Why Do We Want to Be Right?

Sometimes it might be better to be happy than right.

Posted Dec 17, 2019

Often, I have clients who have interiorized the voice of their parents, wives, friends, or siblings telling them, “You’re wrong when you think that …” or “You’re a failure if …” and so on.

So, they sit in front of me almost paralyzed and seem incapable of choosing which direction to go because they feel that whatever they are going to do is wrong.

I do not want to encourage anyone to become irresponsible or forgetful of the consequences of one’s actions, but I think it is important to learn how and when to use ethics and its categories, "right" and "wrong."

Sometimes, getting stuck on whether we are right or wrong can be more of a problem than being just wrong, because during that time we could miss what really matters. The meanings of our exchanges with others, and the feelings that an action has produced in us, are sometimes more important than their moral quality.

I will tell you why.

Imagine that your partner is angry at you because recently you have spent too much time at the gym, thus increasing her or his jealousy.

Hopefully, if jealousy does not evolve into passive-aggressive fights, you decide to discuss it. In the discussion, it might be likely that both of you feel right and both of you are quite determined to prove the other wrong.

“I am just going to the gym. You are overly sensitive.” 

“You do not want to admit that you have someone you like there.”

Why is it so important to be right?

It is human nature to want to be right. We want to exist and be visible for our other half. The problem is that being right becomes more important than being meaningful and compassionate. Often we do not realize it; we just get stuck (or one of the two of us gives up) and the discussion does not lead anywhere. Yet, quietly the doubts start inside us and we lose, bit by bit, contact with our real self. 

“Aha, maybe I am attracted to that guy at the gym”

“True. I’m a mess. I’m overly sensitive and insecure”

Clearly, two inner voices of this kind have no useful reason to exist inside of us. They can just make the relationship with ourselves and our partner more difficult to sustain. Imagine when a discussion like this is multiplied a thousand times within a marital or parent-child relationship. The voice becomes even louder: “I am a failure.” “I am sabotaging this marriage.” “I do not value her.” “I do no love him." Often, these moral voices are not even true. They come out with insecurity or hurt.

Meanings and feelings about being right.

I've noticed that it’s really difficult for me and my client—when we replay a fight in my office—to focus on the important aspects of it. If we parenthesize the anxiety of abandonment, and the feelings of failure, shame, and disappointment, nothing seems to be left. We have to overcome all these judgmental fumes before we can arrive at a meaningful reflection on what that exchange really meant for both of them.

The actual feelings behind a fight are rarely true or moral. How we feel during a fight does not tell us if we are wrong or right. Feeling hurt during a fight reveals the need to be acknowledged and listened to. If one of the two partners perceives his or her jealousy as overwhelming, then there’s a need to find an agreement between safety and freedom. The need to be right is a need to be seen, which has nothing to do with ethics.

Maybe some of the choices we made trigger a sort of "relational inflammation" that needs rest and care to heal. If our muscles start cramping it would be ridiculous to tell them “Hey, you should not be cramping now, I was only running." Something similar happens during a fight: We take a moral stance that is quite misplaced.

It does happen that the combination of two different lives can cause a sort of emotional "inflammation." Instead of tormenting ourselves about who is right and why we were wrong, we could ask ourselves: "What can I learn from this?"; "How did I end up in this painful place?"; or, "What is the recipe for the two of us to smooth things out?"

In real life, meaning counts more than righteousness.

Delegating our moral voice to external sources reduces only the intimacy we have with ourselves and others. Transforming conflicts into meaningful feelings is more enriching than closing them in empty moral categories. So, as the saying goes, sometimes it might be better to be happy than right.