The Good News about Being Wrong

No one likes making mistakes or (even worse) admitting them. But there’s wisdom and resilience to be gleaned by learning to accept and acknowledge when you are wrong.

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We all like to be right, right? Whether it’s confirming we’ve found the fastest route through the city, knowing the best yoga class, or standing up for what we are sure is the right side of an important principle, being right is an enticing bonbon that can make us feel deliciously certain—for a while. But if your goal is to navigate your life more skillfully and perhaps even develop some wisdom, you may find it helpful to admit that sometimes you’re uncertain, sometimes you don’t know the answer, and sometimes you’re just plain wrong.

What’s Wrong with Being Wrong?

Years ago, I worked for a professional choir. The conductor told everyone that, during rehearsals, if you sang a wrong note, you should acknowledge it by raising and lowering your hand while you keep singing. In other words, you were allowed to be wrong. It didn’t have to hold you up, or get you down, or be more than a quick flick of the hand. Since then I have often wished for the simplicity of this relatively painless way to make a mistake without viewing it as a mortifying mess. 

But more often we turn to defensiveness and denial. “I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me,” we say, in the hopes of keeping the knives from flying in our direction. Or we become so overwhelmed by remorse and regret and shame that we end up getting stuck in all that guck, which might prevent us from saying, “Oh, OK, now I get it!” and moving on.

Mindfulness rides on curiosity. This means being truly open and willing to notice when you may not have all the facts, so you can find out how things really are. That’s the foundation for growth, adaptation, and resilience, and it’s what has kept our species alive. 

The Right Way to Be Wrong

Being good at being wrong can allow you to relax into yourself in a powerful way. But it takes practice. Perhaps start by recalling a small moment where you felt you were in the wrong. Maybe you once cited a fact in a group of people and it turned out to be completely false, or you didn’t follow through on a promise, or you were positive you knew how long it would take your friend to paint the kitchen, only you were off by half and they had to cancel plans.

Press the pause button and take a closer look at what went down. Take a deeper breath and try to recall that moment when you discovered you were in error. How is your body responding to this thought or memory? Curiosity means investigating what happens inside you when you’re faced with the prospect or experience of finding out that you were wrong. Check in with the usual suspects: the jaw, the belly, the shoulders, the sphincter. What sensations do you notice?

You can remain gently engaged and present with your body as it takes the hit. It might not feel comfortable, but staying close to your own experience is part of health management. Practicing with these small challenges to our ego can help keep us soft and willing to hear how we might be unaware or uninformed. Plus, you’ll likely realize that, at the end of the day, it’s all OK. 

A mindful approach invites us to notice that when it comes down to it, being wrong is not in itself a problem. 

A mindful approach invites us to notice that when it comes down to it, being wrong is not in itself a problem. Problems arise when we become determined to push away our errors, and we shut down. In fact, discovering that we are wrong gives us the opportunity to grow—hurray! This is how we learn. 

It might take time and practice to catch a chest-thumping need to be right. But when you can catch it, or even catch a glimpse of it, you open the door to the possibility of a warmer connection with yourself as you grow less afraid that you might do or say something wrong. When we learn to be strong and wrong, we unlock opportunities to grow, mature, and awaken to the tender joy of not having all the answers.

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