On Being Right

You wonder, don't you, why it is that some people can never be wrong? Even caught, busted, backed into a corner, they'll lie to your face, tell you they didn't understand the question, or that you're interpreting what they said incorrectly. Never wrong, can't be.

It is everything to them, everything to be right. I'm sorry isn't in the vernacular. Nothing to be sorry for if you're always right.

If it's an acquaintance, you can let it go, maybe laugh it off privately, placate your friend. You intuit that this person needs validating, an emotional lift, an ego boost. Applause. So you give it. It's cheap.

If it's a colleague, someone on the team at work, or a fellow committeeman in an organization, a herd of industrial psychologists can't budge this person, will throw arms up in despair, slap together an agreement nobody likes. You just can't negotiate with some people.

When it's the boss, and it often is, well, you know who is right, and it isn't you.

Ditto, maybe, if it's family. History proves resistance futile, so you coach the kids,
Don't bother arguing with ___(Dad, Mom, Uncle Herb, etc.).
It's a waste of time.
Those of you coping with this emotional system come to therapy, usually, because someone else can't cope with this person. And the someone else won't let it go, insists upon arguing with the one who has to be right. Maybe it's a child or a teenager in charge of the revolution, or maybe it's you, finally fed up, sick of letting the baby have his bottle. Everyone in the family feels this negative emotion; it's palpable. Family and/or marital therapy is an attractive option.

Mainly because there's no sex in the marital relationship anymore, so changing this is an incentive for therapy. Anger's just not sexy. Or one of the kids is off "doing his own thing."

The ones stuck being wrong all the time are the ones who volunteer for individual therapy. The therapist is empathetic, knowing how difficult difficult people can be. It's not easy always yielding, always being wrong, for if you live with someone who is always right, and you disagree with that person, then you're always wrong.

Which feels bad. You might even come to believe it, too, that you really are more wrong than right, especially if you start out in the relationship a quart or three low in the self-esteem department. If you start out full, you'll find it runs out easily if you're always wrong. (This is systems thinking.) Like the Dementors in the Harry Potter books who whoosh down and sap happiness from others, steal it, make it theirs; you get sapped of self-esteem, happiness, no matter how well defended.

Generally we think you get this valuable commodity, self-esteem, maintain it or lose it, too, in a social process: direct communication or meta-messages, messages embedded in messages, body language, tone of voice, spacial positioning. These all communicate one's value, good or bad. Very little gray in most messages like these.

Such a humbling experience, too, being on the receiving end. Our partners, our parents, are supposed to be the home team. They are supposed to value us, validate us, tell us we're smart, we're good. People are supposed to be pleasant to one another in caring, intimate relationships.

Like FD will tell me, "You're not so bad."

It helps to have positive feedback, and the running hypothesis here, surprise surprise, is that people who have to be right all of the time didn't get positive feedback when they needed it most, during childhood. Those critical years, the formative years, really are critical, they are formative. And they can be wonderful, full of awe and wonder, or not.

The have-to-be rights never experienced wonder years. No happiness or wonder for them.

Those of us who adore our children, who praise and encourage them, who use reason when they're out of line, as opposed to beating on them in one way or another, believe children should stay in wonder for as long as possible. We know that the world is full of let-downs, disrespect, wallops, lumps. Nobody knows us out there, few care, really, how we feel. If we have three good friends, we are very, very lucky.

By and large, life's about taking the punches, coping with rejection. And our friends and family, people who care about us, buffer that.

You apply for a job and there's not so much as a rejection letter for non-candidates. We used to get these, Thank you for applying. . . but. . . letters. Now we know that if there's no call back, there's no job. No communication is communication.

Thus the Rodney Dangerfields are everywhere, getting NO respect. No "I value your opinion, your thoughts, your skills." That's why parents have to do it first, get a quart of three into us when we're little, hope it keeps. Value, validate. The words sound alike. A giving thing, this expression of someone's worth. We don't have to agree with our kids, with anyone necessarily, to say, Wow, now that you've explained it, I see why you feel the way you feel.

That's validation.

In the Chicago Public Schools there's a new program, the WOW program. Teachers are supposed to say WOW, no matter what a kid does.
"You didn't do your homework? WOW, I imagine you just didn't have time!"
Implicit respect. Wow, I see why you feel the way you feel.

No need to add the but; it's not a compound sentence. Validation means no qualifiers necessary. If I didn't ask for an alternative opinion, why give it to me? I may still be glowing in the Wow. The but can come later. And if there isn't any communicated respect, no validation, which takes some time, actually, in discussion, it's likely there's no interest in alternative thoughts and opinions.

This is the rationale behind the intervention you read on this blog relatively often, validating without regard for receiving validation in return, or unconditional validation in communication. Here the one who is always wrong (according to the one who is always right) patiently validates the one who clearly needs to be right.

To do this and not lose your mind, you actually need to know your subject, why he or she needs to be right, which can be very personal, very intimate information. But if it's a parent, or a partner, you have the right to know.*

So you snoop around and find, in all probability, that there's abuse in this person's background, shame and abuse, verbal, physical, emotional, psychological. This person has been labeled
stupid, retarded, fat, a wimp, a loser, maybe a fool.
Something. He or she may have been slapped silly for being so dumb. Stupid and dumb are operative words. Children should be seen, not heard, you can assume this, in families like these.
A child learns to stay invisible, is afraid to venture an opinion, knowing that the opinion isn't wanted, commands no respect.

You would think parents would naturally know, would simply have the empathy necessary to know that kids need to be asked an opinion now and again, that they need to feel important, to have a say in their lives, that this is how they emerge from the Petree dish of family with some self-esteem, a modicum of self-worth. We all need the You are important message. You are someone very capable. Without this type of messaging a person suffers a hunger, a growling in the tummy that won't quiet down.

Although I like to think that a corrective relationship feeds the beast.

Childhood abuse and emotional neglect is transgenerational, zips right past go, starts somewhere in the lower branches of the family tree and grows, like ivy, up. Subsequent generations might copy the behaviors of aggressive parents, identify with the aggressor. But it is not so simple as this. More likely, if one has been muted, called stupid often enough, shut down, there is still a thinking brain, a healthy vector of self that whispers, mouths silently to the aggressor, on more than one occasion during childhood,
"Actually, I'm not always stupid. You're stupid. You know?"
This voice grows louder inside, this shoot of a child's budding identity, this personality in progress, and grows very rebellious, even, over time.

I call it the Survivor Ego. Maybe others have other names for it. I've never read this in a book, to be quite honest.

The silent scream volleys hard,
"I am not always wrong, I am not always stupid, and damn it, one day, you'll all have to listen to me because I am not going away. You will contend with me when I am older. I live!"
The beginning of the oppositional personality.

Having been shut down for so long, the Survivor Ego lives to revel in expression, thrives in the countering of opinions, thrills with the power of final say.
"I live, okay? They didn't kill me. Won't somebody please notice?"
It is a micro-decision of youth, to respond this way, rather than cower every time, yield every point. It is the black/white of borderline. And the decision is unconscious by adulthood, that decision that turned the key, for evermore, the one that cheers the adult child on. "I'm right!" It's like a drug.

So you see why there has to be some psychotherapy, some good old fashioned psychodynamic therapy, to end the reign of terror, and the one who needs it is in no hurry, feels no need to get it. But when it happens, a person can change.

The change, albeit unstable at first, maybe forever, yields the point, many points, to significant others. The changed individual feels compassion for others, even empathy. This is possible for the memory of his history empowers him, substitutes for the other drug, having to be right all of the time. They believe me. They get it. They know I'm not stupid.

And when being right feels irresistible, when Mr/Ms Has-to-be-Right slips?

A raised eyebrow is enough, assuming you've agreed on that signal. In family therapy we're big on such things, signals.


Just my opinion here, as usual, what you pay for when you read this blog.


Zan said…
This one really hit home.
Thank you for your writing this post, gives me a lot to think about.
Jack said…
Teachers are supposed to say WOW, no matter what a kid does.

I am not a fan of this. They are crippling these children. You don't have to go to extremes and refuse to praise children.

But you don't have to go to the opposite extreme either.
jss said…
WOW Therapydoc. Wow, I see why you feel the way you feel.

No really, I mean it... WOW.

Cat said…
Wow. Is all I can think to say.

So much of me was hit on here, that it kinda feels raw, ya know?

great post as always, I value your opinions here.
Jew Wishes said…
This is another excellent post...your words are illuminating.

Shabbat Shalom!
TechnoBabe said…
I cannot even imagine a childhood like the one you describe in this post. "Value, validate". WTF? Definite "growling in the tummy..."
Ahhh, the "black/white of borderline". Understood. Thank God a "person can change".
This is a wonderful post that I can relate to and appreciate. Thank you.
GG said…
Yep, that sounds a lot like me and my family.... Thanks so much for this post. I'm in therapy, working on change. Reminders like yours and the insight derived from reading this post helps a lot.
linrob63 said…
Can you say more sometime about identifying with the aggressor?
Isle Dance said…
Such a great explanation.

I say, "Wow", as a way to handle tough situations, where what I really want to say would likely not be heard. It's a great neutral response. But howdy, do some people think it's wrong to do.

I'm so glad I'm learning to stay away from situations where people feel the need to be right. Because otherwise I find myself caught up in the chaos. And then I end up sounding as desperate to be right as anyone - even if it's for healthy (protecting against abuse) reasons.
Syd said…
I am a believer in being responsible for my actions so if I don't do my homework, I would be asked to explain. Then I might get a Wow if I had a valid excuse (valid would need some definition). But if I said, I didn't do homework because I was watching TV all night or playing or partying, then I would get consequences. Responsible behavior is good to validate.

Now I have learned to say to those who have to be right at any cost, "you may be right". It doesn't mean they are but they may be....
subtle stuff but better than my previous damn the torpedoes attitude.

Thanks for a great post TD.
Ella said…
Dealing with the person who must always be right taps into my fight-flight anxiety.
Fight? pointless and at work we are taught not to argue with the client
Flight? not really keen on running away since I know the other one isn't right
So, you are paralyzed, helpless, powerless. All that internal rush has no outlet.

And, look out later because here comes the boss to blame you for antagonizing the bully - why did you say something technical to the (defensive dumb guy) client?
He asked me a question.
Well, don't do that, it's your own fault if he yells at you when you do that.

Thank goodness that project ended and my boss got promoted away from me. And thank you Prozac for helping with the anxiety :-)
"By and large, life's about taking the punches, coping with rejection. And our friends and family, people who care about us, buffer that."

I was just coming to this conclusion yesterday! I feel like a punching bag at my job - trying to manage people who think they get the final say, and other who feel they are in the right, and others who feel like the victim... And I'm feel like I'm caught in the middle and they all hate me and they all think I hate them.

I can't take it personally. We are all looking for validation. Just as you said - at the end of the day I have my friends and family. The people at work are co-workers and we respect eachother, but we don't always have to be liked.

This post spoke to me on so many levels!
Anonymous said…
My stepfather, was always right. I don't know what kind of crazy he was but it was mean. I remember him giving me advice and in my mind another voice (born of needing a say but unable to take the blows) dialogued next to him, sorting it out. I've often wondered if many comics developed their humor from holding all the things they heard inside their head, unable to speak without consequences till they finally broke out and let the words come. My therapist once said it was my "sense of humor" that must have gotten me through my childhood, how could I tell her it was a voice inside my head that was my only advocate, my only friend, my advisor without her thinking I was crazy? I still have the voice inside, I say the words, people are amused or laugh, sometimes at the same time or sooner than myself. Because the voice is clever, funny and sometimes almost psychic with accurate predictions and warnings. I wonder what you'd say about this, its not missing time, its shared time and sometimes passively driving while I'm in the back seat unable to function. I can step away enough to not feel pain, but not complete disassociation or MPD; more like a cousin to it.
Retriever said…
Great post, as usual! Even tho I am not a proponent of WOW in schools, I do believe in it at home. Frantz Fanon wrote about identification with the aggressor fro
his Algerian experience.

D#*€, you're good, TD! :)
therapydoc said…
Thanks everyone. I know I'm remiss on commenting on comments, but I hope to get to it soon.
JMH said…
Thank you, almost exactly right, thank you.
lynette said…
what a really great post. as a kid i was always told i was "too sensitive" and took things "too seriously". my parents were well-meaning and loving, but i have had horrible self-esteem issues (leading to other problems) my whole life, and ended up in a marriage to a man who says the same things.... i don't think anyone in his family acknowledges feelings...

but i always swore i would honor my children's feelings, and validate their emotions, and not tell them they were "too" anything. I am a pretty strict mom when it comes to school and safety, but i have watched my children blossom into the people they are, and comfortable with themselves. my son is the "very sensitive" one, and sometimes gets frustrated at feeling things deeply -- i tell him he will be a wonderful father and husband some day.

validation is an amazing thing. now that i have a teenager, i could use some validation myself!
Stacie said…
I am the "always right" person in our family and i hate it. Sometimes I think it's my leverage for doing most of what needs to happen in a household and not getting a whole lotta help. Part of me thinks it's because being a SAHM when I was trained to "great things" has left me feeling somewhat less than fulfilled. I have to remind myself that I AM doing great things. It's just hard. It has taken me years to say I'm sorry to dh and it means so much to him when I do. That definitely makes saying "im sorry" easier. And I do more often than not, forget to ask for my children's opinions. At the moment, I feel like this is damaging one of them and it's my she child... It's killing me (and her). So MOM has a new task for the week (and hopefully longer). This post will be printed and put on my fridge to remind me each day to ask for my children's opinions. Not only to ask, but to value them and validate them as well. I needed this!
Ally said…
There seem to be quite a few experts these days who say we are overpraising our kids and that it isn't good for them. That has been tricky for me to hear because I do praise my kids a lot I try to be specific, as recommended, but there are plenty of blanket statements too.

So it was very validating (yes, validation can come from a blog) that you said in a tough world, parents should give kids a "quart or three" of self-esteem. To me, it seems like parents should always think the world of their child and express it. That way the child has internalized all sorts of unconditional love as s/he goes forth into the world.

As for teachers, I do agree that "WOW" is not necessary for every interaction.

Keep the great posts coming!
Lou said…
I came from a home of "seen and not heard" and I spent many years having to be right. I also had to call my parents "ma'am and sir" and ask to speak.

I'm much better (I say so,anyway ;), but I have to be cognizant of this habit of being argumentative daily.

Thanks for writing about this, it explained a lot about my behaviors.

BTW, "wow"?? Is that word even in the dictionary?
Margo said…
SOOO much information in your posts. It's really an education. Love you.
Mary LA said…
Illuminating post.

For me that defendedness and need to be right all the time was linked to my active alcoholism. I had to feel I could control others' perceptions of my drinking. Because I had no control at all over my drinking I lived with a secret chaos at the heart of my life and all my efforts went into pretending this was not so. And trying to compensate by being successful at work and winning arguments and warding off criticism.

Finally surrendering and admitting I was powerless over the drinking and that something was terribly wrong with my life set me free to be as vulnerable and likely to be mistaken as the next person. All that exceptionalism was just an empty lie. I no longer had to defend and protect an addiction.
jss said…
Yes, I understand now. So many of my teachers could have said to me "WOW, I can see how little effort you put into that paper I asked you to write." and "WOW, I can't believe you managed to actually graduate."
I greatly appreciate this rich piece, particularly the insightful, articulate line, "The have-to-be rights never experienced wonder years. No happiness or wonder for them."

I really liked the part about responding with a wow. I googled for information about teachers saying wow in the Chicago public schools. I didn't find anything. Can you tell me where I can find an article or any other kind of information about this.
Hannah said…
So MOM is WOW upside down. What does it mean!?

I'm in therapy along similar lines as this post and found it very helpful as well as motivational. Thanks Therapydoc, you're a great resource.
April_optimist said…
I found Patricia Evan's concept of bubble particularly helpful in understanding people I've known who had to be right. Once I understood, it became possible to communicate in a more successful and less confrontational way when communication was necessary.

I truly believe that people who feel they must always be right feel vulnerable, so much so that they can't risk being wrong because they feel they would shatter if they did.

Mind you, I'd rather see children encouraged for genuine reasons, helped to see their own talents, than to just have everyone told they are wonderful all the time. For one thing, kids then know we are really seeing them when we acknowledge specific abilities and/or characteristics.
Willa said…
This was my old boss to a T. Such a relief to be away from that Had-To-Be-Right woman.

She was right every time that it became laughable and then, finally, it was hard to have any respect for her at all.

And yes, I ran to therapy. It helped a bit, but didn't entirely solve the problem.
Dr. Deb said…
Yes, you share a cautionary tale here. I don't have be right and often disarm those who do....but it is nice to be validated every once in awhile.
Rach said…
Dear Therapy Doc,
I was wondering if you knew of any journals/books/resources/websites that I could use that address the issues of Judaism and therapy (in particular, group therapy)?
Thank you so much!
Wonderingsoul said…
I'm a teacher in a special school for kids with severe behavioural problems and although I actively look for opportunities to praise and empower, I am cyncial about praise for the hell of it. The kids see it as hollow and are not fooled by such sentiment.

More personally, in my family (and there s no point in even writing this but I will anyway)... In my family, depsite being the one who WAS right (quite literally unfortunately) I was regarded as being wrong as a result of denial.
Denial seems to change things round a bit.. my parents didn't so much tell me I was WRONG... they just denied that I was right.
Nowadays being right is very imporatant to me but nobody would ever know that because I have to hide rightness. I am afraid that to be perceived as having any answer at all will lead to complete invalidation.
Thanks for the read.
Wonderingsoul said…
I'm a teacher in a special school for kids with severe behavioural problems and although I actively look for opportunities to praise and empower, I am cyncial about praise for the hell of it. The kids see it as hollow and are not fooled by such sentiment.

More personally, in my family (and there s no point in even writing this but I will anyway)... In my family, depsite being the one who WAS right (quite literally unfortunately) I was regarded as being wrong as a result of denial.
Denial seems to change things round a bit.. my parents didn't so much tell me I was WRONG... they just denied that I was right.
Nowadays being right is very imporatant to me but nobody would ever know that because I have to hide rightness. I am afraid that to be perceived as having any answer at all will lead to complete invalidation.
Thanks for the read.
Foster Ima said…
I've given you an award. Stop by to pick it up! :-)
porcini66 said…
Sponsor asked me not so long ago, she asked, "So...would ya rather be RIGHT or sober?" Interesting question and I had to admit that the serenity of sobriety won the day - I gave over. Kinda cool, actually - I think that MOST people can benefit from a dose of sobriety these days, alcoholic or not. In my mind, by the by, sobriety has nothing to do with alcohol intake.
Thanks, as always, for writing...
Amy said…
Once again, you're right on the money. This post made me feel a little choked up, because it poked one of those spots in my psyche that are raw from living with one of those "always right" people.
I started going to CoDA meetings to deal with my own "family of origin" baggage, after reaching that critical mass stage with my partner.
I used to argue with him. Arguing with one of these people when alcohol is involved is even more counterproductive, but I was tired of being bullied by his rightousness. (I suspect my partner could be considered an HFA).
I'm learning to stay calm, stay present, and not give in to my own knee-jerk-into-skull reactions to fight back.
I try to find some small measure of compassion for this man whose only identity seems to come from being better than me (than everyone), knowing more than me, and so on.
This doesn't mean that it's "okay", but your comment about understanding where that "need to be right" comes from really hit home. It allows me to separate out what is my "junk" vs. what's his "junk" and figure out whether or not debating (and losing) with this person is really worth the headache.
traut4 said…
Hi TherapyDoc,
not related to your current post, but I regularly follow your blog and have read that you video chat with your far-away grandkids... we do with our parents as well. My husband just launched www.peekuboo.com - a site that allows you to read stories and play games while you video chat. If you get a chance, try it out!