What do I get out of being right?

by Pace on January 21, 2009

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Chapter 26: What do I get out of being right?

Being Right

Our desire to be right can cloud our judgment. It can make us act harshly, unfairly, or angrily. It can even make us follow through with something we no longer want to do, simply so we can feel right. At times like this it helps to ask yourself, “What do I get out of being right?” The answer might surprise you and you might end up making a decision that will make you happier in the long run.

As with most things, it’s a matter of perspective. We’re taught that being wrong is bad and shameful. We learn to maintain an illusion of infallibility even when we’re insecure on the inside. It’s no wonder we get attached to being right — or more precisely, to being perceived as right.

Pace’s Story: Privacy vs. Secrecy

There’s a moment that sometimes happens to me in the middle of an argument. It’s the moment when I suddenly realize that I’m wrong. I might keep arguing, I might even go on to “win,” but deep down I know I’ve already lost — I knew it the moment that sinking feeling hit me in the pit of my stomach. Still, it can be tough to stop, to let it go. I feel like I lost and that makes me a loser. I’ll tell you a story of a time when the moment hit me hard, and what happened when I kept fighting anyway.

Kyeli and I were discussing the difference between privacy and secrecy. I’d been having some email conversations with someone else, and when Kyeli asked what we were talking about, I got huffy and defensive, saying, “It’s private.”

She seemed confused and said, “But in our wedding vows, we promised not to have secrets from each other.”

“It’s not secret, Kyeli, it’s private.

“Well, if you don’t want to share it with me, that seems like a secret from my point of view.”

“If you trusted me, you would respect my privacy, and you wouldn’t need me to tell you what I’m talking about with friends in email conversations!”

It only got worse from there. I tried to explain the difference between privacy and secrecy, but I wasn’t doing a good job because I felt defensive. I didn’t care about helping Kyeli understand as much as I cared about being right.

But then the moment struck. I had put all this effort into bolstering my defenses, building up my towers of reason and logic and definitions, but when the moment hit, it suddenly all felt hollow. And when my arguments rang hollow to myself, I was finally forced to look within — to look for the true reason that I was acting so hostile and defensive.

The true reason was that I felt that I was doing something wrong.

I thought that the email conversation had gone into (or maybe a little past) the gray area near the boundaries of what Kyeli and I had agreed was okay. We had an agreement in place to tell each other about important things, and the email conversation had gradually crossed the line over to important. I felt that I had trespassed on forbidden ground, so I was just trying to cover my ass so I wouldn’t get caught.

All this talk about privacy and secrecy — this entire conversation — had been beating around the bush of what was actually going on. Yes, I value privacy, but in this case it was just a convenient defense to hide from the real issue.

But I couldn’t admit that to myself. Even though the moment struck, even though I felt the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I couldn’t face the possibility of being wrong. So I turned back to my walls and towers and definitions and continued to fight.

Fifteen minutes and many hurt feelings later, I finally asked myself, “What am I getting out of being right?” The answer in this case was “Nothing worth all this hurt and conflict, and nothing worth avoiding the real issue.” So I gave up the ghost.

Kyeli, who had been hurt by my verbal attacks, was understandably in the William James zone, so it took her a while to get into a place where she could listen. But after that, when I felt ready to talk about the real issue and she felt ready to listen, everything got better. I apologized for being defensive and hurting her. I admitted what I felt I had done wrong and we talked about it in detail. We talked about privacy and secrecy, and we understood each other! Now that I was no longer attached to being right, honest and open communication flowed freely.

Now that we were back on the same team, we were able to work things out in a way that met both our needs. I got to keep my privacy and we got rid of anything that smelled of secrecy. It ended up win/win, all because I asked myself “What do I get out of being right?”

What does being right really mean? What do we actually win?

There are two common answers to these questions, one based in self-esteem and one based in the esteem of others. When we are right, we feel good about ourselves. We feel validated. We feel that we are smart and that we have good judgment. Those are nice feelings. Also, when we are right, others think highly of us. We learn that others are more likely to respect us and think well of us if we’re consistently correct.

When the answer to “What do I get out of being right?” is “I get to feel good about myself,” the problem boils down to a balancing of desires. Insisting that you are right may hurt your partner’s feelings. Insisting that you are right may blind you to something useful that your partner is saying. On one hand, how great are these risks? On the other hand, how important is feeling good about yourself? Consider the relative importance of these things, and you will know what to do.

When the answer to “What do I get out of being right?” is “I get the respect of others,” the problem again boils down to a balancing of desires. Is the respect of others the most important thing to you in this situation? Or does what you want outweigh what others might think?

Allison & Billy and Corey & Donovan’s Example: Religion vs. Polka

Allison and Billy have stress in their relationship because they practice different religions and can’t agree about how to raise their future children. Their friends Corey and Donovan have stress in their relationship because Corey adores polka dancing and wants to dance it with Donovan, but Donovan can’t stand polka.

Allison breaks up with Billy. She feels justified because she knows her friends will support her decision. People generally recognize religious differences as a “big deal” and as a justifiable reason to break up with someone. Allison will be perceived as being right, so she’s not afraid to break up with Billy.

Corey chooses not to break up with Donovan. She fears that her friends would not support her if she did dump him. People don’t generally consider polka a “big deal,” so Corey fears being ridiculed by her friends, even though polka is more important to Corey than religion is to Allison. Corey would not be perceived as being right, and her fear of that was strong enough to keep her in an unhappy relationship.

Asking yourself, “What do I get out of being right?” doesn’t work if you presume the answer. Sometimes the answer will be “nothing, really” and you can choose to let go of your attachment to being right with little effort. However, sometimes what you get out of being right is important: a more stable relationship, acknowledgment of a job well done, or deeper trust.

Kyeli’s Story: Being Right About Nalia

I’m usually not attached to being right; I’m more interested in resolving conflict and moving toward everyone feeling better. For a long time, I couldn’t understand what was so important about being right, nor could I understand others’ attachment to it.

Then, a situation occurred which made me get it. Pace was interested in dating this girl, Nalia. Neither of us knew Nalia well, but what I knew of her was negative. I felt like she was nothing but bad news and that adding her to our lives would only cause trouble.

Pace and I argued over this for several weeks. We went on and on, back and forth. I wanted to be right! And when I asked myself what I was going to get out of being right, the answer was “a healthier, happier, more stable relationship with Pace.” I remained firm in my stance on Nalia.

After a while, Nalia made it easier for me. In an email to Pace, she expressly stated several blatantly false things about me, and told Pace that, if she was smart, she’d end her relationship with me and get out while she still could. Pace read the email, discussed it with me, and realized that I had been right all along. Nalia did not respect our relationship and was clearly out to make things between me and Pace rocky, if not end things altogether. Pace chose to end her friendship with Nalia and we went on with our lives.

What if you ask yourself, “What am I getting out of being right?” and the answer is simply “not being wrong”? Relax! There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Everyone is wrong sometimes; it’s not possible to be right 100% of the time. Being the one who “knows what’s right” for someone else is often a way to force your opinions and way of thinking on them.

Regardless of the answer you find when you ask yourself what you get out of being right, the most important thing is for your answer to be true. Simply asking the question can help give you a better understanding of your motivations, and that will help you make better decisions.

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