Do you ever find yourself getting just a little irritated with people who can be so darned self-righteous? You know the people I mean -- the ones who are so far beyond being right that there's just no room for anyone else to even have a thought on the subject? Have you ever been accused of being self-righteous yourself?
If you are the self-righteous type, how's that working for you? I mean, really working for you. I understand that righteousness comes equipped with all the trappings of being, well, right. Being right all the time may allow you to bask in the glow of being apparently right, which may cast the illusion of working for you, but it also relegates everyone else to the darkness of being wrong.
Do you know anyone who relishes being wrong all the time? I didn't think so. Now we have an interesting dilemma: If you're the world's smartest person (which you must be if you're always right), then everyone else sits below you in the pecking order. That can get old fast for the rest of us. How do you develop meaningful friendships, real intimacy, if you're always right and everyone else comes up short?
When you're caught in the righteousness trap, your Self-Talk will work hard to convince yourself that you're right, and right beyond reason. It's the beyond reason part that gets to be so annoying. When there's no reasoning to be had, there's no point in even discussing the issue. The only people who seem to thrive in this kind of trap are the politicians. Of course, they're not so interested in meaningful communication or connection -- just being right and getting elected. Gotta love those "debates."
Are You Hiding Behind Righteousness?
Merriam-Webster tells us that righteous means to have a sense of "acting in accord with divine or moral law" often with "an outraged sense of justice." They define self-righteous as being "narrowly moralistic." This pretty much sums up the problem with righteousness: The righteous person often claims a form of moral indignation because they perceive that some law, rule or definition they made up in their own mind is being violated.
Righteousness can also become a great way to build defensive perimeters around more deeply held fears of inadequacy. Those of us with highly skilled inner critics have learned how to keep others at bay with our rapier wit or skillful ability to debate any issue. How about you? Have you ever taken on a sense of being morally or even divinely right in your point of view and assailed someone else or a different point of view with your version of an "outraged sense of justice"?
Years ago, I was arguing with a partner of mine about the future directions we should be taking with our small consulting business. He was the more affable one, someone who easily made friends, someone who made others feel at ease. I was the more critical one, the person who could always find fault with just about any argument. I could talk circles around just about any point of view while he could talk others into the circle.
The critic has great potential value to offer in that their perceptions can often be accurate. However, their value lies not in the criticism per se, but in delivering the perception in such a manner that if addressed, could make a meaningful difference. Like many critics, I had become more skilled at delivering the criticism with an aura of righteousness than at delivering useful perceptions.
So, here we were, at a crossroads in our business. He wanted to take us in one direction, which I thought would be limiting, while I wanted to take us into what I considered to be the wave of the future. Underlying my arguments were a set of unconscious fears that I would not be well suited to the direction he wanted to go. Rather than acknowledge my fears of inadequacy, I used my righteousness and perceptive capabilities to create arguments against his point of view.
As in just about all cases of righteousness, there was just no room for a discussion in my mind. The more he pointed out something in support of his point of view, even something obvious, the more I argued against his reasoning. Arguing against him had the net effect of assigning him the role of Mr. Wrong while I claimed the high ground of Mr. Right. What I didn't recognize, however, was that the more I claimed the "rightness" of my arguments, the more isolated I became in our relationship.
Eventually, he simply let go of the argument (he had been discussing while I had been arguing), and fundamentally told me I was right. Ah, the moral victory! He then let me know that he was going his separate way. Oops. Not what I intended. However, I couldn't back down. Instead, we both went our separate ways.
Curiously, we both turned out to be right. He wound up building a good consulting practice in his area of focus and expertise and continues to do well. I managed to do OK myself, and now we are back in discussions about merging our respective capabilities. Had I recognized the underlying reality earlier on that we both were right, we could have engaged in a more constructive conversation building on the soundness of both points of view. However, my ability to talk circles around just about any topic left me outside the only circle that mattered.
From Righteousness to Right-Use-Ness
One of the many lessons I learned in this process was the difference between "right-use-ness" and righteousness. Some time after we went our separate ways, my good friend and spiritual teacher, John-Roger, helped me understand the true value of righteousness. He pointed out that rather than arguing for something out of a sense of moral outrage, true righteousness takes the form of what he called "right-use-ness."
Right-use-ness echoes through the quiet voice of your Soul-Talk and is rather profound and yet profoundly simple at the same time. We each have been given the gift of certain energies with which to live life. We can use our mental energies, our emotional energies and our physical energies in just about any way we choose.
Right-use-ness directs those energies into areas that are positive or uplifting and serve to bring people together.
Righteousness tends to divide by focusing on judgment and protection of opinion.
Right-use-ness seeks to bring people together for the mutual benefit of one another. Righteousness sets people against one another. Curiously, the righteous often truly care about mutual well-being, but get so caught up in being right that they can't move into the right-use-ness they would actually prefer.
If you're curious about this distinction, watch the coming presidential election race for the differences. Sadly, any candidate who abandons the moral perch of righteousness in favor of right-use-ness will be branded anything from weak to flip-flopping.
I'd love to hear your take on this subject. What has been our experience with righteousness vs. right-use-ness? Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.
If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my new book, "Workarounds That Work." You'll be glad you did.
Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at www.RussellBishop.com. You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at) russellbishop.com.
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