When the Need to be Right Can be So Wrong (Part 1)

Everyone, it seems, wants to be right.  I mean, who wants to be wrong?  Some of us spend a lot of time and energy trying to do things the right way, be on the right side of an argument, be right about how one parents his/her children, be right about politics, be right about religious beliefs, etc.

While wanting to be right about something isn’t necessarily pathological, an addiction of sorts to “right-ness” can create some problems that manifest in various ways. I want to spend some time here addressing some of those problems and the ways they manifest.

For starters, “right-ness” can create a landscape where conformity is valued more than questioning, creativity, and thinking outside the box.  Innocently enough, unintended problems can begin very early in life as parents try to teach their kids what is and isn’t ok to do, think, or feel.  Conformity is rewarded, while questioning is often punished.  In our schools, students are frequently rewarded for doing it “right” and having the “right” answers rather than for having the most creative and thoughtful questions or challenges to the teacher’s positions.  So, kids pick up early that conformity is rewarded and they benefit the most when they fall in line with the positions held by those in authority, such as teachers, parents, and clergy persons.  To fall in line means acceptance and validation while challenging the status quo meets with considerable opposition and at times rejection and criticism.

To quote Marsha Linehan, “No one owns the truth.” Black and white thinking can create all kinds of problems.  In that kind of thinking, one is either all right or all wrong.  The truth is that everyone’s position has some merit and value.  Open-minded thinking acknowledges that.  Another manifestation of black and white thinking is that it shields us from finding common ground with others with whom we disagree on some point or another.  Black and white thinking leads to a place where if someone is wrong on one thing, they must be wrong on just about everything else.  Similarly, if someone is “right” about something or another, then that person must be right about most everything (the halo effect), setting the “right” person up to be the gold standard by which others are judged.

In many circles, it is considered ok to dismiss or reject someone if they are deemed “wrong” on something.  I’ve seen this happen in religious circles (fundamentalism specifically) especially.  It is as though there is an assumption that it is ok to mistreat someone if you happen to be right and they happen to be wrong.  In those kinds of systems you may be sidelined or dismissed if you don’t fully endorse the positions of the powers that be.  Or worse, you may be rejected and publicly criticized.  Often this dynamic is very subtle.  Black and white thinking may be so pervasive in a given system that even the victims may accept that they are wrong and there must be something wrong with them, otherwise they would agree with the party line.  These folks may learn to doubt themselves and be overly critical of themselves (and of others who don’t conform).

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