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The Difference Between an Emotion and a Judgment

Strategies and goals

One of the hardest things to do in an emotionally heated conversation or argument is to communicate well about ourselves without encouraging the person or people we’re talking with to feel defensive. A particularly dangerous trap is trying to express an emotion and instead coming out with a judgment.

False emotional language
For example, there’s the common phrase “I feel that …” Because the word “feel” is involved, it’s easy to believe that a sentence starting this way is about an emotion–which is not the case.

For instance, if “I feel that this is unfair” is were to convey an emotion, what is that emotion supposed to be? Unfairfeelingness? Maybe there’s a word for that in German, but it’s not an emotion regardless of language. If I’m not happy with how something was done and believe it to be unfair, then I might be feeling vulnerable, resentful, disappointed, shocked, disturbed, indignant … actually, I might have any number of emotions about the situation (my next article will provide a list of emotional vocabulary, in case you’re interested). But “I feel that this is unfair” (whether or not we include the word “that”) is really a less clear way of saying “I think that this is unfair” or “It’s my judgment that this is unfair.” Not only does it portray something (unfairfeelingness) that’s not an emotion as though it is one, but it also fails to communicate the actual emotion, which could be any of the ones I listed, something else altogether, or a combination of emotions.

Here are some other examples of emotional-sounding language that isn’t actually describing the speaker’s emotions:

  • “I feel used”
  • “I’m hurt that he said that” (“hurt” means “damaged” or “wounded”: we have emotional reactions to being hurt, but saying that we’ve been hurt, emotionally speaking, is an accusation rather than a description of our own condition)
  • “What you did was upsetting” (which is closer to expressing an emotion, but can mean that what was done is likely to make people upset rather than that the speaker is necessarily upset)
  • “That’s disgraceful”

Different places for judgments and emotions
I’m not saying there’s no place in the world for judgments. If you’re in charge of something or someone, judging is an important process of clarifying whether or not things are going as you want them to go. You may judge that it was a bad idea for your child to have watched TV instead of doing homework, or that you would have been better off not going to the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. A policeman may judge that someone has violated a traffic law (although that person still gets their day in court), and a boss may judge that a worker isn’t performing well.

You may even want to judge someone else’s behavior for your own benefit to decide how to act toward them or whether or not to imitate them. Or you might express a judgment about someone else’s behavior to someone else or to the person in question in hopes of making an impression. Of course, this sometimes backfires, especially when speaking to the person being judged.

In most of our interactions with most people, we at best can only hope to influence the situation. We’re not usually in charge of our friends, acquaintances, people we see on the street, people we see in traffic, our siblings, and so on, and acting as though we are in charge tends to create problems rather than solve them. In these situations, if we want to truly communicate in hopes that the other person will understand and take our feelings into account, it becomes important to express how we actually feel rather than just what we think or judge.

Photo by Joe Gratz

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