the beauty of being wrong

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being wrong by kathryn schulzSeveral months back, my wife and I were having brunch with friends in Ditmas Park. At one point in the conversation, our friends became animated as they talked about a book by Kathryn Schulz called Being Wrong. Upon hearing some of what the book was about, I knew I had to read it, as I’d been racking my brain for months about the following dilemma:

Each of us has attitudes, beliefs and ways of relating to others that make our lives worse – yet we cling to our own attitudes, beliefs and ways of relating, often defending them at all costs. We take offense if we are questioned, and rarely do we truly seek to understand how others see things, especially if tension/conflict has ensued. In the midst of battle, we REALLY dig in our heels to defend our version of reality. In this regard, we all seem to have forgotten Socrates’ maxim: All I know is that I do not know. I’d long thought that Socrates’ relationship to certainty/uncertainty was relevant to mental and emotional health, and suddenly here I was at brunch hearing about a book that might just help me advance my thinking on the issue.

On the basis of my excitement, I proceeded to – in my mind – do something I have done, oh, about one million times in my life: I told myself that I could and would get and completely read the book that weekend. WRONG. Coincidentally, Schulz uses just such an example at the end of her story where a friend of hers promises himself that he will read all of Ulysses during a 4 week break at school. WRONG.

As it turned out, it took me a few weeks to even get around to buying the book and then a few months before I actually took it off my shelf. After finishing it this weekend, I find myself left with one overriding thought: Kathryn Schulz (not a therapist herself) has done the field of psychotherapy a great service by giving us a game-changing way to understand a core aspect of ourselves: the built in tension between our intense craving to be right and our equally powerful tendency to be wrong.

certainty and uncertainty
When we put ‘certainty’ at the center of our lives – the repeated claim that we are Right, that we Know and that OUR current version of reality in a given situation is True – it usually causes us more harm than good, in a variety of respects, but definitely in our relationships and in our inner lives. This dovetails well with an important idea in psychotherapy which is that optimal mental health is characterized more by flexibility than rigidity. Schulz’s work helps us, I think, to digest more deeply something that we may agree with intellectually but have great difficulty putting into practice in our lives, which is this: More important than ‘being right’ in our construal of reality (say, in an argument with one’s spouse) is the ability to be flexible – to stop, change directions and co-create a new narrative that allows for and supports connection, teamwork and synergy.

the prison of perfectionism
One of the main points of Being Wrong is to extol the virtue, in a genuine way, of human fallibility. Schulz goes to great lengths to give a serious and deeply satisfying account of how our vulnerabilities and imperfections are in many ways assets, and she encourages us to relate to them as such. This turns the modern epidemic of perfectionism (I must never let them see me sweat, I must keep up appearances at all costs) on its head. Her ideas are all the more appealing because she makes them with depth, humor, extensive historical references and most importantly, warmth and humility. Schulz writes:

What is true of our collective human pursuits is also true of our individual lives. All of us outgrow some of our beliefs. All of us hatch theories in one moment only to find that we must abandon them in the next. Our tricky senses, our limited intellects, our fickle memories, the veil of emotions, the tug of allegiances, the complexity of the world around us: all of this conspires to ensure that we get things wrong again and again.

As an intellectual idea, most people agree that we are all imperfect, but as a visceral and deep-down-in-the-soul experience, few of us really ‘get’ it and have integrated that reality into our hearts and minds. Who among us is at peace with our personal version of the human condition? As I have spoken about in previous blog posts, to deepen our awareness and acceptance of our own personal shadow is to create the conditions we need in order to take the creative/constructive action that transforms our lives in desirable ways – not overnight but over time. What is the shadow side of oneself? What I mean is simply the sum of the parts of ourselves we often consider to be ‘wrong,’ that we learn to hide and wish would just go away – the aspects of ourselves that are flawed, fearful, insecure, ashamed, wanting, doubtful, self-centered, compulsive, naïve and more.

lifelong learning and growth
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again and again): Learning and growth are lifelong (if we so choose), and they result from a daily practice of conscious, reflective and purposeful living. Schulz helps us see ever more clearly that such a path is characterized less by the repetition of grand successes and more by honest and consistent recognition of the incidences where we make mistakes, get things backwards, fall short of our ideals, hurt others, neglect ourselves and generally make a mess of things. This reflective practice improves our lives so dramatically because when we can regularly admit that we are wrong, we replace rigidity with flexibility and creativity, and this is exactly the framework and skill set we need if we are serious about becoming better friends, spouses, workers, parents, bosses, artists, members and citizens.

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one response

  1. donna says:

    Wonderful reminder! Thank you, Chris.

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