My mentor posed this question to me recently, “Do each of us have an internal need for rightness?” Meaning that during an argument in relationships – do all of us have a need to be “right”?
I thought a lot about this and found myself challenged by this question when reflecting on a recent argument with my husband. I was going over our argument (in my head) again and again – wondering, “Did I have a need to be right”?
It sure can feel like one has a need to be right but ultimately I concluded that I did not have a need to be ‘right’ –
“I had a need to be understood”
When I stay strong in my position it is because I don’t feel understood. All of us have a need to feel and be understood; it feels incredible when someone understands us!
“When we feel understood we can let down our defenses”
I immediately soften, when I feel understood. And most important, I feel seen for whom I am as a person. Further, I recognized that I don’t have a need to be ‘right’ because I prefer to understand the position or side of my husband because it softens me toward him. Meaning that understanding him feels better than misunderstanding him and his intentions.
However, it is challenging for me to see my husband’s side and soften toward him if I don’t feel understood, or if I feel falsely accused or blamed.
For example: I remember a while back, after an argument with my husband, my mentor helped me understand how I had misinterpreted my husband’s behavior. I had concluded that the argument that took place between us the previous day had not caused any further concern to my husband because he did not ‘initiate’ dialogue in an attempt to resolve the conflict and reconnect. In sharing my concern with my mentor, he said “I don’t believe he knows what to do or what to say to you. Many men feel lost in knowing what to do.” In all honesty, my initial thought was “how could he not know what to do, it’s simple – just come talk to me!” However, I quickly realized that this is easy for me – not for him.
Then I had to ask myself this question –
“Is this true for everyone? Does everyone react from a need to be understood or do some have the need to be right?”
I reflected on the many couple’s sessions that I have experienced and I can clearly reflect on those individuals who appeared to want to be right. They stayed strong in their position despite the fact that they clearly played a part in the conflict with their partner. However, I don’t believe it is a question of needing to be right when a person stays strong in their position – it is a fear of feeling shame. Some have difficulty taking personal responsibility without feeling shame.
I talk about shame frequently, but I realize that shame is not a regular part of everyone’s daily conversation. So, what is shame? Shame is when you feel you are something wrong, flawed and/or inadequate. Brene Brown defines shame as:
“An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection”
For me, when I feel shame – I want to crawl out of my skin, it feels that awful.
Men, Women and Shame:
It is challenging for men to even acknowledge that they feel shame because it can be viewed as being weak. In therapy, when I suggest to a male that he is feeling shame, I am often met with a reaction of disbelief, denial and/or shame for feeling shame. If a man feels shame he tends to have one or both of two reactions – either he will lash out in anger and/or he will withdraw.
Women tend to ‘beat themselves up’ by not feeling or seeing themselves as good enough. They feel unlovable and unworthy of love.
Please keep in mind that shame is felt and experienced in degrees. If I have hurt someone I feel shame to a much stronger degree than if I have made a mistake.
Shame and rightness:
In regard to shame and the need to be right, keep in mind that it is not about a need to be right but a need to not feel shame. When someone is swallowed up by shame, it is all consuming and therefore prevents empathy. This does not mean that they are not an empathetic person. It simply means that, in the moment of experiencing shame, it is challenging to come out of shame and see how one might be hurting another person.
While it is helpful to recognize one’s shame and/or the shame of your partner, this does not mean that you need to abandon your need to express your side regarding the conflict and ask for understanding. However, it is necessary to wait until one moves out of shame. It can be easy to feel empathy for the shame of another and then give up your need to be understood. That is not the answer. It is necessary to balance empathy for your partner with your need at the same time.
Understanding yourself and others:
Self-awareness is key to understanding you and others. Here’s why: when you are self-aware (by the way, this is a lifelong process because we are always growing and changing!) you can learn to express yourself in a confident manner while at the same time being open to new learning. Self-awareness minimizes the accepting of blame that is not yours to take.
Self-awareness also guides you toward an understanding of how your challenges impact your partner. If you struggle with shame and you can move out it – it can feel empowering to take responsibility for the challenges that you bring, if you can do so with self-compassion. The key here is self-compassion.
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If you want to learn more about relationships – I wrote this for you “Ten Essential Things I’ve Learned About Marriage & Relationships” I’ve included the lesson that saved my marriage. I care about the work that I put out to you, and I hope you find it helpful. Let me know!
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Details of any stories told in my blogs have been changed to protect the identity of people that I work with in therapy.
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