Describe the facts of the event or situation—only what is observed with your senses. For example, “The white fish is not fresh and has a fishy smell.”
  • Describe the consequences; keep to the facts. For example, “This fish may taste rancid when cooked.”
  • Describe your own feelings in response to the facts. Emotions are not judgments. For example, “I don’t want to serve this fish for dinner.”