Thursday, September 13, 2018

Unhelpful Thinking Style: Always Being Right

One of the greatest revelations in my personal understanding of mental health has been learning about "cognitive distortions." Also known as unhelpful thinking styles or misbeliefs, these are the lies we tell ourselves which skew our thinking and are frequently associated with depression, anxiety, unfettered anger, and a host of other issues. In good news, we can make positive strides in our mental health by noticing these lies and countering them with the facts. This is the basis for much of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is one of the few styles of therapy that scientific studies have shown to be effective across a wide spectrum of mental health issues.

A couple years ago, as I was reading a list of common cognitive distortions, I was surprised to find one mentioned that I hadn't noticed before: "Always Being Right."

This must be a mistake, I thought. Sure, argumentative know-it-alls can be jerks sometimes. But these psychologists can't possibly think such arguing has roots in the same categories of thought as depression and anxiety. I mean, I can see the falsehood in depressive thoughts, like, "I am a loser. Things will never get better," or common lies of anxiety, like, "It is terrible and unbearable if someone else is disappointed in me. If the worst case scenario happens I won't be able to handle it." But these ways of thinking are just totally different from being right about things!

However, as I was reflecting recently on the idea of "rightness" being a cognitive distortion, one of the most egregious scenarios from my own life came roaring back. Several years ago, I was having a nice pleasant back-and-forth email discussion about health policy with two friends. The exchange ended in me explaining the concept of adverse selection with a detailed mathematical example, thus proving why insurance companies cannot sell plans to individuals with preexisting health conditions. (Sounds smart, right?) I was vindicated!

On yeah, did I mention one of my two friends was battling a life-threatening illness at that time?

I wish I could say this story is made-up.

Surely a person with any common sense and human decency would know better, you say! Surely you should have seen that your response was valuing the argument over the friendship! Surely you should have thought before you hit "send!" Trust me, if I could take that whole thing back, I would in a second.

Fighting her disease was emotionally and physically draining. Had I stopped for a moment to consider the topic we were discussing from my friend's perspective, I would have realized that she would be justifiably angry and terrified by the idea that she could also one day be excluded from buying health insurance because of it. Math or no math.

And yet somehow in the moment, I told myself that if I had a factually correct and logically sound argument, that meant it was "right" to share my view. It took my friend directly pointing out how inconsiderate I was being in light of her situation, to remove the blinders and show just how wrong my "rightness" really was.

While that example is more extreme than most, I still do stupid things like this sometimes. Tell me an opinion, and I can rattle off ten reasons why someone would hold the opposite view. But I am slowly learning and growing, practicing reflective listening, being ok with leaving things open, being more aware about what others think and feel. And thankfully, I have some amazingly patient friends in my life.

I have also had friends who argued in futile circles with me when I wanted to drop a subject or belittled me over minor points of disagreement in conversations. So I feel confident saying from the other side of the experience that it doesn't feel good, breaks down trust, and is not likely to change someone's mind.

Based on my personal experiences with the art of debate and my observations of others, here are some of the common lies I have identified that are associated with always being right:

Misbeliefs Because of Our Personal Insecurities
  • If I am wrong about something, it proves that I am a phony, not intelligent, or not competent. To borrow a phrase from Backus and Chapian, "That would be terrible and unbearable."
  • If others think I am wrong about something, it follows that they will think I am a phony, unintelligent, or incompetent.
  • It is terrible and unbearable for others to have a low view of my intellect. I am responsible for forming and maintaining others' opinions of me.
  • If I do not conclusively prove I am right about something, others will incorrectly think I am wrong, and that would be terrible and unbearable. It is terrible and unbearable for someone else to continue thinking I am wrong after a conversation where I share my views.
  • The only way to combat the anxiety or rumination I experience when I do not correct someone else's wrong thinking is to express my opinions whenever I feel the urge.
  • If my loved ones think I am wrong about something, they will lose respect for me or will no longer value me.
  • My knowledge, opinions, and logical faculties define my personal identity.
Misbeliefs About Others
  • It is terrible and unbearable for someone else to live their life believing something that is not factually, logically, or ethically correct.
  • All incorrect thinking has major consequences.
  • It is my responsibility to correct people who are wrong; if I don't correct this person's opinion, they may never know they are wrong, and that would be terrible and unbearable.
Misbeliefs About Our Superiority and Importance
  • I often know more about certain issues than people who have personally experienced them. Personal experience only creates bias.
  • When someone remembers or interprets a situation differently than I do, my recollection or analysis of events, conversations, intentions, etc. is definitely the correct version.
  • If I provide the correct information and logical framework, people should change their minds to my view.
  • If someone does not agree with me, it must be because they do not fully understand my arguments and reasons. (I should probably explain them again.)
  • If someone does not agree with my well-thought-out opinion, it is an indication of their unwillingness to acknowledge facts, their low IQ, or their closed mindedness.
  • My opinions are almost always based on the facts, while those with differing opinions are using emotional or faulty logic / premises; I am objective, while others are biased.
  • My understanding and analysis lead to completely right living and purely motivated actions; others' misbeliefs lead to entirely wrong living and actions.
  • The conclusions I have drawn based on the facts are as good as facts.
Relational / Social Misbeliefs
  • Being right is more important than being kind.
  • Expressing my opinion is more important than understanding another person's thoughts and feelings.
  • It is always important to express my opinion, even if it...
    • hurts someone else's feelings.
    • interrupts the agenda of an event.
    • disrupts the overall purpose of a conversation.
    • involves strong language or tone.
    • insults a core part of someone else's identity.
    • embarrasses someone else.
    • makes spectators to the conversation feel uncomfortable.
    • etc.
  • Correcting factual inaccuracies can only benefit conversations and can never detract from them.
  • If I don't express my disagreement with someone, it is the same as saying I agree or allowing others to assume that I agree. Therefore, I have a responsibility to argue all issues.
  • Conversations should always continue until both sides agree on the answer.
  • I should always be the one to decide when a conversation is complete.
  • It is terrible and unbearable to be silent when I have a thought.
  • Wrong thinking needs to be dealt with immediately - there is no such thing as an inappropriate time to speak up when it comes to inaccuracies or false logic.

And many others. If you find yourself thinking any of the above with some regularity, you may be falling into a cognitive distortion trap.

Some signs you are experiencing this kind of thinking include getting irritable or anxious when someone disagrees with you, spending time researching information to prove others wrong, having multiple friends or loved ones who have expressed hurt feelings from your discussions, continuing conversations even when the other person would prefer to drop the matter, spending significant time arguing on internet forums, needing to have the last word in disagreements, and feeling most at peace when you are confident you and others have reached the right conclusion about a subject. (Source)

The cognitive distortion of "always being right" can be especially hard to recognize in ourselves, since those who experience it are confident their side is in the right in nearly all situations, thus limiting self-reflection. It may be useful to have a close trusted friend help you identify if you are exhibiting the behaviors common with this unhelpful thinking style. 

In truth, most people can live perfectly happy and functional lives believing many wrong things. It may be unpleasant when someone thinks you are wrong or disagrees with you, but it is not terrible and unbearable, and in fact, you can live a perfectly fulfilling and contented life being misunderstood by many people. Your identity and intellect are not inherently changed based on what others think about them. While you may prefer people to change their minds when confronted with your analysis of the facts, it is not actually terrible and unbearable if they don't. Even when someone fully understands your arguments, they may still disagree with you (and even be rational doing it). Many of the people we surround ourselves with have excellent logical capabilities and memories as accurate as our own. And we are all susceptible to bias - including you - that's just called being human. Sometimes pointing out errors or arguing over being right takes time and energy away from more crucial things at hand. Maintaining healthy relationships sometimes means holding back our opinions, regulating our tone of voice, or ending some types of disagreements before they feel fully resolved - and all of those choices may be unpleasant at times, but they are not terrible and unbearable and are usually signs of good character.

Above are the sorts of truths we can embrace to combat the cognitive distortion of always being right; things are not as terrible and unbearable as we tell ourselves they are. It may even be helpful to repeat these kinds of truths whenever we find our minds racing in the direction of misbeliefs.

Of course, some people fall to the opposite end of the spectrum, telling themselves they can never disagree or express their own opinions. They believe the effects of such discord, usually others' disappointment in them, would be terrible and unbearable. That, too, is its own type of cognitive distortion. As Backus and Chapian astutely point out in their book, "Telling Yourself the Truth," while we all prefer to have others like us, it is not necessary or even possible that we be liked by everyone, and while others' disappointment may be unpleasant, it is not actually terrible and unbearable. Sometimes wrong ideas do have genuine negative consequences that need to be addressed. It would be inaccurate to say that it is never ok to hurt someone else's feelings with our opinions. For example, when someone crosses an important boundary we have set, we may need to speak up.

So we must strike a balance.

We should feel free to have and share ideas and to express our genuine needs and wants without giving power to our basic insecurities, assuming our intellectual superiority, or disregarding relational consequences.

I suspect I will always love debate in some form, and anyone who knows me could probably never imagine a reserved version of my personality. But I can still choose to believe truths about my own identity and social responsibilities when it comes to personal speech.

I will end by noting that apparently, God is well aware of the human tendency to use our speech carelessly, rather than to love well. I am always challenged by just how many verses in scripture teach the wisdom of staying silent and carefully guarding our speech. That has never been my forte. In God's eyes, feeling the need to constantly prove I am right actually shows foolishness rather than the superior wisdom I may think it demonstrates.

"The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues." ~Proverbs 17:27-28

Thank you to all the friends, mentors, and loved ones who continue to support me on this journey called life! May we all let go of the lies that hold us back and keep growing in the wisdom of self-control and love.

Please note that I am not a mental health practitioner or a licensed counselor - just a public health professional interested in the subject. Want to know more about Cognitive Distortions and how they might be affecting your mental health? Check out some of the articles linked throughout the text above, as well as the secular book, "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy," by David Burns, and the Christian book, "Telling Yourself the Truth," by William Backus and Marie Chapian. In particular, I borrowed the phrase "terrible and unbearable" from Backus and Chapian, because it resonated when I read their work.