Janet was a bit of a know-all. Like all know-alls, she didn’t see herself that way. She saw herself more as a researcher, someone with an accurate purchase on events.
If she saw something posted on the internet, that failed her test of accuracy, she wouldn’t be able to resist reaching for her keyboard as a warrior reaches for her spear.
She would point out to the transgressor the error of their ways. Sometimes it was a historical inaccuracy. Sometimes it was a point of grammar. Whatever it was, for those minutes and hours of argument, in which she fought for what was ‘right’, she was unable to resist the call of the need to correct others.
Slowly, her friends deserted her. They became worn down by what they saw as her stubborn bossiness. She, however, continued to feel that her actions were wholly neccessary. She could not see why one would ever hold back on a question of accuracy or procedure. The assertion of fact in the face of error was, for her, not a negotiable.
After a number of years she became lonely and depressed. During these years, she never saw the connection between people shunning her, and her addiction to correction. Facts are facts, she always thought. Why should they interfere with friendship?
And yet interfere they did. Behind her back, friends would dwindle to acquaintances, acquaintances fade to strangers.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF ‘BEING RIGHT’
The need to correct others can come from many sources. Among the causes of the behaviour are:
- fragile self-esteem
- lack of trust
- the need to control one’s surroundings
- a bias towards intellectual solutions to problems
Janet had always lacked self-confidence since childhood. Intelligent but fearful, she tried to impose order and consistency on her environment through fact and logic. People’s emotions were untrustworthy and fickle; in contrast, history and research were more within her control.
Janet’s pursuit of ‘being right’ was an attempt to make the world safer. Unfortunately, it pushed people away from her.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HAVING FRIENDS
Eventually, pained by her depression, Janet came to counselling. It took years, but, slowly, she learned to watch herself in the act of controlling others through ‘facts’. She began to see that the so-called ‘correct’ information and processes that she promoted, were carefully selected to give her the best chance of coming out on top.
Once I asked her: ‘Janet, do you want to be right, or do you want to have friends?’ We laughed, and this question became central to a kind of behavioural retraining. Whenever she caught herself ‘trying to be right’, she would use it as a chance to practice ‘making friends’.
Gradually, she applied the opposite of her lifelong tendencies. She reframed her sense of self-esteem. In small steps, she started to trust others by delegating small tasks, then larger ones. She relaxed control over her surroundings, letting each day flow like a cloud, rather than making it a list of unconquered tasks.
And when she caught herself being intellectually over-combative, she stopped herself.
THE CHESS PLAYER AND THE YOGHURT
One day I said to her: ‘Imagine you are playing chess with a friend, and they suddenly express a desperate wish for a yoghurt. Are you going to deprive them of a yoghurt, just because you want to pay chess? In the same way, are you going to deprive others of their emotional needs, just because you want to be right?’
She learned to see the emotional need in any situation, the undercurrent behind the argument. Instead of trying to win the intellectual battle, she opened her eyes to the mood-based needs of others. She spotted when others needed some loving care. Instead of using herself as an ideological weapon against others, she began to see herself as healing medicine for others.
Just for today, I will notice when I am ‘playing chess’ against someone who ‘wants a yoghurt’.
Just for today, I will relax my need to be right.
Just for today, instead of fighting battles born in my own head, I will give up my need for control, and listen out for others’ emotional needs.
Janet is fictional. Out of respect for confidentiality, I can’t disclose details of therapeutic clients. However, Janet’s patterns of behaviour, and personal journey, are a relevant amalgam from life and counselling experience.