Susan, my gym buddy, is personable, friendly and bright. Sue takes health and chemical toxins more seriously than I do. I eat apples without washing them.
The subject of swimming laps came up which led to chlorine. Sue argued about the danger of swimming pools because of toxic chlorine gas.
“It’s used as a weapon, she said, Stay out of pools”. I thought of Michael Phelps and the millions of joyful children swimming in chlorinated pools since 1910.
Baffled, I said, “What if did a research project, an in-depth technical study to find the facts about pool chlorine? And suppose the conclusion is that the harm to people is negligible?”
Susan said, “I wouldn’t believe you”. I asked why and she said, “Because I know!”
Susan’s, “because I know!” response reminded me how powerful our need to be right is. We all have opinions and gain solace from arguing that we’re right.
When argue healthfully, we compromise. Even though voices are raised, we work stuff out. We model healthy problem solving for our children. Both parties listen to each other and there’s give and take.
It’s the compulsion for us to be uncompromisingly right that needs attention. Our need to be right, all of the time, sends up red flags. It’s alienating when we’re rigid, unable (or unwilling) to consider the other person’s point of view.
Our psychological makeup is partly the blame. In being right, we protect our sense of self or ego-identity. We have a fixed self-image supported by our views and opinions. When we’re contradicted—we react, we feel like our “persona” is being attacked—we stand our ground!
It’s like being right makes us a worthy person. A narrow view because we’re worthy by the nature of being born, capable of giving and receiving love. Our intelligence, kindness and the ability to have compassion for each other—far outweigh being right.
I had experience with this obsession while raising a family. I was always right. And my sons learned one right way to do things, mine. You can imagine how three rebellious teenage boys loved this. For example, teaching my son to paint a wall, my focus was on a perfect paint job. I was impatient and oblivious to his feelings. Slowly my once enthusiastic volunteer drifted away.
I struggle with being right daily. Someday I’d like to grow up and learn how healthy human relationships work.
On a global level, self-righteousness mixed with narcissism personality disorder (NPD) is deadly. There are 7 billion of us humans walking around this planet, many thinking we’re absolutely right. We think our truth is the only one. And this causes some sticky things like wars, famine, injustice, and planet sustainability issues for a start.
We see the actions of scary religious extremists and bullying political leaders all over the world. With plenty of them—demagogues and divisive goblins right here in America. As a consequence, we've formed into polarized groups of right and wrong. I think of it as global narcissism, with no simple solution.
What can we do as individuals? Look into our own narcissistic tendencies. If you’re having cognitive conflicts with people regularly—face up to it. Beliefs are not the big deal we think they are. Everyone has different ones that work for them.
A start is to make friends with yourself, let go of self-judgment. Realize that you’re valuable and worthy as you are. Find out how to develop self-compassion—how to be kinder to yourself. If this requires seeing a therapist, please do so. You’re worth it. Any of us can change if we’re willing.
And self-compassion gives us the ability to have compassion and understanding for others. There’s a treasure trove of incredible people to learn from. People all around us have different skills and creative thoughts to offer. Solid listening skills are part of it.
Active listening is an art you can learn. Listening to understand (while withholding judgment) helps the person feel heard. Also, listening with empathy will enable one to find out why someone feels the way they do. But, there’s a caveat. It requires tolerance and acceptance on our part.
We grew up with beliefs that help us make sense of the world. Influenced by our upbringing we each have our own truths. We’ll struggle less if we accept the fact that our beliefs and the different beliefs of others can coexist. Apart from aggression, other people’s views have no intrinsic, real “right or wrong”—they’re just different.
So how’s this leave Susan, chlorine and me? We moved on to lead-based paint and continue being friends.
Ray Regan is a grandfather and writer living in Chester County, Pa.