I hate being wrong!

Write for Advice

I’m ruining my relationship because I’m too quick to argue.

Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, APR 8, 2005

Dear Cary,

For as long as I can remember, I have been very bad at arguing with people. As soon as someone disagrees with me, I get angry because I feel attacked, like the other person is out to show that I am wrong. And for some reason, I hate being wrong! So my immediate reaction is to get very defensive, I raise my voice, and I end up saying something I later regret. Needless to say, the whole thing ends with me beating myself up, and the other person feeling alienated from me. This bothers me especially because my mother does the exact same thing and I hate it!

I have noticed this tendency in me for a long time now, but I have never been able to stop. I did some anger management work with a therapist a while ago, but because I moved and switched to a counselor at school who cannot see me regularly, I have not been able to continue this important work. They tell you to stop and count to 10, control your breathing, calm yourself down before you talk. But that’s the whole problem, I could never think of stopping myself until it was too late! The hurtful things had already come out of my mouth, and I was stuck picking up the pieces.

Right now the problem is urgent because my relationship with a wonderful boyfriend is in peril because of my insecurity and hatred of being wrong. He is closing himself off to me because I have hurt him, and no doubt I am no longer attractive as a woman with no confidence in herself and a bad temper. How do I stop ruining my relationships and hating myself? How do I stop hating being wrong?

Hate Being Wrong

Dear Hate Being Wrong,

One night a couple of years ago I was home listening to the radio and an author I admire said, in response to a question from a telephone caller, “I am willing to be judged!” I felt suddenly lifted up out of my chair, freed of a pressing weight. Exactly! I am willing to be judged! What had I been so afraid of?!

I do not know why on this particular night this particular voice had such an effect. Perhaps, as you are struggling now, I was struggling then with what I perceived to be a defect of character. I was afraid of the judgments of others. In a moment that was all whisked away: What do I care what they think? What harm can it do? I am willing to be judged!

Here was a successful, talented author, who had been through much darkness, as I have been, and he had found this way of dealing with his own fear by embracing it like a fighter: Bring it on! Go ahead! Take a shot!

It was a marvelous, liberating moment.

In journalism, of course, being right is part of the job. In conversation, however, and in certain kinds of writing, one can express one’s feelings in a way that sidesteps the problem of right and wrong, by staying in the realm of the subjective. You can’t be wrong if you’re talking only about your own wishes, your own feelings, your own desires. Others may judge you but they can’t prove you wrong. For instance, if you were to say that the war in Iraq is wrong, it would be an arguable point. If you were to say, however, that you wish it had never begun, that is simply your wish. No one can argue with that. You have the right to your feeling.

If you assume that others should feel as you do, that’s where you’re in trouble. They may feel differently. A roomful of opinions can coexist because none of the opinions are wrong; they are all simply human phenomena.

Someone might then say to you it’s a good thing the war has begun because it’s rid the world of Saddam Hussein. But you don’t have to be glad the world is rid of Saddam Hussein. You have the right to your own feelings. You might have no feelings at all about Saddam Hussein. There is a great deal of leeway for surprise in the subjective world, should we choose to claim it. We do not have to have every correct emotion; we might have a few that are subversive and amoral. We might not, for instance, care at all about Terri Schiavo. We might not care about the pope. We might not care about Barry Bonds, or Bono, or Patrick Leahy, or Tom DeLay. It’s subjective, and that’s all there is to it. There is a great deal of freedom in this; it not only frees you to have your own ideas, and be a little looser about life, but it frees others as well; if you’re not concerned about whether you’re right or wrong, if you don’t feel the need to only associate with people who agree with you, you can learn much about what people actually feel about events, and get closer to the mystery of who they are.

When people argue about politics, often what they say amounts to nothing more than unexamined prejudice shouted into a void of passionate misunderstanding. I prefer to talk about other things. That is my right, and I guard it jealously.

We are judged constantly but it matters so little! No one will admit that they judge us. To bring it out into the open is so refreshing! So judge me as stupid! So judge me as a moron! So judge me as wrong! So what! What happens after you judge me? Nothing! Look at the sky! It’s still the same brilliant blue! Look at my face! It’s still the same face. There is no appreciable difference in the universe now that I have been discovered to have held the wrong opinion, once or twice or a thousand times! Judge me, suckers, judge me! Judge me! Judge me! Judge me!

Oh, boy. There I go. As I often do, I have veered away from your actual question into my own passions and prejudices. My apologies. To try to help you with your more immediate problem, I would make these suggestions and observations: The techniques you were taught by your anger management therapist are good ones. Though you are not in contact with that therapist, you can still use those methods. Keep working at it. Try counting to 10 well before you get angry. Identify situations where you might become angry, and try the counting before anything happens. For instance, if certain people or situations set you off, breathe deeply before you become angry, and count to 10 before responding.

Most important, keep at it. You won’t be cured overnight, but you will improve. Behavior change happens gradually through persistent effort. Look for degrees of improvement. If you do blow up, that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s not too late. If you blurt something out, stop as soon as you realize what’s going on. Then you can use what you’ve learned. Say, “Whoops, I’m sorry, there I go again. Let’s calm down.” Relax. Let it go. That’s improvement. Take some deep breaths, do your counting, and focus on the feelings of the other person. If you have offended, apologize. Do this in the moment, as soon as it happens. Any improvement you can make is worth making.