Why Do Some People Have the Need to be Right?
Being Open Minded – You Can Rise No Higher Than Your Lowest Opinion of Another
Children need food and water. Their survival depends on that. But they also need recognition, acceptance, and love. Their emotional health depends on that. Just as plants that are insufficiently watered wither and die or have their growth stunted, children who are denied sufficient love grow up wounded. Their wounds are painful. Unless they learn how to heal themselves, they will look for temporary relief.
Wounded children grow up and become wounded adults. Since no one taught us how to heal ourselves, we seek momentary relief by always trying to be right. Yes, many of us have a need to be right all the time. For we associate being right with being worthy. Suppose you and I engaged in a conversation and I strongly disagreed with everything you said, how would you feel? The average person would feel threatened and insecure, for if I challenge your ideas, I’m challenging you.
If I treated your ideas as worthless, wouldn’t I be suggesting that you, too, are worthless? Why would I do that? Well, we criticize others to feel better about ourselves. So, in order to make up for the love that I was denied as a child, I attack you, a perfectly innocent person! Not that I want to punish you; I just want you to admit that I am right and you are wrong, for in doing so, I will get the recognition and approval I desperately seek.
Even if I were to get you to admit I am right, all I would succeed in doing is to transfer my pain to you. My relief would come at your expense. So, regardless who wins the argument, we both lose because our relationship would suffer. We are only as strong or as weak as our relationships, so it doesn’t make any sense to damage them. When dealing with co-workers, friends, and family, we have to ask ourselves, do I want to be right and weaker or agreeable and stronger; do I want to think about me or do I want to think about we?
Besides weakening our relationships, insisting on being right has the awful consequence of transforming us into the person we don’t want to be. You see, we become arrogant, self-righteous, and sanctimonious. Our narrow-minded and know-better-than-you attitude drives people away.
It’s not only people we drive away. We also drive away knowledge. For by refusing to consider the opinions of others, we slam the door on new ideas. One of the greatest thinkers of our time, Edward de Bono, had this to say, “The need to be right all the time is the biggest bar to new ideas. It is better to have enough ideas for some of them to be wrong than to be always right by having no ideas at all.”
When someone expresses opinions that differ from yours, there is good reason to stop and listen. After all, you can be wrong! Think back; how many of the ideas that you held ten years ago have you changed? It’s impossible for us to improve without changing for the better. Our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs also need changing. Sometimes they need to be replaced. Other times they merely need to be broadened or improved by commingling the ideas of others with our own.
When we remain open-minded and willingly embrace the ideas of others, we participate in our own self-growth. And as we see ourselves improve, we raise our level of self-esteem, thereby decreasing our need to always be right. Also, by welcoming the ideas of others, we increase their confidence. Those who need to be right depend on others for their self-esteem. They need to have others recognize and approve of them. But as we grow increasingly interested in doing right, rather than being right, we boost our confidence and self-respect and are no longer dependent on others for our own happiness.
So, always try to be open-minded. When others speak, don’t look for points to disagree with, but look for wisdom that you can add to your own. The open-minded see the truth in different things, but the narrow-minded see only the differences. We need our differences. For they provide us with more options and possibilities, making us stronger and wiser.
Another reason for welcoming our differences is that they offer an opportunity to give the treasured gifts of tolerance and acceptance to others. By relinquishing our right to be right and turning over power to others we grant them the right to be themselves. One can hardly offer anyone a greater gift. If, despite our urge to be right, we act generously, we will discover the exciting truth that we have enough inner strength to conquer our vulnerabilities. As our mentality changes from victim to victor, our self-doubts slowly dissolve.
Another discovery we will make is that it is only after recognizing and accepting others that we will finally find the recognition and acceptance we have been looking for. Yet another discovery is that our bad habits do not have to define us, for we can change our thoughts and behaviour at any time.
The path to change involves being aware of our thoughts and asking the right questions. For example, if you find yourself constantly arguing with your spouse, you need to ask yourself, “Do I want to be right or do I want to be happy? Do I want to be an individual who is always right or do I want to be part of a loving relationship? Do I want to be right and hurtful or do I want to be accepting and caring. Do I wish to take what I can from this relationship and weaken it or do I wish to contribute what I can to it and strengthen it?
Ralph constantly gets irritated by his wife’s “stupid” questions. She asks him about things that she already knows the answer to. That upsets Ralph because it is “illogical” to ask about what you already know. But it is Ralph who is illogical because his anger is driving a wedge between him and his wife, Courtney. Does that make any sense? What Ralph did not understand is that Courtney was not asking questions, she was merely making conversation. She was expressing her love by inviting her husband to speak. She was working on building the relationship, which is the logical thing to do.
Perhaps we can’t all be experts on the differences between the way men and women think, but we don’t have to be. All we have to do is respect others and abandon our need to be right. As long as we do the right thing, things will work out right. Finally, be careful of what you think of others, for you can rise no higher than your lowest opinion of another.
Delving More Deeply
You’re a human and so am I. There’s no argument there. The sky is blue and the grass is green. There’s no argument there either. After all, they’re facts, and we’re all in agreement with them. But why do so many of us have a need to be ‘right’ regarding opinions? A man driving in LA is outraged by another driver cutting him off. In his opinion, the driver who cut him off is unbearably rude. “I’ll show him,” he thinks, as he now tries to cut off the ‘rude’ driver. This incident explodes into a full-blown case of road rage, which leads to an accident and the death of the outraged driver. He might have been ‘right,’ but now he’s dead right. Does it make any sense to fight to the death over an opinion? Besides, how could the dead driver be ‘right’ when his behaviour was wrong?
An obsessive need to be ‘right’ is irrational, but, sadly, very common. For instance, what makes one believe that our neighbors are incompetent to think for themselves and need to be ‘saved’ by our own brand of religion? And if they refuse to recognize our merciful God, we can always kill them! It’s like an anti-abortionist who preaches about the sanctity of life and then murders a doctor who performs abortions. Why do we kill one another for having different opinions?
Some of us get easily upset in the workplace. We insist that others do things the ‘right’ (our) way. Yet, isn’t it more important to do the right thing than do things right? The high divorce rate suggests that married life is another arena for the clash of opinion. Something as trivial as how one’s spouse squeezes the tube of toothpaste is enough to cause anger in some people. Quick, answer this question. What is the ‘right’ way to squeeze a tube of toothpaste? From the middle or from the end of the tube? Well, half of those who were surveyed in a university study answered, “From the middle,” and the other half said, “From the end of the tube.” So, no matter which opinion you hold, you were not ‘right’ in the mind of half of those surveyed. Can you see how ludicrous, how irrational, it is to demand that others share our opinions?
There are many reasons to give up our addiction to being ‘right.’ First, consider what we are doing when we make pronouncements that you are either for me or against me, or that it’s my way or the highway, or that I’m ‘right’ and you’re ‘wrong.’ Aren’t we being arrogant, combative, self-righteous, presumptuous, judgmental, narrow-minded, and alienating? Aren’t such attitudes divisive and dysfunctional? Don’t they disrupt harmony and peace and lead to conflict and suffering?
When I insist that I’m ‘right,’ I slam the door of my mind. I remain locked in past beliefs. I stop growing and have a shallow understanding of the world and limited choice. But if I change my focus from what IS ‘right’ to what is, something magical happens. The moment I accept the fact that others have different views and willingly consider them, rather than fight them, I am transformed. Transformed from a prisoner to an adventurer and explorer. By opening myself to all ideas, I open my life to infinite possibilities. And on that day, I discover what it is to be rich.
To be dead right is to be dead. To be cut off from the untold riches of life. It is also to be unhappy. For it is impossible to control the thoughts and opinions in the minds of others. So, when they fail to live up to our demand for agreement, we feel frustrated and disappointed. Does it make any sense to follow the road to unhappiness?
If the demand to be ‘right’ is self-defeating, why do we engage in it? One reason is the discomfort of uncertainty. Living in a world of uncertainty makes some feel like the earth is crumbling beneath their feet. There is no stability, nothing to hang on to (except their opinions and beliefs). Yet, when we change our perspective and think of uncertainty as surprise, wonder, awe, growth, opportunity, and delight, we can embrace it. Another reason for tenaciously clinging to our opinions is the fear that changing them would lead to the loss of our identity. But we are not our opinions. We are people who hold opinions and can let them go if we choose to. When we learn from others, we don’t lose our identity, we expand, enhance, and enrich it. A third reason for wanting to be ‘right’ is low self-esteem. Some need to show off their ‘superiority’ to compensate for their feelings of inferiority. They are afraid of appearing stupid and need the approval of others. But the way to grow superior is by opening one’s mind, not by closing it.
To awaken from the delusion that our opinion is the only ‘right’ one, all one has to do is study history and the evolution of science. For when we do, we will quickly learn that we are fallible creatures. Even the brightest minds changed their opinions on innumerable occasions. In fact, that’s how they grew so bright, by integrating opinions that at first appeared diametrically opposed. And by willingly adding the opinions of others to their own. They weren’t afraid of accepting new ideas and making mistakes.
Here’s how Lewis Thomas explains it in his book The Medusa and the Snail, “Mistakes are at the very base of human thought, embedded there, feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack for being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as often as the right ones. We get along in life this way.”
When the populace of a certain village were evenly divided on the ‘right’ way to punish a disobedient child, they decided to seek council with the village elder. The spokesman for Opinion A gave his view to the elder. As the others listened in silence, the elder spoke, “You are right.”
While maintaining his decorum, but visibly upset, the spokesman for Opinion B said, “But Wise One, you have given your counsel before hearing from me!” He then shared his opinion with the elder. After listening to it, the Wise One said, “You are right.”
“But, Honorable One,” protested another villager, “you have just agreed with two opposing viewpoints!”
The Wise One turned his way and said, “You are right.”
We can never be right until we realize everyone is right. The truth is owned by none and shared by all. Whether you agree with this or not, “You are right.”
Little Bobby looked up and said, “Mommy, why do all the big people disagree and get angry with each other?”
“I don’t know,” she replied, “it’s always been that way. Maybe you can change things when you grow up.”
“How?” asked Bobby.
“Well,” she said, “Instead of trying to be right, try to be loving.”
Wire Your Brain for Confidence: The Science of Conquering Self-Doubt by Louisa Jewell
Get Out of Your Own Way: Overcoming Self-Defeating Behavior By Mark Goulston and Philip Goldberg