The Difference Between Judgment and Discernment

The Difference Between Judgment and Discernment

By  Lissa Rankin MD

Guest Writer for Wake Up World

Judgment or  Discernment?

He cheated on his wife with a much younger employee.  She abandoned her newborn baby.  He drinks until he beats his children.  She manipulates her feminine wiles to get what she wants from men.  He took their hard-earned money and then squandered it for selfish motives.  She killed him.  He raped her.  She sells her body for money.  He heads up a sex trafficking ring.  She molests children.  He sells drugs to teenagers…

You might judge all of these people, labeling them as “immoral” or “wrong”. But as I described in my recent article Are You “Spiritual But Not Religious?”,  I think spirituality is largely about choosing to withhold judgment, trusting that everyone’s soul is on its own journey, learning what it’s here to learn (and teach), and everyone is entitled to their own journey.

I’m in no way condoning such behaviors, but what if, instead of your judgment, you could perceive these individuals as suffering beings and offer them your love and compassion instead? What if Reverend John Watson was right when he said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle?” What if we all grew our empathy muscles  instead of judging?  

To Judge or Not to Judge?

As a child, I was raised to judge people who do “bad” things. The Methodist church told me these people would go to hell. Most of my family members taught me that only “good” people go to heaven and that I’d better be good myself if I want to go to heaven too.

But what if people who make choices like this were themselves raped, abused, or abandoned when they were young? What if they know not what they do?

Loving and accepting those who violate others is not about condoning the behavior or even tolerating it in your own life. It also doesn’t mean that there aren’t consequences to this kind of behavior. Having compassion for those who engage in such behaviors doesn’t mean you must stay married to these people or even allow them into your social circle. It’s not only your right to set boundaries in the face of these kinds of behaviors; it’s imperative.

But boundaries can exist in the absence of judgment. You can set limits that protect you and your loved ones without making someone wrong. Remember, judgment only burdens the judger. The minute you judge others, you lower your own vibration and step out of the vibration of love, which is the frequency of miracles. Judgment itself is the ultimate violation of all spiritual principles. Love and judgment simply cannot coexist. But love and discernment can.

Judge Your Neighbor

Byron Katie  teaches what she calls “The Work” as a way to enter into spiritual inquiry around your judgments of others. As you can learn by filling out her free “Judge Your Neighbor” worksheets (download one here), most of our judgments of others are actually judgments of disavowed shadow parts of ourselves. If you’re pointing a finger at someone else, it’s probably because it triggers something you don’t like about yourself. You’re probably not a serial killer or rapist, but perhaps you’re always killing your creativity or violating your integrity or raping your truth. Once you open yourself to self-compassion and forgiveness, compassion for the neighbor you judge follows.

I’ll be interviewing Byron Katie about this process as part of the bonus material for my upcoming National Public Television special The Fear Cure, so watch out for it in February 2015! Or read her books if you’re interested in learning more.

Judgment Versus Discernment

So what’s the difference between judgment and discernment?

Judgment says “You are bad so I don’t love you”. Discernment says “I love you and choose to set boundaries to limit my exposure to you”. Judgment closes the heart. Discernment allows it to stay wide open but protected with clear boundaries.

Discernment is the ultimate form of self care. It’s a way of promising yourself to only allow into your inner circle those who vibrate at the same frequency as you. It’s a promise to yourself to only stay close to those who respect your boundaries, treat you with kindness, choose to behave guided by integrity, and know how to love you with their own open heart. This doesn’t mean you can’t hang out with people who choose to behave in ways you might not like. You can absolutely love and have compassion for people who might make choices you don’t agree with. But you’ll likely wind up in more of a mentoring role with these individuals — which is perfectly fine — but if you’re choosing to mentor someone, check your motivations.  

It’s perfectly appropriate to serve others as long as you’re clean in your motivation and it’s coming from a place of worthiness and self love. But you may find this hard to do as you first begin your spiritual journey. These individuals probably won’t serve you as members of your core inner circle tribe when you’re in the vulnerable beginning phases of walking your unique spiritual path. You may find it healthier and kinder to yourself to keep a little distance at first, at least until you’ve developed enough in your own spiritual growth to be able to be in the presence of lower vibration individuals without having it lower your own vibration.

It’s a  Phase of Development

Don’t worry. You won’t need to do this forever. As you grow in your capacity to BE LOVE, you’ll find that you may be able to be close to others who are not where you are in your spiritual growth, even those you behave in ways that may be out of alignment with your own sense of integrity, without being negatively affected by their presence. Once you’re able to maintain clear energetic boundaries around those who operate at a lower vibration, your ability to hold your own vibration steady in the presence of others increases.

This doesn’t mean you’re required to let close those who choose to engage in harmful behaviors. It’s even okay to boundary against or discern into your outer circle those individuals who aren’t interested in moving beyond egoic consciousness. You might choose to grant yourself permission to only stay close to others who, like you, are committed to the spiritual path. It’s okay if you choose to do this! As Martha Beck once said to me, “Choose relationships that cultivate the stillness in you.” If you’re surrounded by drama, opt out. There’s no need to keep people close in your life just because you feel bad for distancing yourself. If you’re motivated to stay in a relationship because you feel pity for someone, that should be a red flag to you that your motivation isn’t clean. It’s okay to grant yourself the yummy factor of only choosing to be close with those who are also committed to staying in alignment with their own integrity as they try to let their souls, not their egos, take the lead.

Discernment Increases Compassion

In Brene Brown’s research, she found that the most compassionate people were those with the highest boundaries. Because they protect their own boundaries, they can walk around with an unguarded heart while still feeling safe. If you feel like closing your heart is the only way to keep others out, you’ll wind up practicing less compassion.

Try seeing what it feels like to withhold judgment, open your heart, and practice discernment. You just might find yourself experiencing an unbearable lightness of being. If nothing else, you’ll be free of the burden of judgment and can open yourself to more connection and a sense of Oneness with those around you.


Previous articles by Lissa Rankin:

About the author:

lissa_rankinLissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the  Whole Health Medicine Institute  training program for physicians and health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of  Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.

Lissa blogs at  and also created two online communities –  and  She is also the author of two other books, a speaker, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. She  lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.

Connect with Lissa on  Facebook  and  Twitter, or visit


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