We like to think of ourselves as holding correct ideas, the correct political ideology, the truest religious beliefs, or generally knowing the right way to do things. However, when we come to that visceral realization that, no, in fact, we are wrong, we can experience a multitude of feelings and reactions, most of which we would prefer not to feel.
I am not talking about the being wrong in an external sense, where another person or a panel of so-called experts labels you as somehow wrong. That is another topic (on public shaming) for another time. This experience of being wrong, the relational and personal one, comes from an experience of doing something that is undesirable (such as speaking dishonestly) or acting irresponsibly by one’s own standard (such as flaking on a friend) and then realizing what one has done has a harmful effect. There is always an effect to our actions even if we do not want to admit it.
The impact that we can have on others, whether intentional or not, is something that requires careful consideration. I believe this because I’ve seen so much hurt and pain caused by those not intending to harm, and inflicting further harm when refusing to admit that they were in the wrong. This part, this refusing to admit one’s wrongness is an insidious hurt: it further wounds through denying that the hurt even occurred, which distances, denigrates, and disorients. Sometimes all we would like when we are hurting is for another person to take responsibility for their actions and admit that they were wrong, so that we are not left alone in our hurt. However, when it is we who have inflicted the harm, it can be very difficult to admit that we, ourselves, are part of the reason for that hurt.
There are many ways that we avoid the realization of being wrong. We can shutter it away with seemingly “positive” thoughts: I like being proven wrong that way I can learn and improve; We are all learning here; I’ll do better next time; I’ll apologize; I’ll make it right. I call these, “positive,” thoughts because they add a push away from the wrongness. Sure, being proactive and deciding to make a change for the better is an admirable choice. Putting a positive spin on being wrong, in truth, avoids the feelings that come up with being wrong in favor of presenting a polished response.
Wanting everything to be right, right now, is a lovely sentiment that overlooks what is happening, right now, which is a present experience of another person hurting and ourselves as being in the wrong.
We can also drown the experience of being wrong in a sea of catastrophic “negative” thoughts: I’ll never be able to do anything right; I’m such a failure; I always make these mistakes; I’ll never be good enough. I call these, “negative,” thoughts because they take away the current feeling of being wrong by focusing on other aspects of being, and other kinds of hurt. This present moment of being wrong can get lost in a historical recounting of other wrongs, and this global catastrophizing minimizes the present experience. Fine. You think little of yourself overall. That doesn’t address what is happening right now.
We might also attempt to ease the sense of what is wrong with misdirections: I didn’t know it would upset you; I am just following my beliefs; I forgot. Sidestepping the present experience, by mentally focusing on the degree of intent or kind of wrongness, again, avoids the present experience of being wrong. I cringe when I hear these reasons that another person gives for being wrong, but I remember that they, too, desperately want to be right and do not want to be in the wrong.
Those are some of the theoretical ways that a person can avoid the experience of being wrong.
When I, on a personal level, am wrong, I can be embarrassed for what I did. I can be self-critical about my lack of judgment and knowing better. I can fear losing a connection to others, and lose those relationships. I can feel as if I am falling down from a trip on a broken piece of sidewalk that I saw was there. More responses than these few ones I have listed have come up for me when I have been wrong, and yet, the hard part, at least for me, is to cleanly admit that I am wrong without spiraling out towards “positive” responses, “negative” associations, or any misdirection from the fact that I was wrong and that I am responsible for what I did.
When I do admit that I am wrong I open myself up to feeling embarrassed for what I have done, humbled, shamed, belittled, or rejected for what I have done and how I have impacted others in my life. I open myself up to a whole range of emotions when I admit that I am wrong. When I avoid being wrong, I also avoid connecting to another person and being vulnerable with who I am, and what I have done. Opening up, and honestly admitting that I was wrong, is where I must be before I can apologize, before I can mend a relationship, before I can let go, before I can ever move towards something right, so that I can be seen and accepted as I am.