Why it's important to admit when you're wrong

Psychologists point to specific reasons that make it hard for us to admit our wrongdoing.

Stubborn child
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  • Admitting mistakes can be very difficult for our ego and self-image, say psychologists.
  • Refusing to own up to guilt boosts the ego and can feel more satisfying.
  • Not acknowledging you are wrong can lead to psychological issues and ruined relationships.

We've all done something which might have seemed good at the time but turned out to be flat wrong. And then came the dread of admitting the mistake. Why is that part always so challenging? We never want to be the one who didn't get it right, who needs to grovel in defeat and suffer the ignominy of apologizing. Psychologists think that while hard, learning to deal with admitting fault is extremely important to sustaining relationships and personal growth.

What are some reactions you can have to a mistake? For one, you first need to become aware of it. Some people, you might have noticed, do not possess the self-awareness necessary to know they have wronged people or have misjudged a situation in a key way.

Another impediment to admitting mistakes – when their self-image is at stake, when they are afraid of looking weak and vulnerable, people often tend to double down. Their confirmation bias may make them overcompensate, refusing to acknowledge fault and consider only the evidence that supports their beliefs.

What happens next is cognitive dissonance. That's the psychological stress experienced by a person who gets confronted by having two contradictory ideas or beliefs. They get very confused upon having their world views and values challenged by actions going against them. Let's say you bet hard on a political horse and one sad day came to see clearly your trust was a mistake of gigantic proportions. While politicians generally always tend to disappoint, you may be feeling quite lost. Or you argued up a storm with your spouse over an infraction they see in a much worse light than you. In order to cope, you might protest and refuse to acknowledge the truth, coming up with excuses.

In an interview with the New York Times, social psychologist Carol Tavris, who wrote the aptly-named book "Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)," said that the problem comes when our sense of self is under attack. "Cognitive dissonance is what we feel when the self-concept — I'm smart, I'm kind, I'm convinced this belief is true — is threatened by evidence that we did something that wasn't smart, that we did something that hurt another person, that the belief isn't true."

How would you reduce the cognitive dissonance? You need to alter your concept of self, start coming to grips with the evidence presented, or you try to justify your mistake. We all know which approaches we tend to take. Learning to incorporate the dissonance can be quite painful to your ego.

In an interview with NBC News, neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez defined ego as a "person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance." And our ego likes to win, no matter what argument it finds itself in.

The ego's control extends to something experts call psychological reactance – not many are big fans of being told what to do. Behavioral health therapist Jane Permoto Ehrman of the Cleveland Clinic explained that "resistance is engrained into our culture and brains from a young age. Everyone has some form of inner rebel that likes to question or do the opposite of what we're told."

Persisting in your obstinance, on the other hand, can feel pretty satisfying. A 2012 study found that refusing to apologize can boost your self-esteem and lead to "increased feelings of power/control and value integrity." This may be due to the fact that apologies give extra power to those who receive them, explained the authors. This ego boost from refusal can be short-lived, however, and can ruin your relationships and cause backlash.

Why Your Self-Image Might Be Wrong: Ego, Buddhism, and Freud 

Likewise, persisting in going against norms and those who you feel are telling you what to do may also ruin your life. "As adults, it's important to recognize when our rebellious self is acting out in a way that's not in our best interest or if it might be harmful to those around us," said Ehrman. "When we feel a powerful surge of resistance, it's usually us trying to protect our ego because we don't want to look vulnerable."

Not admitting mistakes also obviously makes you less prone to self-improvement. Of course, some don't have the will for becoming better and know it. Studies have shown that it's important for a person to feel like they can change their behavior before they will own up to what they did wrong.

You may think that some people get away with never admitting their mistakes, seemingly coasting through life like unrepentant bulldozers. But psychologists believe even such people tend to accumulate subconscious feelings of guilt and shame, a mental gnawing that eventually can turn into anxiety and depression.

Admitting you messed up may not always feel good, but can show to others that "we are compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic, and good listeners," shared Dr. Hafeez, adding "It also shows that we are capable of being objective about ourselves and that we not 'perfect' or always right."

So if you did something you aren't proud of, go ahead and say it – you were wrong. It can feel liberating and put you and everyone in your life on a path towards a better future.

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