Why it’s so hard to admit when we’re wrong
Getting things wrong makes us human. But most of us struggle to admit when we’ve made a mistake. It’s so much easier to make excuses or blame someone else.
Understanding why we hate taking responsibility so much might help us to have empathy when others struggle to do so, and also to make different choices ourselves. Psychologists Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson lay out the reasons why in their wonderful book, Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me. (If you’re a couple struggling with ongoing conflict, I’d highly recommend the chapter in the book on marriage and relationships).
Reason 1. Confirmation Bias.
Once we’ve made up our mind about something, it’s extremely difficult to change because we begin only noticing facts that prove our hypothesis and automatically discounting information that doesn’t. Your mind only has so much space to pay attention, and once you’ve made it up about something your thinking becomes automatic. So when couples try fruitlessly to convince each other of who is right and who is wrong, you can see why it’s almost impossible for them to get through to each other. It’s extremely difficult to change anyone else’s mind, or for someone else to change your mind because of confirmation bias.
Reason 2. Need for a positive self-concept.
“Need for a positive self-concept” is a fancy way of saying we like to think that we’re good, intelligent and wise. And we want to continue believing that we’re good, intelligent and wise. Therefore, if someone brings it to our attention that we have actually done something harmful, or held some erroneous or delusional belief, our first instinct is to defend ourselves and disprove what they’re telling us. You can end up sliding down a mountain of self-justification if you aren’t self-aware enough to realize what you’re doing. In fact, the more you justify yourself, the harder it will be to take in any feedback. You can end up fairly far away from your original values and ethics because of this process.
For example: you always believed in the importance of monogamy, but you had an affair. To help yourself feel less bad about the affair, you may change your beliefs to justify your behavior. You may decide that affairs are actually not so bad and maybe justifiable depending on the situation.
Antidote 1. Psychological Flexibility.
This means that you are open to new ideas and don’t cling too closely to all of your thoughts. Letting in new ideas might feel uncomfortable, but you can handle the discomfort. You’re willing to laugh at yourself. This doesn’t mean you’re suggestible or gullible, but you are open-minded. Putting yourself into this habit of mind can help you avoid the traps of self-justification and confirmation bias.
Antidote 2. Paying attention to what’s happening in your mind.
Look for the signs in yourself that you are getting defensive or falling prey to biases. Are you telling a negative story about your partner’s behavior that feels very true to you? Can you take a step back from that story and notice alternative information? What about your own contribution to the struggles between you? What can you take responsibility for?
Antidote 3. Self-Compassion.
If you tend to beat yourself up for making mistakes, you’re a lot less likely to want to own up to any. What if, instead, you were kind to yourself for being human? If you’re not afraid of the self-blame and shame storm, but instead you can accept your flaws, honesty gets so much easier. Self-compassion doesn’t mean giving yourself a free pass to be a jerk; it does mean offering yourself the same forgiving kindness that you would offer to a close friend. For more on self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff’s awesome website.
Many couples struggle with how these very normal, human tendencies show up in their conflicts. They end up feeling unheard. If you need help talking with each other in a positive way, feel free to reach out for a free consult.