There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a little pride. It can propel you forward in tough situations and demonstrates a level of self-assuredness that we all strive for in our personal and professional lives. But there’s a narrow line dividing healthy confidence and stubborn ego, and one of the primary indicators you’ve landed on the wrong side is not being able to admit when you’re wrong.
“Ego, at the rudimentary level is defined as ‘person's sense of self-esteem or self-importance,’” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist based in New York City. “The prevailing ego-centric side of us likes to win, whether it’s an argument with a spouse or even a silly debate over which movie should have won the Oscar.”
Struggling to admit our own fault, though — whether it was a major breach or a minor mess-up — doesn’t really serve us well. Not only can it sour some of our closest relationships, but it can even be detrimental to our own personal growth. For insight into why it’s so hard to hard to put ego aside and acknowledge our wrongdoing, and how to get better at doing so for the good of everyone, keep reading.
Why Admitting Fault is So Difficult
One reason why some can’t admit fault is simply due to a lack of self-awareness. This can be a pervasive and ongoing issue, or simply a matter of having a “blind spot” in certain social situations. After all, if someone isn’t even aware that they’re in the wrong then it’s impossible to admit wrongdoing in the first place.
In other cases, though, it’s possible to be aware that you’re wrong — whether mildly or outright — but still struggle to wave the guilty flag due to our precious egos.
[For some], admitting they have made a mistake is too threatening to their sense of self ... What people end up doing is over-compensating by denying fault and refusing ownership of their own mistakes, thereby protecting their self-image.
“[For some], admitting they have made a mistake is too threatening to their sense of self as it would cause embarrassment, shame, guilt, or challenge their character or beliefs,” says Dr. Kate Kaplan, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Los Angeles, CA. “What people end up doing is over-compensating by denying fault and refusing ownership of their own mistakes, thereby protecting their self-image.”
This process is referred to as cognitive dissonance — an unconscious defense system that many of us employ to protect our ego. Dr. Kaplan says that those who struggle to admit fault, even when they’re aware on some level of their own wrongdoing, often worry that showing imperfection will indicate some grave character deficit. It can make them feel weak, unlikeable, or even as if they’re an inherently bad person. There’s also often a strong undercurrent of fear that makes them worry they’ll lose respect or destroy a bond.
Get the better newsletter.
How a Stubborn Ego Can Impact Your World
In other words, saying, “Yeah, I messed up and I’m sorry” can be terrifying. However, stubbornly denying our own wrongdoing frustrates our peers, colleagues, family members and partners. In doing so, we cause people to grow distant and end up isolating ourselves. It also stifles our personal growth.
“Since underlying the refusal to admit one’s own mistakes is a fragile ego, our loved ones pushing away from us almost acts us like a self-fulfilling prophecy, confirming we are unlovable,” says Dr. Kaplan. “[Additionally, it] perpetuates the pattern of denial and psychological defenses being employed. By not admitting fault, we’re often not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and let down our walls and defenses.”
She adds that when someone perpetually exists in a place of avoiding vulnerability, they hold on to feelings of shame, guilt and fear, which over time can take a toll on mental health in the form of depression or anxiety.
Conversely, Dr. Hafeez says, “Admitting we are wrong shows others that we are compassionate, empathetic, sympathetic, and good listeners. It also shows that we are capable of being objective about ourselves and that we not ‘perfect’ or always right.”
Admitting flaws allows others to see our vulnerability and can even endear them to us. It also opens the door to meaningful conversations and, therefore, personal and relationship growth.
5 Ways to Get Better at Admitting You're wrong
Dr. Kaplan says that we’re all born with the uniquely human ability to self-reflect. Therefore, we all have it in us to accept responsibility for our mistakes. Sometimes that skill isn’t nurtured, or we grow up in an environment where protecting the ego becomes priority number one. Still, with practice we can get better at admitting when we’re wrong. Start here:
- Lean into the human condition. Dr. Kaplan recommends adopting this mantra and repeating it when you find yourself resistant to admitting fault: “I can admit I’m wrong because I am human, and we all make mistakes and I will still be loved in spite of this.”
- Get introspective. Make a list of your flaws and ask yourself important introspective questions, says Dr. Hafeez. Good questions include: “Why am I afraid to be vulnerable?” “Do I have patience?” “Do I have anger issues?” “Am I overly jealous?” “Am I insecure?” “Am I selfish?” “What role did I have in a recent argument?” “How have my actions impacted others I care about?”
- Ask for feedback. “If it is challenging to personally take accountability for your mistakes it can be helpful to enlist those relationships in your life that are supportive, caring and willing to help,” says Dr. Kaplan. “While it may seem like a really big step to make yourself so vulnerable, just remember how it can open you up to the acceptance and deep emotional connection you need.”
- Be open to critique. In cases of “blind spots,” — or when you’re not aware of your wrongdoing — it’s important to hear out others as they express frustrations or call you out. Dr. Hafeez says, “This skill involves taking the emotion out of the equation and looking at a scenario objectively and from the other person’s perspective.”
- Enlist a therapist. Therapy can serve as a rocket toward personal growth. “Typically, people who have been through therapy have developed the skill set to be introspective and realize where their weaknesses lie and what their fears are,” says Dr. Hafeez. This process prompts a level of introspection that the average person cannot accomplish on their own.
More from BETTER
Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.