Extreme Esteem: Being right versus being happy

“He who establishes his argument by noise and command shows that his reason is weak.

– Michel de Montaigne, philosopher of the French Renaissance

“Actually, let me explain how this really works.”

My colleague shot me a sideways glance.

Our resident know-it-all was at it again. No matter what the topic, she had the answer. She was wiser, more well informed, and quite simply, right – every time, without exception. (Not in reality, but certainly in her mind.) This resulted in many fights, arguments and hard feelings.

No matter what the subject or who her opponent was, she would argue to the death that she knew best. Many work relationships and no doubt many personal ones, too, were damaged by her stance. Not surprisingly, she wanted to head up every committee and lead every management meeting. And she was frustrated by the fact that her career advancement had inexplicably stalled. Truth be known, no one wanted to work with her.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have tremendous admiration for those individuals who take a courageous stand against oppression and fight for what’s right and just. However, in my experience, most of those individuals have the awareness needed to weigh the consequences and to discern which battles to fight and when to agree to disagree. In other words, they understand the difference between being right and being happy.

Happiness can mean many things – and for some, being right is an essential part of it – but here I’m talking about being free of stress or anxiety. Often the battles will cause so much stress that it comes down to a choice between being right and being happy.

Like our resident expert, I used to believe my “right” was incontrovertible, and therefore, everyone else was simply wrong. Years ago, as an advertising manager, I demanded absolute adherence to my procedures and processes. Any deviation was unacceptable. After all, I was the manager – the most experienced person in the room – so I knew best. I was right! There was no middle ground, no possibility of compromise – no hope for a mutually beneficial outcome.

Upon reflection, I now see I was engaged in black-and-white thinking. There are thousands of shades of grey in the spectrum of black-and-white. And I realized that right versus happy wasn’t so much about right and wrong, but about an unreasonable need to be in control.

Need to be in control can also be an unconscious way of compensating for the feeling of being out of control or an unconscious fear that you don’t really know what you’re doing – a consequence of negative self-esteem. When we attempt to exert control, it can manifest in a variety of ways from the subtle and indirect – suggesting, sweet-talking, and manipulating – to the overt – threatening, intimidating, and demanding.

For the individual bent upon being right, all opposing opinions, suggestions and perspectives are wrong. The need to be right becomes overwhelming and will tend to over-ride good judgment. The end justifies the means, however extreme or inappropriate, creating stress and suffering for all those caught in its wake – and this ultimately includes the perpetrator.

Wise and aware people who don’t give up – who fight the good fight for the right reasons – are often rewarded for their perseverance and willingness to sacrifice. People with an excessive need to be right generally experience the opposite result. They win the disdain of others, and the harder they try to maintain control, the more out of control they feel. Moreover, being endlessly locked in combat becomes exhausting, leaving little energy for positive endeavours.

Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? It’s a simple, yet compelling question that can unlock the door to an awareness of other possibilities. An obsessive need to be right – in other words, to control people, events and outcomes – interferes or even obstructs your ability to be happy.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert.

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