Live Without Fear Of Judgment

Dance like nobody’s watching. Sing like nobody’s listening. Those words hang above the door in our conference room at Country Day. I put them there. They remind me that joy is at my fingertips. I can break out into song and dance at any time. Even though I am not good at either yet, the full joy they elicit can be mine as long as I do not allow an audience — the judgment of others– to deter me.

There it is. The rub is in the fear of being judged. We may never actually know what others think of our dance moves or how bad our off-key singing annoys them. Yet we convince ourselves that we can hear their criticisms. Their jeers reverberate so loudly in our heads that we sacrifice the joy to safely remain un-judged.

This is all too common. Just yesterday I watched my daughter steal the basketball during the championship game. Her quick feet caused a turnover at a key point in the contest. She took off for the basket — a half step ahead of her opponents.

As she crossed center court, she pulled up. There was no fast break to the hoop. She had missed a lay-up the night before. Worse than the missed shot, she spent the evening ruminating on her miss. This time, she would play it safe and look for someone else to drive to the hoop. In that moment, I could swear there was no sound in the gym. Everything seemed to freeze. Fear won.

I wanted to whisper in her ear, “Drive to the hoop. You can do it. And if you miss, you will try again” or “Maybe you won’t get another fast break, but at least you will have made the most of the one you had.” Instead the noise picked up again, the game moved ahead of her with someone else making the basket. She lingered at half court as a wave of disappointment washed across her face, but basketball is too fast and she was pulled back into the game.

How does that fear of judgment and worry for consequences become so crippling to us?

In my work I share difficult moments with parents all the time. They sit with me fearful for their child’s future after a diagnosis. They need to make decisions on middle school and wish for a crystal ball to be assured they are making the right choice. They arrive with test scores in hand fretting over what a standardized result might mean down the road.

Teachers sit with me having exhausted everything they can think of to help a child who is still struggling. In each case people apologize when emotions well up. I hear the phrase all too often, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry.” They seem to be saying, I promised myself that I wouldn’t give you any reason to judge me as weak. For somewhere in our cultural mythology, crying was a sign of weakness.

To all of you, please know this. I keep tissues on the conference room table and in my coat pocket. I do that because I often find myself discussing difficult topics about the children you love. Why wouldn’t you cry? Going forward, let’s make a pact. I will be authentic and honest with you. Please allow yourself to be vulnerable and sincere with me. From this conscientious place we will find the common ground to find a solution together. I may or may not cry with you, but I won’t judge you.

Truth is, no one will ever judge you as harshly as you judge yourself. Your inner critic will have a voice much louder and more severe than anything others are thinking.

If only we could live without fear of judgment. If we could only treat ourselves as kindly as we treat our loved ones. I would like to add a few more lines to the wall of the conference room — Go for the lay-up like it’s practice. Cry like nobody’s judging you.

Elizabeth Hofreuter is head of school at Wheeling Country Day. She is a graduate of Princeton University and Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has two daughters, ages 9 and 13.