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I’ll Show THEM!

I’m curious: Is there a survival benefit conferred to us by being stubborn, or is it just immaturity? (Or any one of a litany of emotional and psychological issues.) I’m starting to think there must be a benefit.

It’s amusing, this human lust for proving others wrong, this need to be justified. It’s as if “they” all witness the brain’s imaginary blotter of record and are apprised of how the points of personal justice add up. Ever caught yourself imagining “they” are watching?

Who are “they”, exactly, and why do we want to prove “them” wrong?

It’s obvious enough in the embarrassing daily scenes with which we have verbal feasts, our gleeful elation barely concealed (“Honey, you are not gonna believe what just happened with this guy at the bank. Total meltdown…”). It’s having the last word with the insouciant hot dog vendor. Arguing with the airline attendant for the sake of satisfaction. Debating automated service technology with the hapless phone rep.

Ah, to bathe in the hormonal rush of stubborn! We know such reactions are immature at best, rude at worst. Often, stress [1] has pushed a sane and polite person to the brink. But gosh, sometimes it just plain feels good. He who has not sinned, pick up the first numbered line ticket (or press 1 for English).

But proving “them” wrong goes beyond insecure displays of frustration with trivialities to major life choices. We all have stayed in relationships, romantic or otherwise, that don’t really “fit”. We chew on situations that have long since expired. We cling to a role that no longer serves anyone, least of all ourselves. We stay, and stay, and stay. Why? And to play my own devil’s advocate, is this really so bad?

(A caveat: Though I am a proponent of change, I’m not saying anyone has to change a less-than-ideal situation – only the individual really knows the reason, or reasons, for staying. We’re all controlled by forces and emotions of which we have yet to become aware. Getting into the many reasons people don’t change would make for a very tedious post, and it’s Monday and I know we’re all just getting perked up at this point. Also, I hope it’s clear that I’m not talking about persistence and diligence. Those are admirable qualities, and in this instant-gratification culture I think there’s too much giving up. I’m talking about harmful pride and stubbornness.)

I think that beneath all the “reasons” – both the superficial good ones and the comfortable lies – the root issue is simply that we are determined to prove “them” wrong. I’ll show them! Because when you’re wanting to prove “them” wrong, you’re really just wanting to prove yourself wrong. “Mistakes” cut into the old ego like the dickens. We’d rather save face.

Now we’re at the real question: why do we want to prove ourselves wrong?

We’re all blessed with instincts, some stronger than others. But from an early age, we’re taught to suppress our instincts. Authority knows best; the rules are always right; if it looks good on paper it must be good. As a result, we give words a chance when actions are not commensurate. We believe pundits, politicians, mass marketing, cheating lovers. We doubt ourselves before others (and it’s the last people who ought to doubt themselves who are the first to do so).

They say when you ask for advice, you already know the answer. I believe when we try to prove others wrong, we’re really just trying to prove ourselves wrong, because we already know the answer. And we’re loath to make a mistake. We’ve been taught that mistakes are bad.

I believe in the the maxim “a wise man keeps his own council” – but what confidence this takes! Ignoring our instincts is not only a recipe for an unfulfilled life but exerts a harmful level of physical stress that is probably cumulative and maybe more destructive than all the pizza and Twinkies we worry about. So why is living this way – it’s more like just-barely-existing – so commonplace?

A bit of a qualifier: I’m assuming you believe in the power of instinct as I do (if not, go read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink [2]). And I’m asserting, rather unoriginally, that proving “them” wrong is just psychological projection – whether in the form of tirades, meltdowns, lectures, denials, reproach – because we’re uncomfortable with experiencing our own feelings or confronting what we know to be true deep down.

Is suppression of instinct mere social conditioning, a necessary evil for the good of the group, or does it benefit the human species in some deeper way? Remember, a “benefit” in evolutionary terms is not always rosy. It would seem the evolutionary mechanism at work, if there is one, is a harsh one. While I don’t go in for the “America causes cancer!” fear-mongering, I do think it is clear that our modern lifestyle is grossly out of step with our genetic blueprints [3].

So, I really doubt there’s an evolutionary benefit to being stubborn (denying the truth to yourself). In fact, being an idealistic science nut, I believe the opposite: flexibility and willingness to change are the things that keep you alive, keep you healthy, and push the limits of longevity. And I believe that’s why we have instinct. Instinct is the evolutionary mechanism, not saving face for the good of some abstract lofty social notion or some emotion like fear.

Proving ourselves wrong: though it can feel “good” in the short term, in the long term, it just hurts everyone. It slices at your self-esteem. It beats you down. Many have been doing it so long, they don’t even realize what a battering they’ve subjected themselves to. I don’t think it’s natural, I don’t think it benefits anyone, and I don’t think it’s necessary to keep society churning. I think it’s an outdated social superimposition. Even if it is “natural”, aren’t we innovative enough to find a way of living that is both beneficial to society and the individual? Ignoring what we know to be true creates a dissonance, and projection is bound to result. This festering reactivity tears the individual down, turning adults into unsatisfied, miserable infants.

We’re going to have to move away from the hierarchical structure that teaches people to subvert their own intuition for some supposed survival benefit or “the good of all”. It’s fear-based, and it’s just not healthy. “Keeping people in line” with guilt, shame, and regrets may have been effective in the Middle Ages, I guess, but we don’t need it. That was society out of balance with nature, yet we’re still clinging to it psychologically.

Stop proving yourself wrong – it’s not benefiting anyone, least of all you. I don’t believe that life is a Hegelian zero-sum game. I believe we’re smart enough to make life a win-win.

Foibles. Scruples. Mistakes. Welcome to life: don’t let the regrets hit you on the way out.

More Monday Moments:

Why Partying Is Healthy [4]

Why Nervousness Is Good [5]

Do You Mean What You Say? Big Deal. [6]

The Devil You Know… [7]

[tags] psychology, human behavior, evolution, survival [/tags]