S1E10 Righteousness and Rigidity

In this episode, the docs take a deep dive into how righteousness and rigid thinking affect behavior and interpersonal relationships. Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete reflect on personal examples where they struggle to let go of wanting to be right, and identify how they are able to choose being effective instead. Mindfulness-based concepts and behavioral tools to address the tempting desire to be right are discussed.




Nikki: We are going to talk about righteousness and rigidity today.

Pete: Citing, I've had an interesting…maybe I'll share with you guys, it's a story.

Nikki: Yes, share a little story.

Pete: Well no, first let’s talk about righteousness.

Nikki: Oh, you’re going to talk first?

Pete:  Yeah, I said maybe I’ll tell you a story.

Nikki: Oh, maybe, a little teaser, all right. So I'm going to start with righteousness, because I do think that this gets a little confusing for people because of course, sometimes the word righteous is used to actually kind of like in religious context.

Pete: And negatively too, isn't it?

Nikki: Yeah, but it can also be used I would say positively. People say, ‘I live a righteous life’, meaning it's like a moral life.

Pete: I think when people usually refer to somebody else's righteous, it's often this negative connotation.

Nikki: Which is, I think what we're going to more emphasize today, is the negative connotation. So thank you for saying that, because that's what I want to be clear, as we're not using in the context that that word is used with, from often a religious lens. We're framing it more, again, from a behavioral science.

Pete: Shocker.

Nikki: Yeah, shocker. So when we're talking about righteousness, we're talking about when we get very attached to being right, to believing we're right. And I always like to start this conversation with patients by saying, “I'm going to be really clear. I love being right. It feels amazing”. Do you like to be right?

Pete: Well, I mean you're right.

Nikki: Think about when you’re right.

Pet: I know, this is not the answer that I want people to think, the truth is within Zen. There's really this release of any sort of…

Nikki: Well yes, so we’re saying…

Pete: Honestly, I don't care, even though I will say that the definition is the quality of being morally right or justifiable.

Nikki: Yeah. Well, in a moment, just as a human because I'm with you. In a moment, it's designed to feel that way.

Pete: Perhaps it's like, former athletic-ness, I think I've won big medals and big awards. I think that there's a group of people, and you're not one of them by any means. I think what you're saying is, yes, we want to feel good.

Nikki: Yes, that’s what I mean, in a moment, we feels good. Think of the thing that you're passionate about. These are the things I always tell people, “think about what are the areas, like politics or place people can get righteous, it can be in your family, like if you think someone should or shouldn't do something”.

Pete: I'm Switzerland in my family, so if you think about my role, so for me, I'm helping people. On the other side, it's kind of come together.

Nikki: I think you’re wired, biologically more this way. And yes, your practice.

Pete: I think you have the wrong person. We should have had someone else on here for that, because anyone else would have said, “Yes! totally.”

Nikki: You guys watch, I'm going to just get Pete, I'm just going to say, “I found the part where you like being right,”

Pete: Let's find it.

Nikki: Let's find it, but he's right. You're right.

Pete: I didn’t want to be.

Nikki: He's extremely unusual in this way. It feels good to be right, because being right puts us in the imaginary ladder of human beings that all human beings like to engage in with comparison mode. It feels good to be better, and this is why people on the internet love to shame people.

Pete: Well I was thinking the same, I was thinking politicians when you said that, because I think that this isn't going to be like a very accepted statement, but I think people who get to the top get there by walking on people to get there, and so that righteousness is like a feeling that kind of drives that because it does feel good, and I certainly interact with people. Like some of my really good friends that are lawyers, the conversations are often lopsided, where I do a lot of listening.

Nikki: Right and they're doing a lot of talking.

Pete: There doing a lot of ‘righteous-nessing’.

Nikki: A lot of ‘righteous-nessing’, because it kind of feeds on itself.

Pete: It does.

Nikki: Because righteousness, when we're focused on being right which is believing your worldview is correct and accurate, it begins to cultivate a passion. And also, this is probably the more important part here, is anger, anger makes us feel powerful, then it’s like ‘I have a right to shame this person for…’ I don't know, I'm thinking of someone litters in the street, you get to finger wag them. It feels good to be finger wagging.

Pete: As a quick google of it, you'll find a lot of religious doctrine comes up, about within the context of the bible. I guess there's a lot of reference to righteousness in there and so I think that will be we're reiterating that we're not necessarily talking about that way, we're talking about this idea of this… so maybe what I hear you saying, Nikki is that it is the feeling then rather than the actual word?

Nikki: Well the righteousness is the belief system, it's the judgment, it's saying something should be what…

Pete: But do you think people are addicted to the feeling that it creates, is what you are?

Nikki: That’s a good question. Yeah, I think that that reinforces, and now we can bring in the rigidity of a certain worldview, and so again, I would ask people to think about where do you have a lot of ‘should’s about something.

Pete: ‘Should’ all over.

Nikki: Yeah ‘should’ all over, let’s talk about Albert Ellis, the famous cognitive therapists who said people ‘should’ all over themselves. Where do you have a lot of ‘should’s, when you start to go like, “You shouldn't litter, people shouldn't litter,” and you start to get angry and it makes you feel good because you're not the one littering, and by the way, I'm not advocating for littering.

Pete: Don't go litter people.

Nikki: Please don't, and to that point I think it can be very difficult for people to understand why, “But why shouldn't I be righteous?” What do you say to people when you notice them getting very attached to their way of?

Pete: Well, we focus on the rigidity, so ‘can I be flexible?’ ‘can I maybe consider that there's another perspective that somebody could come at this?’ And that's a big piece of this, because like I said, with my lawyer friends, if we're just having a conversation that's just so lopsided, some of my clients I've worked with that might be a little bit more righteous, I'll work on something like, “Hey, go ask your wife two questions when you go home tonight, some open-ended questions into a deeper conversation rather than always trying to be right or have the demand of the of the conversation.”

Nikki: I'm going to imagine though that that can be really hard for people sometimes, because if they're feeling very angry about something, and we often talk about this, Pete and I, that that shuts down openness and curiosity, so it's like this closed system.

Pete: Of course they've been trained in mindfulness by the time we ask them as well.

Nikki: That is true, that we've had them practice being curious and open, but that closed system of ‘this is the way things are in my worldview, it's the right way and I'm not open therefore, to other points of view or other experiences’, and so that person doesn't then have the opportunity to get data that might help them shift to being…

Pete: So for me, I struggle with it, knowing where I am today, I don't even get that, because I think I love other people's views, I love diversity of opinion.

Nikki: es

Pete: I want to have challenging and open conversations, so I feel like that's something that when I hear that, I know it exists, obviously.

Nikki: I think that that's, again, hopefully something that people can hear and say, “Well, I wonder why Pete likes having challenging conversation?” or “Why, and does he enjoy different worldviews?” because I'm with you, I share that experience, though neither of us came to that from a primary standpoint, I just enjoy it, there is this comfort in bringing in other viewpoints.

Pete: There is definitely did not came in that way.

Nikki: Right, and so that's the question I get asked quite a bit, it's “why let go of that?” because the argument then, is “because I'm right,” and what I like to say then, and I'm wondering if you share this with people, is when I begin to bring in the concept of dialectics, and a dialectic has really two definitions, popularized by Marsha Linehan of dialectical behavior therapy, but dialectic is actually a philosophical concept. It's not psychology, we've just borrowed it. I say it's two opposite things exist simultaneously, so two opposite worldviews. The one I like to start with is righteousness, is the definition that there's no one universal truth in the world.

Pete: I love that.

Nikki: Because even my most, righteous, rigid folks that I'm working with, that does seem to land a little more, because there's 7 billion people in the world, there's no one universal truth, there's no one right way of thinking. I would say most people are like, “Okay, I'm with you.”

Pete: Yeah, hopefully. But again, I think there's got to be people who are like, “Well, no, there are,” because I think what we see for like white supremacy, for example, they're going to be like, “Well, no, this is the way that it should be.” And so, knowing your audience, knowing your topic and content, I think for me, what I will say is my righteousness, when I do experience it, it's usually about some larger moral good. So I'll give you a personal example I was talking about,

Nikki: Yes, please.

Pete: So if I purchase a product, and the product is not as it was described, and that product creates damage, but the company takes zero responsibility, I get righteous about that. Because what I think is, it's not about me, it's about the other person. I often sort of perspective taking, think of, like my mom, or my dad, somebody who's maybe less equipped to manage people or be assertive, having to deal with this company. And I think about them, and so that's where I am with that.

Nikki: Yeah, I like that example, because going back to that idea of where people feel passionate about something,  I think that that's true for a lot of people when they're feeling righteous, it can be data, that it's hitting up on a nerve that something of high value to you, it's something that's very meaningful to you. Like injustice, for example, we can get very righteous for that. So I guess I use the politics example, people get very righteous about politics, because it's usually tied to something that they believe on a larger context is for the good of their family or for their community or others. And they believe that somebody with a differing view is trying to attack them.

Pete: Or I think it’s more of the attacking, like offensive.

Nikki: Exactly, so that's where we're not judging this as an expert, all humans struggle with this. The part that I maybe want to be really clear about, is that righteousness is a rigid way of thinking, and rigid thinking is not effective. And that's what I'd love for you to maybe explain to our listeners about why it's not, why does that get in the way.

Pete: One of the things that I noticed with this recent event, I should probably say more, but about my righteousness with buying a product that's not as it measures. I get this product, it says it's supposed to be 110 inches on the width, I have licensed contractors and all this work that goes in to develop a system based on these measurements, this diagram. And the day that it's all assembled and put out, I call and I say, “Hey, there's something really happening, the support stands are falling off of these blocks based on your measurements. And then within an hour, they sent me a new diagram that then shows it 126 inches.

Nikki: You can see Pete’s getting mad, you can probably hear, and so as you can see, we found it, here's the thing, it’s getting sticky.

Pete: It’s principles and protection against products and consumer protection. But I was also flexible in that, I was like, “Well, let me just think”. And it's funny because I was looking up the CEO of the company, because you can't find anything on half these companies, and I found out that the CEO actually lost his son, and it was like this tragic event, because everything's on the internet now, they're probably listening to an episode. I was flexible of like, “Okay, let me think, how for them is this right?” And so that's the flexibility piece, I was trying to think about the sales manager in his world, and how he was so dismissive of anything related to me as the customer.

Nikki: So if we come back to why righteousness isn’t effective, so if Pete had been stuck in that mode, if he just been focused on like, ‘this is not fair, or it shouldn't be this way’, one, it would make him more dysregulated, he would get angrier and angrier. And the more dysregulated we get it interrupts our cognitive processing, and we actually are not able to think clearly.

Pete: I probably would’ve cursed at them on the phone.

Nikki: Yeah, curse at them, so it would make the situation worse, so engaging in behaviors that don't actually help move the situation forward. He had that reaction, that you had a flare up, and you were able to notice it and then pause and get curious about, ‘Okay, let me see if I can put myself in this other person's shoes here’.

Pete: Which probably I couldn’t but go ahead.

Nikki: Humans again, psychologists are humans too, this is very frustrating stuff. But that opportunity, the point of being curious is to not say that what that person is doing is okay or give them a pass. Because I think that's where people really dig into their righteousness of like, ‘I don't want somebody to get away with it’. It's that, if you're trying to move the situation forward, it requires understanding why does someone else see it differently. And I think that's the piece that gets lost on a lot of people.

Pete: Yeah, and I am committed to moving it forward. I'm not somebody who hangs on to things present moment living. It does bother me, and so I will for listeners, and just my own vulnerability, I had to really check out on a Friday, because I hadn't recharge my batteries, because I was already working so much. And this was like that thing that push you over the edge, like the cherry on my top, if you will.

Nikki: Yeah, you needed us to pause for a little bit.

Pete: I had to pause, I had to recharge, because the anger, like you pointed out, as I'm even telling the story, you can notice the frustration, the anger, it's a lot of money, and so I think my righteousness is, I can afford it, and there's a lot of people who can't and so for me, if this would have been their savings, or if this would have been something that they really committed to because of some really big goal that was so important to them, it's just messed up that this capitalist world where literally, there was zero responsibility.

Nikki: I think as you're attaching to that again, and I'm going to share it in another personal example, as well, in a moment here, to also practice vulnerability.

Pete: Let’s do it, I dare you.

Nikki: Yeah, I will. I think it's also important to say, like Pete and I are saying we're not allowed to be angry about injustice, it's not about that. Anger gives us information, we like talk about this a lot, that anger from an evolutionary standpoint, is telling us that ourselves or somebody we care about, our community is being harmed or potentially being harmed. And so, the urge to defend oneself or to fight back, it was evolutionarily adaptive. In a modern world, we're interacting with the 7 billion people on earth that everybody has a different perspective, and if we are not able to understand that other people are going to not only see things differently, but, I haven't said this yet and it's important say, people are also going to be limited in varying degrees, in how able they are to understand something or be skillful. If we are just only holding title, it shouldn't be this way, it's actually paradoxically gets in the way of us helping to move the situation forward.

Pete: It keeps us in this situation, so we cannot not get in the way before we end with you sharing.

Nikki: Oh, yeah, I'm going to share. Well, it's a good segue from that. So also, one thing that I can get righteous about that actually, I also know Pete can get a little righteous about the story too, because we talked about this. It’s actually around behaviorism, so I'm from Los Angeles, I went to graduate school in Los Angeles, on the west coast. If our listeners aren't familiar with this, psychology tends to be dominated from behaviorist lens, and so I was professionally growing up in a community that was aligned with my worldview. When I moved to New York for my pre doctoral internship, New York is famous for, if you're in New York, you'll be familiar with this for our listeners there, for being like a hub of psychoanalytic thought. Psychoanalysis grows out of Freud, for those of you who know who Freud is, this is a place where I can get, I can even feel it sometimes, I can get very righteous, because I don't like a lot of what is presented in psychoanalytic theory. And not all of it, but there's a chunk of it that doesn't come from evidence, I'm very committed to science. And it makes me very mad, so I would be in New York, and somebody would come see me and say, “I've had panic attacks for 20 years”, panic attacks are like one of the most easily treated, symptom profiles that we see, and we have like 50 years of data on it, so it's the same thing as injustice. This isn't fair, it makes me so mad, and one thing that I want to share is that I recognize that being in that community and being a minority voice, my nerdy worldview in psychology in New York,

Pete:  you were the behaviorist voice.

Nikki: I was the behaviorist voice of psychoanalytic thought. That my perspective, I wasn't going to be able to move the conversation forward if I was walking around finger wagging everybody that's not effective, and so what did I do? Like what Pete was saying, I did a lot of listening, I did a lot of validating, trying to understand the point of view of psychoanalysts. I worked with a few, that we had some wonderful relationships and found some common ground, and I think I was pretty successful in often getting people interested in behaviorism and understanding my world view.

Pete: You sure were.

Nikki: Thank you, but I wasn't able to do that by saying I'm right and you're wrong. So I would come back to it, and I think you use this to, I would focus on the question, ‘do I want to be right or do I want to be effective?’ and I was like, ‘I want to be effective’, so I don't know, is that something you think about?

Pete: Yeah I love it, that’s our tag I guess, for this episode is, ‘Do I want to be right, or do I want to be effective? I think for me, I clearly choose being effective.

Nikki: I hope that our listeners can take a little bit of this and ask that question of themselves when they feel that urge to dig in and be right.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West, I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou, be present be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West, all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.