Updated: Feb 8, 2021
My job is to talk to people. I love the fact that people never cease to amaze me with the way that they think. One thing I am always interested in when I listen to their story is if they own their part in their own story or not. What mistake did they make in this relationship that they need to own and offer an apology in order to heal the relationship? And if they will not admit they are wrong, why not?
The truth is that we all make mistakes, and we do it with regularity. Some errors are small, such as, “No, we don’t need to stop at the store; there’s plenty of milk left for breakfast." Some are bigger, such as, “Don’t rush me; we have plenty of time to get to the airport before the flight leaves.”
No one enjoys being wrong, I know that I do not. And the reason that we don’t is mostly because it is an unpleasant emotional experience. The question is how do we respond when it turns out we were wrong…when there wasn’t enough milk left for coffee, or when we hit traffic and missed the flight?
Some of us will admit we were wrong and say, “Oops, you were right. We should have gotten more milk.” Some of us kind of imply we were wrong, but we don’t do so explicitly or in a way that is satisfying to the other person, “We had plenty of time to get to the airport on time if the traffic hadn’t been unusually bad. But fine, we’ll leave earlier next time.”
But some people will actually refuse to admit they’re wrong, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. These examples are probably familiar to most of us because those are typical responses to being wrong. We accept responsibility fully or partially (sometimes, very, very partially), but we do not push back against the actual facts. We do not claim there was enough milk when there wasn’t, or that we were not late to the airport.
But what about when a person does push back against the facts, when they simply cannot admit they were wrong in any circumstance? What in their psychological makeup makes it impossible for them to admit they were wrong, even when it is obvious, they were? And why does this happen so repetitively — why do they never admit they were wrong?
The answer is related to their ego, their very sense-of-self. Some people have such a fragile ego, with such brittle self-esteem, such a weak "psychological constitution," that admitting they made a mistake or that they were wrong is fundamentally too threatening for their egos to tolerate. Accepting they were wrong, absorbing that reality, would be so psychologically shattering, their defense mechanisms do something remarkable to avoid doing so — they literally distort their perception of reality to make it (reality) less threatening. Their defense mechanisms protect their fragile ego by changing the very facts in their mind, so they are no longer wrong or culpable.
As a result, they come up with statements, such as, "I checked this morning, and there was enough milk, so someone must have finished it." When it is pointed out that no one was home after they left in the morning, so no one could have done that, they double down and repeat, “Someone must have, because I checked, and there was milk,” as though the milk phantom broke into the house, finished the milk and left without a trace.
There are even those that will insist that they are right when they are proven wrong with hard evidence. When confronted, they will continue to insist or pivot to attacking anyone who tries to argue otherwise and to disparaging the sources of the contradictory information (e.g., "These labs make mistakes all the time, and besides, you cannot trust a confession from that person, they lie all of the time! And why do you always take their side?").
People who repeatedly exhibit this kind of behavior are, by definition, psychologically fragile. However, that assessment is often difficult for people to accept, because to the outside world, they look as if they are confidently standing their ground and not backing down, things we associate with strength.
However, “psychological rigidity” is not a sign of strength, it is an indication of weakness. These people are not choosing to stand their ground; they are compelled to do so in order to protect their fragile egos. Admitting we are wrong is unpleasant, it is bruising for any ego. It takes a certain amount of emotional strength and courage to deal with that reality and own up to our mistakes. Most of us sulk a bit when we have to admit we are wrong, but we get over it.
But when people are constitutionally unable to admit they are wrong, when they cannot tolerate the very notion that they are capable of mistakes, it is because they suffer from an ego so fragile that they cannot sulk and get over it…they need to warp their very perception of reality and challenge obvious facts in order to defend that they were not wrong in the first place. Yes, they choose to be delusional.
How we respond to such people is up to us. The one mistake we should not make is to consider their persistent and rigid refusal to admit they are wrong as a sign of strength or conviction, because it is the absolute opposite. It is called psychological weakness and fragility. I will also offer up the point that it is usually unfruitful to argue with them considering that they have probably had far more experience at being psychologically rigid than most that take up the unproductive task of trying to argue their truth.
JoAnne Dahl, PhD, in her book, ACT and RFT in Relationships: Helping Clients Deepen Intimacy and Maintain Healthy Commitments, sums it up best by saying: “When people who are in a relationship spend a great deal of time and energy trying to control the uncontrollable, they get stuck in rigid, non-vital patterns, which eventually break down the relationship.” Sometimes, these non-vital patterns take more of their toll on the relationship and on us emotionally faster than we realize. If the relationship is one that you feel is worth the effort, then suggesting that the person seek professional help is perhaps the best option. But remember, the only person that we have the power to change is ourselves.