I’ve heard the phrase “trust your first impressions” or “your first impressions are usually right,” but I beg to differ.
My first impressions are invariably wrong. I can’t help myself with the “quick to judgment” thing. I view, summarize and categorize in nanoseconds.
It happens before I even know I’m stereotyping, and before I even have time to think reasonably, I’ve placed the object of my judgment in a physical, intellectual and moral classification. OK. That’s the bad news. I’m not proud of my judgmental, narrow-mindedness, but there is good news.
I used to think I was right, and the process would stop right there. Now I’ve added several things to the checklist.
First on the list is to actually speak to the person and, heaven forbid, get to know them. Second is to suspend judgment and accept differences as … well … different, rather than wrong.
Third is to recognize that it is usually the fear of differences that motivates my judgmental self, and so I remind myself what I’ve come to know: that people are fundamentally good and kind (albeit there are some bad folks out there, but they are in the vast minority) and, most crucial of all, they’re not out to get me. I’m not that big of a deal.
It’s easy to go through life waiting for people to treat me the way I think I ought to be treated and to agree with me, but it’s a little harder to treat others the way I want to be treated and to listen (even if I disagree) to their point of view.
As I get to know the Person (with a capital P), I almost always find out how wrong I’ve been. Not all vegetarians are skinny, not all farmers wear bib overalls and talk about the weather, not all kids who like video games have Asperger syndrome, everybody older than 80 doesn’t have Alzheimer’s disease, and not all cab drivers are trying to run up the meter and rip me off. I could go on, but I think you get the point.
I’ve learned that judgment and stereotyping separate us from each other, while listening, accepting and understanding bring us closer. I’d like to think that even though I might not have a great track record, I’m a little slower to judge, a little more likely to respond rather than react, and a little more likely to listen to the whole story before beginning the debate.
I’d like to think that I’m a little less afraid of differences and a little more tolerant of attitudes I don’t understand; a little more likely to ask questions than to assume a black-and-white, right-or-wrong position.
I’d like to think I’m a little less self-righteous. I’d like to think that my attitude toward my fellows is less fearful and more loving. I’d rather be kind and generous and get hurt than be cynical and miserly and be right.
There’s a phrase in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “We have ceased fighting everyone and everything.”
I think that’s a pretty good goal.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show “Straight Stuff on Addictions” at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.