“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” ~Lao Tzu
Internally, deep down, many people have the experience that they are damaged, broken, “not good enough,” or simply “not enough.” Such thoughts and the beliefs that fuel them usually have their origins in the messages received from others starting early in life. How we react in the present is strongly influenced by childhood experiences and internalized beliefs.
These beliefs and the resultant feelings are often so distressing that we protect ourselves by keeping them unconscious. Occasionally, there may be some vague awareness of their existence, but due to the discomfort they generate they tend to remain hidden—from oneself, as well as from everyone else. They also affect (or perhaps infect) most all ongoing relationships.
One way in which beliefs and feelings of inferiority are disguised and kept at a distance is through the defense mechanism of reaction-formation. Reaction-formation protects against too-painful thoughts and feelings by turning them into their opposites—for example, presenting an attitude of arrogance to compensate for underlying feelings of inadequacy—I’m not “less than” others because I am “better than” others! This occurs whenever we judge others in a negative way: we are implicitly putting them down, making them inferior, and by comparison elevating the way we see ourselves by virtue of being “superior” to them—in a given circumstance, related to a particular quality, or in general.
Feelings of superiority often manifest in the need to be in control over people and situations. The need to control can also be a way of unconsciously compensating for feeling out of control. Attempts to control exist on a broad continuum, from aggressive and overt—threatening, intimidating, arguing, demanding, and asserting, to indirect—manipulating, steering, suggesting, and cajoling. Frequently, the need to be in control takes the form of a need to “be right.” For some personalities (most of us know at least one), it is standard procedure to exert control through the need to be right, believing and acting as if they know what’s best, regardless of the situation.
For someone who is emotionally attached to the need to be right, all divergent perspectives, ideas, suggestions, and actions must be “wrong.” The need to be right convinces him or her of the correctness of his or her approach, while attachment to this end serves to justify the means used to facilitate it. When this dynamic is acted out it creates suffering for those caught in its wake—most often, partners and family members, including children.
Obviously, words can inflict considerable harm, but there are also many nonverbal ways of making clear that others are wrong. A disapproving glance or an exasperated tone of voice expresses dissatisfaction and sends a clear message that can be hurtful, and that hurt can have staying power. Especially for children, these kinds of experiences damage their developing sense of self—they cut like a jagged piece of glass, bleeding off self-worth. Every such glance and utterance is an act of subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) emotional rejection and abandonment; a psychological betrayal of parent to child—though it also does serious damage to intimate partner and other adult relationships. The need to be right can go horribly wrong.
However, the suffering caused by this behavior also extends to the perpetrator. Acting on the incessant drive to be right requires considerable energy—it can be exhausting. Attachment to being right is a form of mental and emotional slavery. There is tremendous stress inherent in having to be right all the time. Even when those invested in control have an inkling that this is unhealthy, even if they feel guilt or shame subsequent to acting out their need to be right, they are nonetheless impelled to continue to repeat it.
Because this pattern occurs automatically and habitually, the key to changing it is to become consciously aware of the need to be right and one’s attachment to it. Through the practice of mindfulness, suffering can become an experience that indicates where one is stuck. It is in letting go of the attachment that we can unchain ourselves from a need to be right.
Several years ago I was told the story of an ongoing argument between a husband and wife. The actual subject of the argument is much less important than the process. As was often the case, the husband was certain he was right but couldn’t get his wife to back down and agree. The only thing they could agree on in this matter was to seek the counsel of their pastor.
The husband knew that the pastor would side with his position and designate him as “right.” As they shared their dramatically different perspectives, the husband made mental preparations to declare victory. To his considerable surprise, the pastor didn’t take sides, gracefully sidestepping the dichotomy of right/wrong, and the zero sum game that goes with it. Rather, he asked matter-of-factly, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”
The elegant simplicity and remarkable depth of that question is stunning. It unlocks the door to an awareness that this can be a conscious choice. While being right is sometimes accompanied by happiness, in many scenarios the goals of being right and being happy are mutually exclusive. The need to be right, and by extension, to control people, situations, and outcomes, regularly obstructs the ability to be happy—insofar as happiness is a function of contentment and peace of mind, also known as serenity.
As the Tao Te Ching describes in verse 74:
Trying to control things
is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place.
When you handle the master carpenter’s tools,
chances are that you’ll cut yourself.
And then blood gets all over the place and it’s a big mess!
Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Which is more important? Which is healthier? Which brings you closer to those you love and care about? Which moves you toward to the person you are meant to be—your true self? Looking at the two options through this lens can make the choice very simple.