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A few years ago I wrote two articles called “What’s Wrong with Being Right?” And “Root Causes of the Need to Be Right.” Recently, a book by Wendy L. Watson (who is now Wendy Watson Nelson, the wife of our current prophet) made me realize how crucial and important this subject really is. In the chapter called “The Alienating Influence of Anger” she said:
Emotional violence has been defined as “holding an idea to be true, such that another’s idea is wrong and must change”. . . . When one spouse says—either directly or indirectly—“You must change your view,” emotional violence enters in. Requiring that your spouse must change his or her thoughts, feelings, or behavior is more than demanding—it is demonic! (Spiritual Truths about Intimacy that Will Strengthen Your Marriage, p. 65.)
Sister Nelson used unapologetically strong language in the above quote; however, we only need think of Satan’s determination to take away our agency to know her words are true. Of course those words would apply to interactions with anyone, not just spouses. Consequently, I’m going back to my articles for a summary of the most important ideas that may help us avoid contributing to, even a little situation that could be defined as emotionally violent.
Looking at Wendy’s definition, could I possibly say I have never tried to insist that someone else see things “my way?” How often do we do that about the most unimportant and mundane things? For example, my sister said that a certain street on the way to her daughter’s house went through. (She was sure it did because she had driven it.) I knew that street was a dead end because I had been there that very week and had to turn at the dead end. We were both appalled (and a little bit angry) that the other person wouldn’t believe something we had seen with our own eyes! Come to find out, we were both right. She was simply mistaken about the name of the street. The street she was thinking about DID go through. The one she named that I had been on recently DID NOT. We both learned that it is easy to be wrong about being right!
We asked ourselves why it had felt so important to each of us to get the other person to admit we were right. We realized we had let core life issues get involved, maybe because we had a father who wasn’t good at listening to points of view different from his own. Suddenly the issue hadn’t been whether the street goes through. The issue instead was not being listened to, not feeling validated, not having our opinion respected.
Would you rather be right or do right?
In all our relationships this is a valid question. We may know more about a subject than a friend or a spouse and we may be absolutely sure that our opinion is the right one. But the right thing to do may be to validate the other person by saying, “You could be right.” (Think how quickly I could have solved the problem with my sister if I had said that and let it drop.) No matter how sure we are to the contrary, the other person’s opinion could possibly be right. We don’t know for sure. Only God knows everything and has all facts at his disposal. Remembering that is key to humility.
The very day my article “What’s Wrong with Being Right” was posted on Meridian, I had a disagreement with my husband about the age of our cat. (You know, one of those vitally important questions of life!) I was right. I had all the data in my mind to prove that he was wrong, but he wouldn’t give in and I wouldn’t let it go. I burst into laughter as I realized what was happening. I was at it again. What difference in all of eternity does it make whether our cat is eight or nine years old? Yet, because I was so certain of my own “data” I was quite adamant about the whole thing and determined to convince Doug I was right.
“What different does it make?” is a good conflict-defusing question to ask ourselves any time we disagree. The only difference any conflict about mundane things makes is what we make of it. If core life issues are involved, differences of perceptions or differences in the way we remember things can turn into a mess of anxiety as we dump on each other and get angry over conflicts that don’t really matter at all.
Why do we see things so differently?
How I interpret everything that happens to me creates a filter or lens that I see everything through. That lens becomes more and more pronounced as time goes on because I tend to look for reinforcement for the ideas and conclusions I have about myself, others, and the world. The more I look for it, the more I find “proof” that things really are the way I have defined them.
Words and actions motivated by my desire to be right always come back to me distorted because I make something of them to feed my conclusions. For example, if I have concluded that others don’t pay attention to my opinions, I interpret all data that comes back to me to validate that conclusion. I discount anything to the contrary so I can keep being right about it. Such thought filters become a self-imposed prison when I gather data to support conclusions that are negative or simply not true.
The energy component
Trying to prove myself right in any situation is an energy-sucking competition. Power struggles and conflict drain energy. What makes it worse is that whenever I engage in energy-draining competition to be right I lose points on my IQ—I do and say stupid things because I’m not thinking clearly. Why? Because I have been triggered emotionally. A difference as unimportant as how old the cat is can trigger strong feelings of not having the right to my own opinions. My very well-being may feel threatened. I may subconsciously feel that the fight to be right about the age of my cat is really a fight for the right to be me.
Some of the ideas I’m about to share I first heard in a course taught by Kirt Soderquist. In one class, a married couple I will call Sharon and Don shared the energy-draining spiral they got into about alternative medicine. Because alternative treatments had helped Sharon enormously, she wanted to help and fix her husband by convincing him to walk that same path. Don said he felt resentful, mothered, pressured, cornered, and guilty. He said, “I knew she had my best interests in mind, but I felt compelled to argue against her strong opinions, even if I had no reason not to agree. I resented Sharon’s need to preach to me about what she felt so strongly about. (She was so sure she was right!) I tried to explain to her that teaching only makes a difference when the other person wants to listen. I resented being talked to about things I didn’t want to hear.”
We get emotionally triggered when someone insists we listen to things we aren’t ready for or just don’t want to hear. Many difficult feelings, such as resentment, may start to build up. No one ever feels more accepted and loved because of a bombardment of words. The words, no matter how true, start to feel like an attack. When a situation triggers an emotional buildup, the intellect shuts down and people tend to get active physically in order to release pent-up physical and emotional energy. Two-year-olds have temper tantrums. Us older two-year-olds might yell or scream or pound on a pillow or run out of the house and go work out at the gym.
You can’t reason with a drunk
“Love and Logic” parenting classes teach the motto: “never try to reason with a drunk.” A “drunk” child is one caught up in intense emotion. Think of Johnny running in after school, slamming the door and yelling “I hate my teacher!” and Mom saying “Now, Johnny, we should love everyone, and it’s probably your own fault if your teacher wasn’t nice to you today.” Is Johnny going to say, “Oh thank you, Mom. That little gem of wisdom suddenly makes me feel so much love for my teacher. I’m so grateful that you brought that to my attention.” Hardly. No matter how “right” his mother is, no matter how true her words may be, they are not ones he can hear when he is full of negative feelings. He is more likely to throw something, turn his anger on the parent, kick the cat, or run out of the house yelling, “Why do you always take the teacher’s side without even listening to me?”
Every parent has had the experience of trying to talk a child out of an intense, irrational feeling, with “right” words and found that they were simply throwing fuel on the fire. A child (of any age), when emotionally triggered is simply not able to be rational and certainly not able to learn or change a perception at that moment. Are adults any different? Some quickly become angry and turn the anger outward to the other person. Others turn the anger inward and withdraw. But we’re all irrational when caught up in negative emotion. When my deepest issues and fears are triggered, first I try hard to be right. I loudly defend myself. When that just makes things worse I shut down, shut other people out, feel bad about myself, and beat myself up. I may feel that I’ve blown it, that I’m flawed. I feel critical of myself and others. I entertain self-doubt—which means I invite it to stay and have a party! Can you imagine the futility of trying to reason me out of any of these feelings by giving me all the rational reasons I “shouldn’t” feel that way?
The fear component
I’ve learned that the central core issue of all negative emotional reactions—including an inordinate need to be right—is fear. When I’m fear-motivated I try too hard to look good, and fail. I try too hard to keep everyone happy, and fail. I try to be right and find that being right is the antithesis to having others happy with me—or being happy with myself. When I’m fear motivated I over-do, under-do, re-do, make excuses, feel unnecessary and unhealthy guilt. And of course I’m more conflict-prone and less likely to listen. Slowly, but steadily I have come to recognize that my fears are always the motivators for my need to be right and to defend myself and my opinions.
What are my most common fears? (Notice that many of them are opposite sides of the same coin.)
The pride component
Amazingly enough, while the root cause of our need to be right is fear, when we really look deeply, the root cause of fear is pride, often evidenced in a resistance to changing our perceptions. President Benson, in his classic talk “Beware of Pride,” said, “The proud wish God would agree with them. They aren’t interested in changing their opinions to agree with God’s.”
The Lord is always knocking on the door of our minds inviting us to see the truth—which so often includes an admission that our previous perceptions were wrong. President Benson’s definition of pride broadens our view. He said,
Pride is a sin that can readily be seen in others but is rarely admitted in ourselves. Most of us consider pride to be a sin of those on the top, such as the rich and the learned, looking down at the rest of us. (See 2 Ne. 9:42.) There is, however, a far more common ailment among us—and that is pride from the bottom looking up. It is manifest in so many ways, such as faultfinding, gossiping, backbiting, murmuring, living beyond our means, envying, coveting, withholding gratitude and praise that might lift another, and being unforgiving and jealous. (Ezra Taft Benson “Beware of Pride,” Ensign, May 1989, p. 4.)
From the above quote, I surmise that I can’t feel “inferior” unless I somehow desire to feel “superior.”
President Benson continues,
“Another face of pride is contention. Arguments, fights, unrighteous dominion. . . . Contention in our families drives the Spirit of the Lord away. It also drives many of our family members away . . . The scriptures tell us that ‘only by pride cometh contention’.” (Proverbs 13:10; see also Proverbs 28:25.) (Ibid)
Can any two people get into contention if neither was intent on “being right?” The adversary keeps us in conflict, makes us think that pridefully proving our rightness is somehow a key to happiness and well-being. He wants to keep us from seeing the truth (which always makes us humble and motivates repentance). I recall a day in the car a decade or so ago. I had my husband as a captive audience and had decided I needed to convince him how right I was about a few things (and how wrong he was!). Before I began, I decided to pray and ask the Lord to help me. I began praying very hard in my mind, and almost immediately began having strong feelings that the words I had intended to say to my husband were not right. As I was drawn more deeply into prayer, I was given an awareness of my own contributions to the problems I thought I could “solve” by calling my husband on the carpet. I ended up feeling a great need to repent of my judgments of him, and to improve my own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. I have to confess I have had the same sort of experience on a recurring basis as the Lord patiently tries to help me overcome my very personal struggles with pride and the need to be right.
Do I ever get into contentions trying to be right when I am full of humility or charity? When I am earnestly concerned for the welfare of others? When I am feeling the Savior’s love? Or is it when I am apart from the Spirit, spiritually and emotionally needy, inadvertently choosing fear over faith, pridefully thinking I can orchestrate improvement, “clear up” a situation by shifting blame, making someone else wrong.
President Benson also said,
“Pride is a damning sin in the true sense of that word. It limits or stops progression. (See Alma 12:10-11.) The proud are not easily taught. (See 1 Ne. 15:3, 7-11.) They won’t change their minds to accept truths, because to do so implies they have been wrong.” (Ibid)
And there is the clincher. Hanging on to being “right” is prideful in every sense of the word. It keeps us from repentance; it keeps us from seeing the truth; it keeps us from having close relationships, and it keeps us from letting the light of Christ lead us along. Not seeing where we are wrong keeps us from repenting and letting the Atonement cleanse and transform us. And, from Sister Nelson’s strong statement, we see that insisting someone else change because we are “right” is the very definition of emotional violence.
Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?
You can’t often have both. The need to be right simply isn’t a happiness-producing trait, but it is one that is hard to change. If we continue to get into conflict about who’s right, it might be wise to add to our daily prayers something like, “Dear God, help me to want to do right more than to be right. Help me want to be happy more than to be right.”
On the wall of a care center was posted:
Lord, release me from craving to try to straighten out everybody’s erroneous thinking with my vast store of wisdom. It seems a pity not to use it all—but thou knowest, Lord, that I want a few friends at the end. And most importantly, teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally it is possible that I may be mistaken. (Author unknown)
The next time we recognize the “trying to be right” pattern, we might try to visualize a stop sign, then change direction and “turn right.” Maybe say, “Oops, there I go again. I’m sorry for arguing about something that doesn’t matter. I’m willing to put it aside.” Or, “I’m going to quit talking and give us both time to think more about this.”
Most importantly, we might consider some wise words from President Howard W. Hunter: “God’s chief way of acting is by persuasion and patience and long-suffering, not by coercion and stark confrontation. He acts by gentle solicitation and by sweet enticement. He always acts with unfailing respect for the freedom and independence that we possess.” (Ensign, November 1989, 18.)
May we try each day to follow the Lord’s impeccable example, and thus avoid afflicting emotional violence on those we love.
Author Note: I want to thank my dear friend Debbie Bake for her ideas for improving this article.