Judge Much? The Difference Between Judgment & Discernment
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By Karen McMahon, Contributor - October 17, 2016

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I often coach my clients around the impact that being judgmental has on them, the people they interact with and their circumstances.  I invite them to be discerning rather than judgmental and have found that there is significant confusion around these two words, what they mean and what the difference is.

If you look up judgment and discernment in some dictionaries, you may read the exact same definition, so the confusion makes sense.  My intention is that this article brings clarity to the topic. Here are some definitions to get us started:

Judgmental:  Being censorious or critical; having or displaying an overly critical point of view.

Discerning: Having or revealing keen insight and good judgment; being judicious, wise, prudent or circumspect.

When we are judgmental, we see the world through a critical eye: (ie. good / bad, pretty /  ugly, exciting / disappointing, etc.) Our judgment has a negative impact on us and the people and circumstances we judge.  

  • That driver is an idiot
  • My ex is a financial train wreck
  • This divorce is going to destroy my kids
  • I’m too old to find love again

In these statements, we are ‘sitting in judgment’ of someone or something.  The person or situation is bad or wrong.  When we judge, we get annoyed, anxious, disappointed, or afraid.  The simple act of judging can pull us from a good (or higher) mood to a bad (or lower) mood.  When we vocalize our judgment to others, it adds tension and friction to the relationship or interaction.  The reality is that nothing positive comes from judging.  

When we judge, our mood drops.  When our mood drops, we are more likely to focus on the problem.  When we are problem oriented, we feel worse and our mood drops further.  We begin to feel stuck and angry or a victim of people or circumstances.  Judgment spirals us down to anger or hopelessness.  It steals our power to initiate change.  

When we are discerning, there is no bad or wrong attached.  Discernment is a neutral understanding or wisdom that enables us to assess, determine and act in a way we believe best serves us at the time.  Here are the same situations as above through the eyes of discernment:

  • That driver is swerving in and out of lanes and endangering others.  
    • I will consciously keep my distance.
  • My ex has consistently overspent and incurred late fees and fines.  
    • I choose to have as little financial connection with him/her as possible and when necessary to create healthy boundaries around financial dealings.
  • This divorce is really hard emotionally on my kids.
    • I want to do everything possible to protect them from the conflict and help them process and learn through the pain of this transition.
  • I have fear around my age and being able to find love again.
    • I will notice my self-criticism and work to overcome my fear around my age and dating.

Discernment is empowering.  We make a determination about what is and accept it.  There is no struggle so our mood remains constant.  We are free to choose what we want to do about it which shifts our focus to the solution.  Being solution oriented, we consciously create boundaries or action steps that serve us.  We feel empowered and our mood shifts higher.  We have ‘addressed’ the person or situation without the need to judge.

Two ways people get stuck around judgment and discernment:

I am discerning of my ex’s behavior and share my decisions based on my discernment.  As a result, she/he accuses me of being judgemental.  I do not want to be judgmental and get stuck in how to communicate or act.  I apologize and acquiesce so I remain in alignment with my value to be non-judgmental. Yet I feel frustrated because I am stuck and not taking care of myself.  If what I am doing is being judgmental and that goes against my values, how do I create the change I desire???


I describe my spouse as abusive, narcissistic, controlling, irresponsible, manipulative, etc. (you can fill in the blank).  I let him/her know what is ‘wrong’ and what he/she needs to do to fix it.  Or I keep my judgment to myself and fester in bitterness or resentment around how his/her character default impacts me.  I see myself as totally in the right. I am angry at his/her behavior and feel like the victim of it since he/she won’t change. I know this person and how I am judging them is point on!  What is my alternative?  To turn a blind eye??

Knowing the difference between judgment and discernment opens possibility.  

When we are being discerning and yet being accused of judgment, we are clear on the difference and can move forward and attend to our needs with a clear conscience.  It is not our responsibility to ‘make’ the other person understand.  We must be okay with the fact that they may see what we are doing as judgemental.

Likewise, we can avoid negatively criticizing or condemning our spouse while attending to our needs by using our insight and wisdom (discernment) to determine what is and what we want to do.  There is no reason to judge.  Our discernment and subsequent choices are all we need to take care of ourselves.

When we judge, our mood or emotional energy dips down.  Low energy (moods) create stress, tension, and friction.  Begin to notice your behavior around judgment and shift to discernment and you will feel less pain and experience more possibility.

We would love to hear from you.  Share your thoughts and experience around judgment and discernment.

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