On Being Wrong

And why it’s (not?) the worst feeling in the world

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

One feeling that is almost universally reviled is the sensation of being wrong.

We loathe being made aware of when we are incorrect, at fault, or misguided in our thinking.

From the embarrassment of confidently stating something inaccurate and being quickly fact-checked by a friend’s over eager smartphone at a cocktail party, to the gut-sinking sensation of seeing a police officer in your rearview mirror as you realize you’ve been speeding, we bristle and chafe against the knowledge of our wrongdoing.

And yet most of us have the good sense to quietly and humbly accept that we have erred, pay the price (be it losing face at a cocktail party or paying a $200 fine), and move on with an updated view of the world.

Some people, however, find this state so utterly intolerable, so completely upsetting, and so threatening to their own sense of self-worth, that they swiftly adopt a stance of denial.

These people begin shifting blame onto whoever is nearest them, performing mental gymnastics in an attempt to contort themselves out of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

They shuffle for excuses and justifications, often with just the barest acknowledgement of their erroneous beliefs. Some adopt a strategy of confrontation, where they impugn the integrity of the person who had pointed out their mistake, while others are more sheepish and evade responsibility by distractions or asserting that “Oh, it’s not such a big deal anyway.” It is these people whom one must watch out for.

Deep-seated unwillingness to be wrong is a mutation of benign childlike stubbornness. Most children are stubborn up until a certain age, and this is a totally normal stage of development that is to be expected. When a 5-year-old or a 10-year-old or even a 15-year-old acts stubbornly, it is the natural response to the phenomenon of living under the rule of parents who may not respect the child’s autonomy. The child didn’t ask to be born, and so when they aren’t taken seriously, when their self-expression is stifled, or when their fledgling personalities come into conflict with the wills and desires of their parents, it is completely understandable that the child should feel frustrated. Their organic blossoming is not always going to jive with the expectations and limitations set (whether by circumstance or intention) by their parents, and this friction manifests in the child as stubbornness. Stubborn children are ones who are merely attempting to advocate for their own preferences and right to self-determination, they simply lack the ability to express it, and so it comes out as obstinance. Thankfully, most children develop the means to adequately and appropriately express their feelings as they age, and so they become able to “fend for themselves” as they mature.

When this maturation doesn’t happen, that stubbornness becomes damningly transfigured into a grotesque character flaw.

People who fail to outgrow their youthful stubbornness become the kind of people who refuse to assume responsibility when they are at fault. By their reasoning, they must have been misunderstood, misinterpreted, or intentionally maligned if they were perceived as being wrong, since their way of viewing the world before they were corrected could not possibly have been wrong in the first place. These people cling to their image of themselves as infallible, their beliefs as incorruptible, and their integrity unimpeachable. It is pure stubbornness and pride.

It can be extremely difficult and frustrating to deal with coworkers, parents, and partners who have this quality. The petty response is to entrap them: to set them up in situations where they are so clearly and unambiguously wrong and then to bring down the recognition of their wrongdoing with full force and no room for escape. When faced with such a situation, they may blanche or cry or become enraged — so threatening is the feeling of being wrong that they may do anything to avoid it.

Of course, what these people really need is sympathy and patience (even though it can be extremely hard to conjure these feelings in response to someone so self-righteous). Their unwillingness to be wrong is likely a manifestation of parents who didn’t allow them the time and space they needed to grow and flourish on their own. Denied this period of exploration, and therefore constantly under the thumb and surveillance of over-controlling parents (who themselves were probably mimicking the patterns they learned from their parents), children become young adults who yearn for the feeling of being in the right so doggedly that they do anything to stay there once they’re able to. Their refusal to face up to their wrongdoing is just one of the myriad ways in which humans inherit intergenerational trauma and neglect — it is an unfortunate outgrowth of our failure to understand developmental psychology, and it can be pruned with the proper therapy, time, and persistence.

And for those of us who are unsure of whether we exhibit this trait, rest assured, we all do from time to time. The best antidote is to graciously and gratefully accept when we are wrong, and to acknowledge that we are puny, fallible, damaged creatures and it’s a miracle we’re ever right at all about anything even 1% of the time. The universe is massive, complex, and inexplicable — we’ll all be confronted with the fact that we’re wrong, ignorant, and misguided about most things in life.

If we’re wrong, we ought to gracefully apologize for the inconveniences and harms we may have caused, resolve to do better next time, and feel a sense of gratitude for being shown the truth.

When we’re made aware of how we err, the most noble response we can have is to say “Ah! Thank you!”

[Originally posted on Substack — sign up here]

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