Navigating Life Without "Right or Wrong"
Updated: May 14
In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), the underlying principles rest upon the concept of dialectics: two opposing things can be true at the same time. Many people live in a very black-and-white world where things are either/or instead of both/and, usually because this is how we were raised. Your parents, guardians, teachers, friends, have all told you when you’re doing something “wrong” or when you’ve made the “right” decision. Sit back and observe the language people use and the opinions they throw around, dressing them up as though they are factual and the way things “should be.” I say opinions because that’s all they are; subjective interpretations of experiences, situations, morality, and people.
The idea that “right” and “wrong” don’t exist in the world can be incredibly difficult to wrap your mind around at first because you’ve been taught the opposite for so long. We’ve been taught that it is “right” to tell the truth, but consider for a minute the concept of a “white lie.” A caveat to what is “right.” And everyone has differing opinions on that alone. Is it okay to tell a white lie? Is it not? Is it situational? When we place a blanket judgment over an experience or situation, we actually negate the individual's circumstances, thus invalidating not only the people in our lives, but ourselves as well at times. We place such harsh demands on ourselves to do the “right” thing all the time, yet do we even know what that means? Right according to whom? And what do we get out of doing things “right” according to someone else’s barometer? We have to take our individual experiences into account when making decisions, otherwise we can grow frustrated constantly trying to do “right” by the people in our lives, yet never being able to please everyone because there are so many different opinions as to what is “right.”
I get arguments about this all the time from clients, usually because they feel “right” and “wrong” have served them well over the years; they have guided decisions, kept them in the good favors of others, kept them honest. However, what you’ll find is that you’re actually just mindlessly living out someone else’s values and opinions which can create for you confusion, resentment, and anger. It is up to us to decide what is “right” for us, which means that we are seeking out what is effective in helping us meet our goals, and everyone’s goals are different. You don’t need someone else to tell you that you’re “wrong,” if you have operated against your own value system, your internal gut and cues will inform you of that. If you replace the words “right” and “wrong” with “effective,” “ineffective,” “in line with values,” “against your values,” you may find that your decisions change.
I find the biggest conflicts in family because you’re raised with those beliefs, then as you come into your own as an adolescent and adult, you may actually start to shed some of your values and adopt new ones. I often see family members shame and judge those who tend to break away from traditional/generational beliefs, telling that person that they’re “wrong.” The family’s opinion is neither right nor wrong, it’s just their perception based on their experiences and background. The person breaking away from those is also neither right nor wrong, they are just exercising their values and what is effective for them. Both opinions can exist at the same time, and each party can live according to their own beliefs without judging or shaming the other.
When people get into arguments about what is right and what is wrong, pay attention. You’ll find that these rarely have resolutions and tend to just be pointless arguments, because there is no definitive right or wrong. Who am I to sit and judge someone as doing something “wrong” when I know nothing of their reasoning, their circumstances, or their values and background? When we move towards the gray area, away from polarities, we actually lean into learning another person, understanding why someone has the opinions they have or engages in the behaviors they do. This fosters connection, validation, and empathy, while polarities cultivate a sense of “us” and “them,” an “against” mentality which elicits more judgment, shame, and conflict.
I’m not saying we all have to agree with what everyone does and believes, not at all. I can validate something without agreeing to it. What this does though is releases us from having to live this prescribed life written out by people who do not live in our shoes, who do not have the same thoughts and feelings that we have. Try replacing judgments of “good and bad,” “right and wrong,” “should and shouldn’t” with thoughts that focus on preferences, consequences, facts, and what moves you towards your goals and what is effective for you. It is a fact that murder is illegal and carries harsh consequences, but if it were definitively “wrong,” why does the law have exceptions for self defense and insanity? Because individual circumstances matter and a one-size fits all approach is not realistic, even in the most serious of matters.
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