(Before reading this post, you may want to read Parts 1 and 2 of the series posted November 17, 2017, and November 19, 2017, respectively)
For the rest of this piece, I’m going to use the term “right-ness” to refer to the pathological or excessive need to be “right.” That stands in contrast to the normal and healthy drive that most human beings have at varying levels to perform well and be seen as competent and knowledgeable. It is also normal and healthy to want your children, employees, church members, etc., to do well and to strive toward excellence. It’s similar to the use of alcohol. There is a healthy way to drink alcohol, and then there is problem drinking.
What are the Functions of “Right-ness?”
(What Motivates “Right” People?)
- It functions to keep “right” people from having to make changes to how they operate. Several years ago, Bob Jones University hired G.R.A.C.E. to review how the school had been handling cases involving sexual abuse and assault. The report published by G.R.A.C.E. after the review was conducted, which is publicly available online, recommended several key changes for the school including methods of counseling and disciplining students and two major personnel changes in top-tier leadership positions. The school did little besides affirm that they had been in the “right” all along. They made none of the personnel changes, and they reaffirmed that their methods of counseling students are “Biblical” and would not be changed. Calling something “Biblical” apparently makes it “right.” Never mind that scores of former students have decried these “Biblical” methods as abusive and unhelpful. Anyway, the school has escaped without making desperately needed changes by appealing to their “right-ness,” which they see as bestowed upon them by God himself through the Bible.
- It functions to help “right” people stay in control. There was a couple I once encountered where the husband was very controlling. One evening, he came home from work to find his wife (who was a stay-at-home mom) was not at home, the house was messy, and dinner was not prepared. He became angry and prepared himself for what to say and do when his wife did come home. When she walked in the door she found her husband kneeling on the living-room floor with his head bowed and the Bible in his hands. Before she could explain what she had been up to, her husband began reading aloud the “submission” passage from Ephesians 5. Obviously, this had nothing to do with the Bible and everything to do with his needing to be in control. And how could the wife object? After all, her husband must have been in the “right” because he was quoting God’s word. And God can’t be wrong, right?
- It functions as a means of getting validated. As a young man, I worked for a “right” boss. There came a time during my employment during which my boss became the target of “attacks” from others at the organization. In retrospect, I realize that they weren’t attacking him, they were simply calling him out on his controlling behavior and narcissistic attitudes. But at the time, I needed my boss to validate me and approve of me, so I aggressively confronted those who were criticizing my boss. Soon thereafter, he and I were both gone from the organization.
- It functions to distract the “right” person from perceived personal deficits. As a child, I was a “third culture kid.” My parents were Americans, but I was brought up in Europe. Being neither fully American nor fully Portuguese, I wasn’t like anyone else in my peer group. As a result of my being “different,” I encountered a lot of ridicule and bullying by both American kids and Portuguese kids. I felt completely lost and alone, guessing there must have been something wrong with me to be on the receiving end of such rejection. So I learned how to be “right.” And I worked very hard at being “right.” Thinking, feeling, and doing the rights things gave me the validation I needed to offset the deep feelings of inadequacy I experienced. At least I was good at something. My “right-ness” was often reinforced by the accolades of the “right” leadership around me. As long as I was meeting with the approval of the “right” leadership, I could feel good about myself. Unfortunately, in my attempts to please the “right” leadership, I grew more and more distant from my peers…. After all, they weren’t “right” because they didn’t fall in line like I did.
- It functions to conceal low self-esteem or self-worth. “Right” people can seem very confident and self-assured. However, often “right” people try very hard to conceal whom they really are at their core. They may be terrified that they could be discovered for whom they really are if they lower the veil of “rightness.” Not to be “right” means they must face themselves… The self-doubt, fears of inadequacy, lack of intimacy with others, deep shame and false guilt, feeling lost, second-guessing themselves, lack of life-purpose and meaning.
- It functions as a way to earn God’s blessings and favor. The prosperity gospel feeds on the idea that living the “right” way leads to personal gain. A variation of the prosperity gospel endorses the idea that living “right” means you will be happy. Which, in turn, implies that if you are not happy you are not living “right.” What horrible garbage for a depressed or anxious person to hear!
- It functions as a means to avoid scrutiny and accountability. This speaks to the fragility of living a “right” life. It takes only one misstep to enable others to see the shortcomings and deficits the “right” person is trying to keep concealed. Right people cannot stand it when they are challenged. When others confront them about something, they often try to discredit the confronter in one way or another. When people come to “right” leaders about a problem they see in the system or about the leaders themselves, the confronter is made out to be the problem. As long as focus is away from the “right” person, all is well in paradise.
- It functions to help “right” people hold on to power. Power left unchecked has a way of being abused or misused. Maintaining power allows “right” people to use their power to get what they want. As long as they are “right” no one will question their motives.
- It functions to maintain conformity in others. “Right” people use their “right-ness” to guilt and shame “wrong” people into falling in line. “Right” leaders may give or withhold approval as a way as manipulating the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of others. In fundamentalism one means of imposing guilt and shame in the effort to silence “wrong” people, is what fundamentalism calls the “Doctrine of Separation.” If you are “wrong,” others in the church or other organization are encouraged to separate from you and treat you as a sinner until you “repent,” essentially taking away a major part of your support network and friend base.
- It functions as an excuse to dismiss the opinions of others and possibly mistreat them for being “wrong.” Being “right” in a “right-ness” based system is emotional and relational currency. The degree to which one is “right” is correlative to how much power and validation s/he is given by the system. In such systems, it is often accepted that a “right” person be given the option of using their power/control in the system to criticize and silence dissenters.
The Undesirable Effects of “Right-ness”
- “Right-ness” leads those who are “wrong” to self-doubt and shut down and live in silent shame.
- Being right takes a lot of energy and people burn out trying to be right. Everyone is exhausted.
- “Right-ness” gets in the way of true intimacy with others. In part, because being right is often fear-based. And fear and love do not exist together…. They are mutually exclusive. Also, “right-ness” often leads to the concealment of one’s true self, and intimacy requires vulnerability.
- “Right-ness” gets in the way of doing what’s effective. People or organizations can get stuck in the quagmire of having to be “right” to the degree to which they fail to make changes and adapt to the world around them.
- “Right-ness” can lead to ongoing, unresolved conflict when there are multiple “right” people in the same system (be it families, churches, or other systems).
- “Right-ness” demands that you have a “right” answer for everything. So, “right” people tend to listen in order to respond rather than to connect and understand.
- “Right-ness” isolates people. In “right” systems or relationships, “wrong” people are forced to the fringes.
- “Right-ness” keeps gifts and talents of “wrong” people from being used well.
- “Right-ness” causes “wrong” people to lose their right to question and think freely.
- “Right-ness” can make us focus on our differences instead of on things we have in common.
- “Right” systems are emotionally unsafe systems.
- “Right-ness” cultivates dependency. People are conditioned not to think for themselves and to become dependent on the “right” people to tell them how to think, feel, and act.