Escaping the “Black Hole” of Judgement

by Steve Andreas


“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

— Shakespeare (Hamlet)


          In English, there are two basic meanings for the word “judgement.” One meaning is clear thinking–to be able to perceive a situation, gather information, assess it, and come to a conclusion or decision, as in “She has good judgement.” That is not the meaning that I want to discuss in this article. The meaning that I want to explore is the kind of judgement that a judge makes, between right and wrong, innocent or guilty, good and evil.

          Judgement is a key concept in most religions, and in other moral and social codes, as a way of setting forth the shared values of a group, and also as a way of upholding and enforcing them. On the other hand, Christ and many other teachers and mystics have advocated acceptance and love as an alternative to judgement.

          “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.” (Matthew, 6:37)

          Many people actively seek experiences of not being judged, being compassionately loved and accepted for who they are–by themselves, by others, or by God–because it heals the sorrows of conflict and misunderstanding.

          My father learned from his missionary father how to judge, and I learned well from him. It was only when judgement threatened to tear apart my marriage that I took a long, hard look at judgement, and the many ways that it has affected my life. I don’t know anyone who never judges, though probably the Dalai Lama comes very close. Most of us make hundreds of judgements every day. We judge ourselves, our relatives, our children’s friends, politicians, protesters, criminals, or those with different values or lifestyles, etc. Some of those may be fairly gentle judgements that are innocuous, like “That movie was terrible!” while others are much more troublesome. Learning how the process of judgement works provides ways to transform it when it is problematic.

          What does it feel like to be judged? Most people report that they feel “one down,” inferior, physically restricted and diminished, as if they were being attacked. Being judged usually results in “tunnel vision” in which perceptions and responses are restricted to a very narrow range. People typically respond either by shrinking defensively, or counterattacking with judgements of their own about the person who judged them. I have yet to find anyone who enjoys being judged; it is always unpleasant, and often extremely so.

          What does it feel like to judge? Most people report feeling a kind of strength and power in asserting their values, a pleasure in being right, and being “one-up,” superior to the other person. There is usually a bodily feeling of stiffness or rigidity, and perceptions tends to narrow and simplify, focusing only on what is being judged.

An Example of Judging

          To begin our exploration, think of something outside yourself, some person, act, or event that you judge as bad, wrong, or evil, “That’s wrong!” and discover what that experience is like for you. . . .

          You can also judge something as good rather than bad, the flip side of judgement. However, it is much easier to notice the process when it is applied to something bad.

If you were to use an experience of judging yourself, it would be even more difficult to clarify your experience, because you would be both the judger and the judged, mixing the two processes together, making it much harder to separate the two and understand each clearly.

Selecting a Counterexample

          In order to discover the key elements of any experiential process, it is very helpful to select a counterexample experience that is different, yet that has all the positive and valuable aspects of the experience that you want to model, and then compare the two. Judgement is a very strong expression of values, so the counterexample experience must also be an expression of your values.

          When you are faced with alternative choices in life, you eventually choose one over the other, based on your likes and dislikes, your valuing one more than the other. So let’s try using preference as a counterexample experience to compare with judgement.

          When we compare a judgement with a preference, we immediately realize that there is a great difference in intensity. “Preference” usually describes a situation in which not much is at stake. “I prefer this food over that food,” but it doesn’t really matter too much if I don’t get my preference. A judgement, on the other hand, is usually very important to us, and often vitally so. In English there is no word for a preference that is as strong and important as a judgement, so we have to combine words to access an appropriate experience, and I have found that “strong preference,” or “very strong preference” although awkward, serves reasonably well.

An Example of Preference

          Now think again of the same person, act, or event that you just used as an example of judging, “X is wrong!” Now I want you to express the same valuing as a very strong preference, “I really prefer Y over X!”

          Next compare your experience of judgement and preference. By thinking of the same content alternately as a judgement or a preference it is much easier to discern subtle differences between the two. Making the strength or intensity of the two as similar as possible, take some time to compare these two experiences of the same content to find out how your experience differs. Switch back and forth between them to discover what differences you find in wha you see, hear, and feel–and make a few notes. Please pause and take a few minutes now to actually do this, so that you can discover what your experience is. Then read on to compare what you experienced with what others have found. . . .

          One of the most obvious differences is that in preference, there are always two (or more) representations–what we like more, as well as what we like less, while in judgement we are usually only aware of what we condemn. This creates an analog distinction of “more/less than,” that can vary over a range, instead of digital either/or opposites (good or bad). Below is a sampling of the kind of differences that others have reported. Your experience may be somewhat different, but probably most of these will be at least parallel to your experience

one picturetwo pictures
“You” language“I” language
still picturemovement
black/whiterange of colors
loud voicesoft voice
either/orrange of choices
“have to”“want to”
high contrastmuted shades of gray

          If you look at the list above, preference has many more distinctions and options, making it a much richer and more resourceful experience. It is much more likely to be a good basis for problem-solving in the real world when you have a difference of opinion with someone else. Let’s examine this in more detail, starting within a wider frame of how we perceive and process information.

Potential Awareness

          This is all that someone could be aware of at a particular moment in time, in all five sensory systems, of external events as well as internal bodily sensations. Because of the inherent limitations of our perceptual systems, at any moment we can only be aware of a very tiny fraction of what is potentially available to us, while the rest remains ignored and unconscious. For instance, as you read this, you are probably unaware of the feeling behind your knees, or the background sounds around you–until you read these words that direct your attention to them. This is the basis of George Miller’s (1956) classic paper on the 7 +/- 2 limitation on how many “chunks” of attention are available to us at any moment.


          From the infinite wellspring of possible perceptions we actively select what to pay attention to, according to our needs, desires and interests, and this narrows what we are aware of. Habitual selection further limits what we are aware of, as we systematically ignore large areas of potential experience. The best we can do is to have an awareness that flexibly scans events, so that nothing is ignored for very long. The more information we have available to us about events, the better we are able to determine what is relevant to solving problems and satisfying our needs and desires.

          Preference is a detailed personal experience of liking some aspect of our experience more/less than some other aspect, a comparison which might sound like the following, if described in words:

“I like the feel/sound/look/taste/smell of A in the present, or the consequences of A in the future, (much, a little) more than B in a certain context C for an outcome D when I’m feeling (very, a little) E.” This full experience includes all the following detailed sensory-based elements, at least implicitly:

          a. The person experiencing the preference.

          b. The value preference (liking/disliking).

          c. The sensory criteria being applied to the experience.

          d. The time frame of the evaluation.

          e. The two (or more) things or events compared (A, B).

          f. An analog comparison (more/less than).

          g. The degree of the comparison (a lot, little, somewhat).

          h. The context (C).

          i. The sensory-based outcome (D).

          j. The state of the person.(E)

          k. The degree (very, a little) of state E (tired, full, alert, etc.)

          A preference is an individual personal response of liking/disliking some person, thing, or event more than another. Although someone else might have a different experience, what I experience is unquestionably true for me. I am associated into the experience, and I express myself by stating my personal experience. My preference might be of interest to someone else, but there is no demand on anyone else to agree with me, or to have the same experience.


          When someone slips from preference into judgement, most (or all) of the rich sensory-based detail listed above is deleted, a massive example of the deletion and distortion that results in a very simplified and impoverished generalization. “I do/don’t like what you do” expresses a relationship between us. But if I say, “You’re bad/good,” the badness/goodness appears to exist only in you–my relating to you, and my evaluation of this relating, is completely deleted. Since something is either good or bad, there is no room for it to have good and bad aspects, to be more or less good, good for one person and bad for someone else, etc. All that is left is a digital either/or distinction, (good/bad, right/wrong) in contrast to the detailed analog distinctions that occur in preference. Gordon Allport described this process as “intolerance of ambiguity” many years ago in his studies of prejudice and the “authoritarian personality” (1954) and found that this insistence on fixed, either/or categories extended even to the simplest perceptions. In preference we are aware of both the positive and the negative, while in judgement we are aware of only one or the other.

          When dealing with a complex situation, we think about details, options, consequences, weigh pros and cons, consider other people’s thoughts or views or conflicting values etc. We may eventually conclude with a digital yes/no decision, but hopefully only after carefully considering and evaluating all these different factors. Someone who judges doesn’t have to go through all that effort; they simply apply the judgement, which is essentially a pre-decision, a prejudgment (prejudice) that can be applied quickly to any situation, without having to think about it in detail. It is a “one-size-fits-all” “freeze-dried” decision that greatly simplifies life, but at the cost of deleting most of our experience.

          Since a judgement deletes all the specific experiential and contextual elements listed previously for a preference, it is absolute and universal. The statement, “That person/thing/event is bad,” means that it is bad for everyone, everywhere, always, in all regards, and for all outcomes. Since bad is simply bad, there is no point at all in communicating or negotiating about it; the only solution is to isolate it, eliminate it or destroy it.

          The universality of a judgement assumes that everyone should have the same identical response, imposing the judger’s values on everyone else. If someone else disagrees with someone who judges, that threatens both the universality of the judgement, and also the world-view of the judge. If I judge something as bad, and someone disagrees with me, my only alternative is to think of it as good, which would turn my world upside down. Since that would be very unsettling and threatening, I will typically redouble my efforts to make the dissident conform, often with some form of verbal or physical coercion.

          Since a judgement is universal, it exists independently of who is saying it, and this is one of the great attractions of judgement. Someone who judges doesn’t have to take responsibility for the judgement or defend it; it simply exists. “It’s bad.” “It’s God’s will.” This makes it very difficult for the judger to even consider reviewing the situation being judged, or considering alternative understandings.

          The absolute and universal nature of a judgement separates it from our own personal experience. Many judgements are learned from parents, priests, and other authorities, rather than arising out of our own experience, so there is no connection with experience. Yet even when we have fully experienced the event that we judge, the act of judging it separates us from the sensory-based details of that experience, as we focus our attention exclusively on the resulting judgement.

When Judgement is Useful

          “Every behavior is useful in some context” is a fundamental presupposition in NLP, and there is one kind of context in which judgements are functional–in a situation of real and immediate danger, in which someone has to make a life-or-death decision very quickly. When the stakes are high, it is useful not to take the time to carefully evaluate a situation and come to a conclusion–by that time it might be too late. There is no time to think through all the nuances of what is happening; there is only the urgent need to act swiftly and decisively, and respond with a simple preset decision.

          Because of this usefulness, whenever someone feels threatened, they will tend to respond with judgement. And because of this association, whenever someone judges, we can safely assume that they feel threatened in some way.

The Consequences of Judging

          Judging sets in motion a recursive circular process that typically builds upon itself, and “snowballs,” becoming more and more widespread and intense as time goes on. The more I judge, the more I delete the details of my own experiencing. The less I am aware of my own experiencing, the more defensive and threatened I am likely to feel, so I will tend to rely on judgement even more.

          In preference it is much easier to move away from the negative and toward the positive, while attending to both. In judgement, however, we are usually focused exclusively on what we don’t want, and since it is impossible to reach a negative outcome, we get stuck in a dead end.

          When someone judges someone else, they set themselves up as a superior authority, “I know what is right, and you don’t,” separating the judger from the judged, and disregarding the other person’s views. Judgement changes a disagreement between equals into one between unequals, and the question becomes, “Who’s right and who’s wrong?” “Who is in a position of rightness and power?” in contrast to “How can we resolve our differences?” or “How can we continue to get along while acknowledging our differences?” By focusing on right and wrong, the content of the disagreement is usually completely lost, making problem-solving extremely difficult.

          Judging others by an abstract universal standard is always disrespectful of their unique individuality and particular situation, and I don’t know anyone who enjoys that. In response they will usually judge me back. “You’re so judgemental.” “You shouldn’t say ‘should.’ ” Being judged in return is unpleasant and threatening to me, and that gives me something else to judge about you! I will usually redouble my efforts to make you agree, often by verbal or physical coercion, “You should do what I say,” “You have to do it the right way or you’ll roast in hell.”

          When someone makes a judgement, it is usually hard for them to go back to review the underlying preference. If you ask for the experience that is the basis for the judgement, they will usually say something like, “What do you mean? It’s just wrong, that’s all.” If they were to change their mind about it, that would mean that they were wrong, and because they are so focused on the importance of being right, that is unacceptable.

          When someone believes that something is wrong, there is no point in talking about it, and that leaves only two alternatives. One is coercion, in which the judge forces another to do the right thing, and the other is to isolate or eliminate the person who is doing wrong. The process of judgement inherently rejects communication and problem-solving and leads directly to conflict.

          Of course, like any other communication, judgement can also be expressed nonverbally. A certain tone of voice, a raised head, a stiffened neck, a raised eyebrow, or a barely audible “hmph,” can signal judgement as well as a verbal condemnation. And since these are nonverbal, they are more likely to be out of consciousness, which may lead to confusion in the listener “Why do I feel so bad?”

          All these feedback loops create a system that can easily trigger what engineers call a “runaway,” in which the process of judgement becomes more and more extensive and extreme, rather like a “black hole’ that swallows our experience.

          In self-judgement, both sides are played out within one person, with one part being the judger, while another part of the person feels judged. “I’m so dumb at math; I’m really stupid!” A common example is the fear of public speaking. One part of the person wants (or needs) to make a presentation, while another part vividly imagines all that could go wrong, and the critical and ridiculing comments that others will make, so the first part responds by feeling criticized and diminished. Usually these two aspects are so jumbled together that it is very hard to understand what is going on until they are separated clearly into the part of the person that judges and the part that is being judged.

          The chart below outlines the processes already described, as well as the later consequences of judging described below.


          Once judgement sets up “good” and “bad” as absolutes, we begin a process of separation from the bad, and identification with the good, whether it is perceived externally or internally. A man who believes that certain “feminine” behaviors (crying, tenderness, weakness, etc.) are bad will avoid men who show those behaviors. He will also separate himself from these behaviors in himself, and will identify with the opposite behaviors (being stoic, tough, strong, etc.) The result is that he will respond with a rigid, stereotyped role, rather than with his spontaneous natural and authentic responses to actual ongoing events. This process of simultaneous identification and alienation begins fairly innocuously, but it can easily slide into something considerably more intense and problematic.


          It is only a small step to move from separation to the more active pushing away of rejection, and from the agreement of joining to the fuller identification that might be called incorporation or identification. In its more extreme form, it includes actively opposing and demonizing the “bad” in the world, and denial of any bad in the self. The good in others is often worshipped, either in the form of dead saints or prophets, or living gurus, and the good in the self becomes a focus for conceit and self-importance.


          The extreme of the process of identification with the good, and alienation from the bad is violence, which is directed both outward toward the bad in others and the world, as well as inward toward the bad aspects of self. The good must be defended and preserved at all costs, and the bad must be destroyed, whether it is inside or outside the person. This is the extreme form of getting lost in an oversimplified world of either/or opposites, and alienation from our actual experience. Examine any contemporary situation of violence, either personal or social, and it is easy to see the judgements that are at the root of it.

Others’ Responses to Judging and Preferring

          Now I would like you to try a little mind experiment. Close your eyes and recall a situation in which you disagreed with someone, and you judged them–either overtly or only in your mind. . . .

          Now review your experience of this person, and then try two short scenarios, using what you have learned about judgement and preference. In the first scenario, you imagine expressing your judgements to this person, as honestly and forcefully as you can, and then notice the other person’s response. . . .

          Next, imagine expressing the same concerns and views, but in terms of your personal preferences, what is important to you, and again notice how the other person responds. . . .

Which scenario resulted in a more positive and useful response from that other person? Expressing your preferences doesn’t guarantee that you will get a useful response from someone else, particularly if there is still some leftover judgement in your words, voice tone, or posture, etc., or if that other person expects you to judge them, or is prone to judging you. But judgement will make a positive response very, very unlikely, and that it will usually lead to conflict and/or violence.

Transforming Judgement: Out of the Black Hole

          Knowing how the process of judgement works tells us exactly what to do to transform it into something more useful. The problem with judgement lies in its oversimplified and impoverished, absolute and universal, either/or nature, which is seldom or never a good fit for real events, and is unresponsive to corrective feedback.

Creating Safety

           Since danger is a major spur to judgement, anything that we can do to make ourselves and others feel safe will make it easier to relax our judgements. It can be very helpful to realize that in modern society it is very rare that we are in actual physical danger. Most of the “dangers” we experience are only threats to our status, image, importance, or convenience, what is often called “ego.” A prime example of this is that in the US, most people’s number one fear (worse than death!) is of public speaking. Most of the “emergencies” we respond to, no matter how important, are not actually “life-and-death” situations in which judgements are useful. I couldn’t tell you how many times I have rushed to do something, or meet some kind of deadline, and afterwards looked back and thought, “Boy, that was a waste of time; not only was it not an emergency, it wasn’t even important!”

          Many other events–a glancing look, a forgotten promise, even insults–are seldom life-or-death matters; they only threaten the way we think of ourselves, an unpleasant, but temporary inconvenience. Many people are afraid to ask others for something because they think of being refused as if it were an evaluation of who they are, rather than just information about the other person’s likes and dislikes. A weak self-concept can be strengthened to make it more resilient and open to feedback and criticism, and therefore immune to that kind of “danger” (Transforming Your Self, 2002), and that will reduce the tendency to judge.

Recovering Deleted Content

           You can take any person, thing or event that you judge, and recover all the specific content detail in that experience–the answers to who? what? how? when? where? and why? That will take you back to a specific and detailed sensory-based personal experience of your preference. This process should be very familiar to NLPers, since all the elements of the Meta-Model are designed to gather information to recover the specific details that are deleted from someone’s experience. Each bit of deleted information that is recovered will be a step toward a fuller and richer experience of preference that can be a basis for effective problem-solving in the real world.

“Mapping Across” with Process Submodalities

           One way to greatly speed up this process of transformation is to use a classic NLP process called “mapping across” (taught fully in the book,Change Your Mind–and Keep the Change), in which the process distinctions of judgement are transformed into preference, one by one, until you have transformed the whole experience. (Bandler, 1985; Andreas, 1987 ) For example, let’s assume that your experience was described by the differences between judgement and preference listed previously on page (add in page #). You could start by adding in a second image of what you prefer alongside what you judge as “bad,” and then step into that image so that you are no longer separate from what you judged. Then you could change the “You” statements of judging to the “I” statements of preferring, and allow the still, black and white image to become a color movie, etc., etc.

          In actual practice you will find that changing some of these process elements also changes others, and that the ones that are most powerful in transforming experience differ somewhat from one person to another. Adding in the second image may spontaneously cause the narrow focus to widen into a panorama, and the feeling of hard closedness to soften and open up. Stepping into a still image may automatically change it into a colorful movie with sound, etc. These more powerful changes are called driver submodalities because they drive or influence others.

          Once you have discovered the drivers that work best for you, it becomes even easier to change a judgement into a preference, since you only have to change a few of them in order to complete the shift. Changing these process elements is a very powerful change in itself, and at the same time it also enriches the content details of the experience. For instance, when you shift from a still picture to a movie, there is more information in the movie, and the information continues to change as you view it. When you shift from a narrow focus to a broad panorama, there is literally more to see in your image, and you can view what you don’t like in a much larger and more detailed context.

Cultivating Compassion

Another way to transform judgement is to experience what it is like to become that other person that you judge, experiencing what it is like to have their experience. Identifying with the other person, “walking a mile in their moccasins,” is a very old practice in many spiritual traditions, and was particularly evident in Ghandi’s life and work in freeing India from British colonialism. Whle identifying, it is helpful to think of the NLP presupposition that “Everyone always makes the best choice that is available to them.” “How is it that this person finds this attitude or behavior to be the best choice available to them? Aligning Perceptual Positions, a process developed by Connirae Andreas (in 1989) is a very specific way to help someone move from judging someone from the outside to a compassionate understanding of what someone else experiences from the inside, and it also clarifies the person’s own experience of responding to the other person.

Reaching Forgiveness

          The opposite of judgement is forgiveness. With a sense of safety, a detailed experience of what you have judged, both from the inside and the outside, and compassion for what that other person experiences, it is possible to make the simple process shifts of “mapping across” to reach a congruent, whole-body experience of forgiveness (online article, Andreas, 1999).


          In an equal relationship, I express what I want, and you express what you want. Treating each other as equals, we communicate to find out how we can share the information that we have, and work together to reach our goals, a hallmark of the approach of Virginia Satir (1991) one of the greatest therapists who ever lived. With full respect for both your preferences and mine, we can discuss our differences without judgement or condemnation. As one woman’s mother often said when she and her daughter disagreed, “You’re always right; I’m never wrong,” a nice deconstruction of the either/or, right/wrong of judgement. As equals, each of us has the power to elicit responses in each other by expressing our experience, information, compassion, understandings, etc, rather than the power over others of judgement and coercion. Look around at all the conflicts in the world, from your personal ones to the wars that threaten to destroy our planet, and you will see the desperate need for transforming judgement into preference and communication–and the field of NLP could also use a strong dose of it. I definitely prefer it.

“Out beyond ideas of wrondoing and rightdoing, there is a meadow. I’ll meet you there.” –Rumi

Exercise: (pairs or trios)

1. Safety. Establish a safe context. “I’m not here to judge your judging; we all do it at times. My job is to help you explore and understand your experience of judging more deeply and in more detail, and offer you some alternative choices to try out. I also want to respect your values completely, while you learn more about them. I am not asking you to commit to doing anything different, only to explore some alternatives, and try them out in your mind.”

2. Judgement. Pick an experience of judging another person, preferably one that is problematic to you in some way–either it makes you feel bad, or others object to it, or it gets you into difficulty in some way.“X is bad.”

3. Values Endangered. “Which of your values are involved in this judgement, and what danger to those values does the judged person pose?”

          A. Physical or Mental danger? Examine the endangered values, and determine:

                    a. If the danger is actual material physical or economic, etc. danger, or

                    b. Danger to your self-concept or “ego,” as in disrespect or loss of status, without actual physical or economic harm.

          B. Now or Later? In either case, is the danger immediate and certain, or a future possibility, so that you have some space to prepare for it?

4. Preference. Pick an experience of very strong preference.

“ I really prefer Y to X.” When possible, choose an experience in which the same, or very similar values are expressed with about the same strength.

5. Contrastive Analysis. Make a list of all the submodality differences you notice between Judgement and Preference, in all three modalities (VAK).

6. Recover Content Deletions. Pick a specific event that is judged, and recover all the experiential deletions listed under in the “Judgement Chart Commentary” under “# 2. Preference.”

7. Map Across any remaining submodality differences, to make the judgement even more fully into preference.

8. Take “Other” Position for understanding and compassion for the other person, and to notice how they are limited in their choices and abilities. (Aligning perceptual positions can make this even more effective.)

9. Problem-Solving. Maintaining this state of preference, imagine how you could problem-solve about your differences with this other person, while fully maintaining the strength and importance of your values. Notice how the imagined interaction with this person goes, and whether or not it works better for your goals and outcomes than judging them.


Allport, Gordon. W. (1954) The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA. Addison-Wesley

Andreas, Connirae. (1991) “Aligning Perceptual Positions: a new distinction in NLP.” (Free online article) Anchor Point. Vol. 5, No. 2.

Andreas, Steve (2002) Transforming Your Self: Becoming who you want to be, (book) Boulder, CO. Real People Press.

Andreas, Steve. (1999) “Forgiveness.” (Free online article) Anchor Point, Vol. 13, No. 5.

Andreas, Steve. (1991) Virginia Satir: the Patterns of Her Magic, (book) Boulder, CO. Real People Press.

Andreas, Steve, and Andreas, Connirae, (1987) Change Your Mind–and Keep the Change, (book) Boulder, CO. Real People Press.

Andreas, Tamara, “Core Transformation–the Full 3-Day Workshop” (DVD workshop including complete teaching of Aligning Perceptual Positions).

Bandler, Richard (1985) Using Your Brain–for a CHANGE. (book) Boulder, CO. Real People Press.

______Miller, George A. “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” The Psychological Review, 1956, vol. 63, pp. 81-97.