The Power in Being Wrong
Shonnie Brown, MFT

It is a misapprehension that admitting a mistake makes one weak. For it is the big person who admits he is wrong. Not only does he gain in esteem, but he diffuses conflict and reaches agreements with others. A bully does not make friends, is never a hero. A hero listens to others' differences and reaches compromise through negotiation, thereby retaining connection and building bridges.

Recently, a client, Mary, asked me to suggest an appropriate consequence for nine year-old Jimmy. Jimmy had dared a friend to cut off his hair and the friend had complied. Imagining Jimmy's guilt and shame, I suggested he go with his dad to apologize to the friend and the friend's parents and ask how he might make amends. Mary and I discussed the advantageous lessons to be learned--saying "I'm sorry, I made a mistake," encourages humility, self-responsibility and effectively diffuses blame and anger.

I then told Mary two different stories of recent encounters I'd had. One friend, Dan, had been thoughtless in a way that left me feeling hurt and betrayed. My ongoing discomfort forced me to finally confront him. I nervously spilled my guts--listing everything I'd held against him. He sat quietly and listened. When I was done, he simply replied, "You are right. I made a mistake and I take full responsibility for it. How can I make it up to you?"

My hurt and anger disappeared. By hearing me and taking responsibility for his actions, Dan had completely diffused a highly charged situation. Our friendship was restored and my respect for him actually grew.

The second person, Mark, who was in a position of authority with me, had treated me most unfairly. Because I was unable to forgive him, I suggested, with good intentions, that we meet to talk. As I explained the effect of his actions on me, I saw his face begin to distort into a dark, protective mask. The first words out of his mouth were an attack on me, not a response to my issue. And from there it was all downhill. The business relationship and any personal friendship were irreparably ruptured by Mark's need to defend himself against an imaginary enemy.


The toxic shame underneath the protective need to be right is lethal and destructive. In my work with couples and co-parents, I meet Mark over and over again...

Amy and Gordon sit across from me on the couch. Recalling a disagreement they had, Amy asks calmly, "Are you now sorry that you said the thing you said?"

Gordon replies sarcastically, "You obviously don't understand anything about me!"

And he continues to defend himself and blame her, moving forward and jabbing his finger into the space between them.

Living with Gordon has taught Amy how to diffuse conflict. I see her struggling to remain calm and to ignore his blame and sarcasm. "Do you regret that the children have been hurt?" she now asks.

But Gordon continues to bombard her with a tone and posture of authority--a posture which I recognize as his defense against "being wrong"--a protection against any shame he may be feeling about making a mistake. A cue that he is not ready for confrontation. And Amy has no choice but to change the subject into something that he can tolerate. For his need to be right, another opportunity for deepening intimacy and understanding has been missed.

The escalating battle of this need to be right is central to many divorces. I can't help but compare Gordon and Amy to Javier and Pamela, a divorcing couple who showed up together in my Parenting Through Divorce class. My policy is to not have couples in the same class, but Pamela insisted that they were the exception.

Javier shared their story with the group. They had been engaged in a bitter and ever escalating child custody battle--having spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting for their own self interests. One day, while the attorneys were calling a time out, an exhausted Javier approached Pamela. "I give up," he told her. "This is not about our daughter's best interests. Let's fire the attorneys and do whatever we need to do to co-parent together."

My group was silent, and I saw that Pamela was crying. Even when Javier spoke about his new girlfriend, Pamela remained non-defensive. They have remained my heroes. I don't know when I have been so touched by a client's story.


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