Self-Reflection vs. Self-Judgment

Pam and I were driving in Tampa the other day. Traffic was terrible. We came to a large intersection and were stopped by the light. We noticed another driver had pulled into the intersection and gotten stuck there when the light changed. He was smack dab in the middle of it all. The spotlight was on him. Now, he was blocking traffic. I’m sure you can imagine how that went over for all involved.

I imagined how I may have felt being stuck in the middle of that intersection. I imagined that I would have felt embarrassed! As we watched the man, I blurted out, “Don’t let the shame blind you from the lesson, man!” I chuckled… as if he could hear me. Then I thought about what I had said. How often do we make a mistake or go through a challenging time and feel a shame than binds us? I can think of countless times when I’ve been so caught up in the shame that it completely obscured my ability to self-reflect, to consider my options, and to tap into my innate wisdom, resilience, and resourcefulness. The shame blinded me from the lesson.

Every mistake we make, every challenge we deal with is an opportunity for reflection and learning. It seems that many of us believe that self-judgment and self-punishment will keep us on the straight and narrow. But do they? How is it for you when you are heaping on the judgment?

When I heap on judgment, punishment, or even constant analysis, I become mired in shame, rendering me paralyzed and overwhelmed. It feels terrible and I miss the opportunity to learn from my mistake. Instead, I may shut down and hide out, overeat, or go on a much-too-long Netflix binge and exacerbate the problem.

Self-reflection is looking at our mistakes objectively and without over-identifying with them. You are not your mistakes. You are not this difficulty. You are not the shame, guilt, or fear that your feel. You are the one who witnesses all of it. From this place of grounding, you are now able to reflect upon and consider where you may have gone wrong, and see how to best move forward from here with integrity. If you reflect on the mistake or misstep, you have the opportunity to learn something, make an adjustment, and make amends when needed.

Is reflection possible without judgment and spinning-out-of-control analysis? I believe so.

We cannot see our reflection in running water.
It is only in still water that we can see.
— Zen

Imagine a pond that has become turbulent and full of sediment. Let’s say that the turbulence comes from shame and guilt. You cannot find your way through all the turbulence. Now imagine that you go sit on the bank of the pond and wait for clarity. The pond’s natural state is clear and your natural state is wellbeing and wisdom. When you allow the sediment to settle, the pond returns to clarity. The same is true for you.

I’ve found it helpful to sit on the bank of reflection when I’ve made a mistake or gotten caught up in a difficult situation. As I think about how I reflect, I seem to follow something like this:

  1. Take a breath and slow way down.

  2. Notice whatever feeling is arising. If it’s shame, simply notice the feeling of shame.

  3. Recognize that the feeling of shame (or some other feeling) is simply telling you that you are having shameful thinking. The shame isn’t telling you anything about who you are or what you should do.

  4. Notice where in your body you are tightening or closing with the emotion. Bring your attention there and relax as best you can. It can be helpful to bring your breath right to the tightening or closing.

  5. As you relax and allow the thoughts of shame to move through you rather than attaching to them or adding additional thoughts to them, things will begin to settle and get clearer.

  6. As you become clearer, you are able to reflect upon the situation. Is there something you could’ve done differently that would be helpful going forward? Are there any amends to be made? Is there something in the present situation that you need to do or not do immediately? If nothing comes to mind, keep relaxing and waiting. There is no urgency here.

Your way will likely look different.

I’m suggesting that we could do much less analyzing and judging and much more relaxing and opening. Relaxing and opening bring us back to our natural clarity, wisdom, resilience, and felt sense of wellbeing. When we are grounded, we find our way with more ease and flow.

Self-reflection is important and helpful for growth and awareness. Self-judgment is not. There is a night-and-day difference that I’m sure you can feel. When you find yourself caught up in the paralysis of shame, that’s your wake-up call that you are buying into some shameful thinking. You could leave it alone and let it move through you. You could relax and open. From that place, you will find your way in each moment.


If this blog post resonates with you or if you’d like to explore a new perspective on self-reflection and self-judgment, I’m opening up two sessions on my calendar this next week for the first person who responds, at no charge to you. Contact Me