There’s an old Chinese tale that goes something like this:
Once there was a farmer whose horse ran away. His neighbors came to him and said, “How horrible for you! You lost your horse! ” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The farmer’s son went to find the horse. Not only did he find the horse, but two additional wild horses followed them home. The neighbors came over and exclaimed, “How wonderful for you! You found your horse and got two new ones!” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
The farmer’s son decided to break in one of the new horses. A few days in, he got thrown from the horse and broke his leg. He had to get a cast and stay off the leg, so he couldn’t work on the farm. Once again the neighbors came over and proclaimed, “How horrible! Your son broke his leg!” The farmer replied, “I don’t know. We’ll see.” One of the neighbors insisted, “How can you be so relaxed about this? Without your son’s help, you’ll have to work long into the night to get all the work done. You don’t seem to understand that this is a catastrophe!” The farmer calmly replied, “We’ll see.”
The next day, the Emperor decided to implement a draft for a war that was starting. All eligible men were dragged off to war. Because of his broken leg, the farmer’s son was spared from the draft.
The wise farmer in this tale recognizes that we can’t make assumptions about what is “wonderful” and what is “horrible.” He takes a non-judgmental stance, understanding that “good” and “bad” are relative, not absolute.
The Non-judgmental Stance and Mindfulness
The non-judgmental stance is part of mindfulness. Mindfulness, simply put, is a process of living in the present rather than the past or future, focusing your mind on the current task at hand, and allowing experiences without trying to avoid, change or escape them. When you live with mindfulness, you:
- focus on the road while you drive instead of texting or talking on the phone.
- listen carefully to someone during a conversation without thinking about what you’ll say next.
- allow and stay present with your feelings rather than acting them out, or numbing them with addictive behaviors.
- separate facts from opinions and assumptions.
Mindfulness and Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Mindfulness is taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). DBT is a type of psychotherapy that can help with a wide variety of issues, including overwhelming emotions, self-harming behaviors and depression. It integrates ancient Eastern philosophies with modern therapy approaches. DBT acknowledges the importance of both acceptance and change. It sincerely validates people’s current thoughts, feelings and behaviors, while also helping them recognize that it’s often in their best interest to transform them (and giving them the skills to do so).
Mindfulness is one of four sets of skills used in DBT. The other three are distress tolerance, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. In this and my next three posts, I’ll highlight one skill from each set as an introduction to DBT. I’ll also include some general information and resources on where to learn more.
Mindfulness is at the heart of DBT. It’s an ancient concept, but it’s being integrated into modern therapies because research has shown its effectiveness. In DBT, the non-judgmental stance is taught as one of the skills for developing mindfulness.
Basics of the Non-judgmental Stance
When you take a non-judgmental stance, you separate the facts of a situation — the who, what, when, where and how — from an evaluation of it as good, bad, stupid, boring, crazy and so on. You recognize that judgments are often based on preferences, assumptions or shortsightedness rather than any inherent “good” or “bad” quality of the thing you’re judging. You learn not to automatically make assumptions about things, whether it’s:
- Events in your life
- Events in the news
- The behavior of others
- Your own thoughts, feelings and behaviors
- Things you have to do, like tasks or chores
That’s not to say that you should never make judgments. Sometimes it’s necessary and helpful. The point is to learn not to automatically make them when they’re not necessary or helpful, but based on conditioned habits. These kinds of judgments often lead to things like:
- Tension and stress
- Strong emotional reactions
- Impulsive behaviors or poor decisions
- Anger or depression
Learning to Take a Non-judgmental Stance
Learning to take a non-judgmental stance can benefit just about anybody (as can all the DBT skills), but it can be an especially useful tool for people who struggle with overwhelming emotions. For example, by practicing non-judgment, people with bipolar disorder can potentially learn to maintain a more stable mood. Practicing non-judgment teaches you to respond with even-mindedness, rather than to react from a place of strong emotion.
There are several methods for learning to take a non-judgmental stance, but the most fundamental one is to become aware of your judgments. For many of us, they are so ingrained that we don’t even notice them. Try keeping track for a week of the times you make judgments, noting the date and time, place and specific judgment (it’s highly unlikely you’ll catch all of them, but that’s okay). Some typical examples are things like:
- When you make a mistake: “Why did I do that? I’m so stupid.”
- When you’re on the road and somebody cuts you off: “What a crazy idiot!”
- When you’re at work: “My boss is such a jerk!” or “This meeting is going to be so boring.”
- When you watch the news: “That’s horrible! Things like that shouldn’t be happening these days.”
Once you’re aware of the kinds of judgments you make, you can start to catch yourself making them in the moment, before you have a chance to react. Then you can make a different choice, such as taking a few deep breaths and visualizing the judgment floating away.
Where to Learn More
I’ll be giving some more resources on DBT throughout this series, but if you’d like to get started right away with some self-help, I recommend “The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook.” It’s an easy-to-follow workbook designed for a general audience and has a companion diary where you can monitor your progress.
So, the next time your metaphorical “horse” gets out, or is returned with two more “horses,” consider taking the farmer’s non-judgmental stance. Don’t be so quick to evaluate what happens as horrible or wonderful – and like the farmer, calmly tell yourself, “I don’t know. We’ll see.”