Food for thought….One of the hardest (ongoing) lessons in my life has been that other people don’t always behave in the way I think they “should”. I giggle as I type that as of course I know not everyone is likely to do things my way and see the world through the “Louise” filter. Sometimes I wish they did though!
And when I look around me I realise that this is tough for many of us. Often it is hard trying to appreciate why someone acted in the way they did. We might find ourselves asking, “What were they thinking?” “Why would they do that?” and then perhaps closely followed by thoughts such as “I’d never do that”, “It just isn’t right / fair” or something starting with “if only”. From this position it is easy to see how conflicts develop and connections are threatened. If one person needs to be right then it naturally follows that someone has to be wrong. It isn’t a great way to make friends nor influence people is it?
Sadly I have had clients over the years who have spent their whole lives trying to prove that they are right. For instance by fighting legal battles for a decade or more to “prove a point” – in the meantime their health and relationships have deteriorated as a result. They may have been “right” in many peoples’ eyes but they have lost a great deal in being hooked by their need to be right.
In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) we are interested in stepping away from “right versus wrong” and helping people find ways to live a fulfilling life as their best self. This may even mean bypassing right versus wrong altogether and focussing on “what will work here?” instead. The question I often ask myself and others is “Do you want to be right or do you want to live well? (or have a healthy relationship and so on). Perhaps it isn’t possible to do both. One may be “right” that grown adults can pick up their own wet towels or dirty clothes. But if this is a daily conversation with an intimate partner we could agree that it is “wrong” and then ask, “but I wonder how is your relationship going?” Ouch! Are the towels worth the tension and frequent conflict? Probably not!
Where does needing to be right show up in your life? Perhaps it centres around punctuality or parenting or in the workplace with your peers. The right versus wrong story isn’t always easy to spot. For example, you might have the thought,” if she cared about me she would have called by now” and not realise that behind that thought another lurks such as “it is right to get back to friends quickly when they call”.
The opportunity is there in front of you to observe yourself related to this and see if you can choose a response in certain situations that fits with the way you want to treat others. Next time you find yourself being “justifiably annoyed” take a few moments to reflect mindfully on what is going on for you – in thoughts, feelings and physical sensations and choose to respond thoughtfully rather than reactively.
Something I often suggest to clients when they are very angry and caught up in a need to be right is to imagine that they have already dealt with a particular situation and they are feeling very proud of the way they handled it. I then ask them to think about what they would have said and done that they felt so proud of. It is a simple thing to do and often very effective in thinking through a response rather than knee jerk reaction when we are too caught up in thoughts and feelings.
And if you don’t catch yourself early enough and end up in some kind of argument then the option is there, as soon as you notice you have been hooked by such thoughts, to get back on track. One of my favourite ideas, taught to me by the very wonderful US-based ACT therapist and author Robyn Walser is to “go first”. I can almost hear your mind objecting, “Why should I apologise? He started it!!” Going first is a lovely way to make a repair attempt in our relationships when we have lost sight of what matters. John Gottman, an American psychologist famous for his research of couples has found repair attempts to be fundamental to a couple staying together. “Going first” might be a hand on the shoulder, a big hug or an email or text to say you are sorry for what happened. And in my experience going first feels great too!
To learn more about the ways the mind tricks us and what to do about it you might want to check out a book I really like called, “The user’s guide to the human mind” by Shawn T. Smith. For wonderful books about ACT for relationships check out “ACT with love” by Russ Harris and “The mindful couple” by Robyn Walser and Darruh Westrup.