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I think she was trying to be helpful when she told me. Maybe…

A lady with pearls and jodhpurs who I’d never spoken to before sat down next to me and put her hand on my knee. I was at a patch coffee morning that had fallen on my day off from work and had decided to attend with my little girl because, although I had some solid friends, I was aware I might get a reputation as antisocial if I didn’t show my face… It turned out I was too late. After offering me a cake, which I declined due to the rising vomit (thanks fight or flight), she stage whispered to me “it’s so lovely to see you, there were rumours that you’d given up on being a wife!” 

Hah hah hah hah… 

I had NEVER met this woman before.

I have never before or since been presented with such an obvious example of the judgement new mother’s face or the challenges of maintaining your own career while being an active (and proud) member of the military community. 

You see, I AM career-focused. AND I am family-focused. I support my spouse AND I have my own projects. I also have huge respect for both working AND “stay at home” parents. But humans often really struggle to accept the ANDs. 

We are programmed to try and categorize ourselves and each other so that we can decide whether any person is “with us” or “against us.” In this case, the “people” who had reportedly been talking about me felt I must be “against” their way of life because I was doing something different by going to work. This way of thinking helped us when we lived in caves but it can certainly make life as a military spouse hard if we don’t take action.

Why do we judge ourselves and others?

As we have spoken about in previous blogs our brains are ancient pieces of kit that were designed for a very different way of life. Our cave person brain still worries that if we are not safe in the middle of a pack of other humans we are vulnerable to being a snack for the next sabre tooth tiger that comes along. The fear of being chucked out or exiled from our social groups is deep inside of us. One way we make sure that WE are not going to be chucked out is by making a big show of how well WE fit in with the rest of the group. The problem is the easiest way of doing this is by showing how badly someone else fits in. 

If you have kids and they come home from school having been left out of the cool gang you can tell them honestly that it isn’t about them. All humans have this need to exclude others in order to protect their own position. Kids just aren’t very subtle about it.

Since we developed language, making judgements about people has been one of the ways in which we decide what groups they fit into and, most importantly whether they are “with us” or “against us.”  When we are happy and content (in our soothing systems) we are unlikely to feel the need to judge other people much. We don’t need it because we are secure and content that we are safe within our group. When life gets hard, when we worry about our status or that we can’t fulfil our roles within our group, THAT is when we are likely to start judging other people harshly, and maybe even being mean towards them. We do it to take attention away from the stuff about ourselves that we are ashamed of. 

In our attempt to try and keep ourselves in favour with our pack we also turn the voice of judgement on ourselves when we feel threatened. We examine everything we do to check if we are breaking social rules and risking exclusion and we speak to ourselves very harshly if we detect that we are falling short of an invisible standard. 

Why is there judgement in the military community?

I don’t think you need me to spell out why judgement is likely to happen a lot in the military community. There are many good reasons that we often feel under threat. The most significant of these is that we often don’t have the safety net of close family and friends who have known us through our lives. 

Here are some other situations many of us have experienced that are likely to make us feel threatened and increase our need to judge ourselves and others:

Being made to feel unimportant (sometimes by others and very often by the system)

Being compared, or comparing ourselves, to civilian friends who have had different opportunities (particularly career opportunities)

Stereotypes that make us feel like failures when we can’t live up to them (“strong mother” or “perfect wife” for example)

Uncertainty about the future, where we will be living and what access to support we will have

Reduced contact with people who love us

The pressure to make new friends quickly when we move to a new area

This explains why, if your experiences are similar to mine, you might have heard people being judgemental about each other around the patch (or online nowadays).

Why are we so harsh on women who work?

Society sends very mixed messages about women and work. We are told we SHOULD have careers at the same time as being told that we SHOULD be at home full time. No woman can win. For this reason every woman I know, whatever her life choices, feels judged by someone. As a result of the constant pressure from society it is very easy to trigger our threat systems. This is why work can be a particularly thorny issue around the patch. If someone is feeling judged for their own choices they are very likely to try and take attention away from themselves, by judging you. 

 

I have talked about women here because women in our culture are more likely to be judged for working than men and the focus of this blog series is around returning to employment and mental health. However, it is worth noting that men and people who identify as non-binary face their own, equally damaging pressures and judgements. They are just as damaging but different.

How do we respond to feeling judged? 

If we detect that we are judged by others or we start having highly judgemental thoughts about ourselves our brains and bodies are programmed to take this VERY seriously and several mechanisms from the threat system (fight/flight and freeze) will jolt into action to try and get us back into the “good books.”

Shame. This is the most common reaction and the one that is most harmful to our mental health. When we feel ashamed we want to make ourselves as small and insignificant as possible, we don’t want to be seen or heard. We just want the ground to swallow us up. Shame is different to guilt because we don’t even want to make things right, we just want to hide. If we feel like this it is easy to become depressed and anxious. We are likely to stop doing the things that give our lives meaning because we are so fearful of what others will think or we believe we are not good enough to even try. This was my response at that coffee morning I mentioned in the last blog. I bowed my head, muttered some polite words about needing to change my daughter’s nappy and ran away burning with shame. 

Aggression. Ever seen a bust-up in a pub? What is it nearly always about? RESPECT (aka status in the pack). Sometimes if we feel we are being judged negatively and are therefore at risk of being excluded from our pack we can respond with a fight response. This will typically involve lashing out (verbally or physically) before we have a chance to think about it.

Sometimes we can be so afraid of the judgement of others that we avoid it at all costs. We never take opportunities or pursue things that might make others critical of us or compromise our ability to fulfil a role we have set for ourselves. For example, when we were kids my sister would never go into the town centre on her own because she was so scared of being judged as a loner.

What do you notice about all of these responses? 

They hold us back, they limit the opportunities we feel free to take and they usually make modern life worse in the long run.

Thanks brain….  

The first step in reducing the pain that judgement causes us is to notice it happening and to realise that it is not really about you at all. 

Next week we will look at some practical strategies you can use to help when you feel you are being judged by those around you and when you are judging yourself harshly.

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