I am in recovery from NTBR (Need to Be Right). Admittedly, this is my own diagnosis as the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has yet to catch up with this disorder. When I was a slave to NTBR, I needed to correct every error and wasted time searching for evidence to prove that I was right in every argument.
NTBR is particularly vicious because it requires that the other person be “less than” you. At its mildest, it reflects inflexibility. At its height, it manifests as dominance.
Collectively as a nation, we seem to be suffering from this disorder. It is an epidemic in the political landscape. Then there are those vicious comments on the Internet.
How did we get here?
Many psychologists and educators believe that much of it comes from our national identity. Our country is based on achievement, often at the expense of others.
Others believe that NTBR is rooted in our educational system. We have grades, rankings, debates, honors programs, and activities that reward correct answers and punish incorrect ones. Imagine if students were rewarded for asking the best questions, instead? It could teach better and more inclusive solutions.
Being right affirms and inflates our sense of self-worth. But it is ironically inconsistent with learning. We learn from our mistakes.
While my unwillingness to admit I am wrong may hurt people and make me less popular, people with more impactful careers can actually do serious damage.
I am thinking of two relatively recent examples. George Schultz had a distinguished career that included getting a President elected, ending the cold war, and befriending nations. At the end of his life, he was charmed by a con artist (Elizabeth Holmes) into believing that she was changing medical care and he opened many doors to get her financing and visibility. In his defense of her, he was even willing to break with his own family after his grandson tried to alert him to the dangers. After her deceit was discovered, Schultz recognized the courage of his grandson, but was never able to admit he was mistaken in his loyalty to her. His mistake caused people to lose money and subjected others to potential harm.
Another person in the news was Leah Askey, who prosecuted the wrong person (Russ Faria) despite the accused having a strong alibi and knowing there was solid evidence (that she successfully kept out of trial) that another person (Pam Hupp) committed the crime. The higher courts overturned the verdict and eventually exonerated Faria (with apologies) after he had spent 3 1/2 years in jail. Nevertheless, Askey is still unwilling to admit that she tried the wrong person.
For those who suffer from NTBR and want help, here are my steps to recovery.
- Admit I have a problem.
- Become curious. Before I “correct”, I try to ask open-ended questions and understand what that person is trying to say. By asking questions, it allows them to correct their mistake and makes it more likely that I will learn something.
- Practice kindness. When listening to a factual error, I ask myself: “Does it matter?”
- Practice empathy. For me to be right, the other person must be wrong. I know how unpleasant that feels.
- Be kind to myself. Just because I am wrong, it does not make me less than…it makes me human. After all, most of learning comes from failure.
For the past decade, I have been trying to work on this aspect of my personality. Here is last week’s scorecard:
- I didn’t correct a person who confused a shelter with a puppy mill. (He was telling a story about rescuing his dog…did it matter where the dog came from?)
- I didn’t correct a person who attributed a work of art to the wrong painter. (By asking her questions, it allowed her to correct herself and explain her confusion, which was a much more interesting story.)
- But yesterday I couldn’t stop myself from correcting someone who used the wrong term for a plant in my garden. (I shouldn’t have done it; that person wasn’t going to go out and buy that plant…she was merely giving me a compliment.)
Alas, I am in recovery…but I doubt that I will ever be cured.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.