Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Beware of Being "Right"

You can never really be certain.

Much of the emotional suffering in the world comes from the substitution of power for value. The curse of our times is that so many people have developed the habit of seeking to feel temporarily more powerful when they feel devalued. This leads almost inevitably to power struggles and some degree of abuse of others, if acted out, or if held in, to some level of depression.

Those afflicted with this terrible but common habit lose sight of behavioral possibilities that would make them feel more valuable when they most need it—when they feel devalued. They grow alienated from their more humane values, which makes them feel progressively less valuable. To compensate, they inflate their egos to fragile proportions, which seem to need more and more power as defense. This dynamic, fueled by the systematic substitution of power for value, leads to what is commonly and erroneously considered the narcissistic constellation of personality disorders.

Covariant with the substitution of power for value is the persistent need to be right while making others wrong. Seeming to be right justifies disrespect, contempt, and other forms of emotional pollution, which spread like wildfire in our electronic age. In addition, they suffer an illusion of certainty. High adrenaline emotions, particularly anger, create profound illusions of certainty, due to their amphetamine effects. The amphetamine effect creates a temporary sense of confidence and certainty, while narrowing mental focus and eliminating most variables from consideration. That's why you feel more confident after a cup of coffee (a mild amphetamine effect) than before it, and it’s why you’re convinced that you’re right and everyone else is wrong when you're angry.

Certainty itself is an emotional state, not an intellectual one. To create a feeling of certainty, the brain must filter out far more information than it processes, which, of course, greatly increases its already high error rate during emotional arousal. In other words, the more certain you feel, the more likely you are wrong in some respect.

Mental focus, the foundation of feelings of certainty, distorts reality by magnifying and amplifying one or two aspects of it while filtering out everything else. You might discover more detail about the one or two aspects you focus on, but what you discover will have no contextual meaning, because you have isolated those aspects from their dynamic interaction with the rest of the reality in which they exist. In other words, focus magnifies things out of proportion and blows them out of context.

Divorce and Being Right

The self-justification trap of needing to be perceived as right ruins most relationships. I've had dozens of therapy clients who confessed that they wished that they weren't right, as it would make their marriages so much easier.

The danger to close relationships of this way of thinking cannot be overstressed. Seeming to be right justifies the most potent predictors of divorce: criticism, stonewalling, defensiveness, and contempt. It all but precludes binocular vision—the ability to see both perspectives at once—and leads both parties convinced that their partners simply don't care how they feel. It can be no other way when the goal is to show your partner that you're right and that he or she is wrong.

In love relationships, it’s never enough to be right. The ultimate measure of relationship interactions is their level of compassion and kindness. When those fail, it doesn’t matter who is right.

Never judge an interaction in a love relationship merely by who's right. Instead, ask yourself how compassionate and kind you are in the interaction. Spend less effort trying to control your partner's thinking and more trying to understand and appreciate differences in your perspectives.