September 26, 2012

I Have the Most Wrong. I Win!

There’s this survival mechanism that I call “winning at having the most wrong.”

Until the past decade, or so, it was practically a way of life for me.

I still see it pop up sometimes, although it’s a lot less intense than it used to be. A typical response from my clients who have this pattern is to cringe a bit when I mention it, but then admit that they, too, find themselves living this way.

Maybe you recognize this pattern in yourself or someone you know. If it’s you, someone says to you, “I’m so tired and I still have to work two more 10-hour days this week!” And your reply might go something like, “Oh, yeah? Well, I have to work all the way through the weekend. I don’t have a day off for another two weeks!”

Or you play the “worst trip I ever took” game and find yourself really disappointed when someone tops that time you had to go to three airports before you could get a flight home for Christmas. (Oh, wait, that was my worst trip ever…and if you can top it, please tell me about it in the comments. I’ll be happy to let you “win”!)

This seems pretty harmless when it’s just a way to spar with friends over some bad experiences. But, for people like me for whom this pattern is embedded within our sense of self, it happens all over the place, without our conscious choice or without even realizing what’s going on. This pattern actually generates negative situations for us. It’s part of our survival mechanism, so in a way, you could say that our brains think they’re doing us a favor by competing in this way.

It doesn’t make any sense as a survival mechanism, right? Wouldn’t it work better to win at having the most right?

But, our sense of self that stores this bizarre mechanism was put into place by the age of two and a half, which is before we’re able to decide whether it makes sense or not. Our little brains are just absorbing the best way for us to survive with our surroundings, and in some cases, having the most wrong provides some kind of benefit.

For instance, some people with this pattern had an abusive parent. The only time the parent would let up on their child was when the child already had something very wrong—such as being sick. Others may have had very busy parents who only paid attention to their children when something was wrong. Yet other parents may have thrived on always having something to “fix,” so a child who had the most wrong allowed this kind of parent to stay in their “fix-it” comfort zone.

The reason this crazy pattern sticks around is that the sense of self never grows into having a rational, thinking capability.

It stays that little two-year-old that is just trying to survive, and this “win at having the most wrong” pattern becomes the generating force behind a lot of negative moments beyond the age of two and a half. So, not only is this person continually trying to win at having the most wrong, but their brain is actually generating situations that will “hopefully” allow them to do just that.

One example of this ongoing pattern is people who are continually sick and who often get sicker over time. Another is people who continually have a crisis going on.

In both cases, this isn’t a conscious decision—these people aren’t “choosing” to be sick or in crisis. (I can’t stress this point strongly enough.) It’s just the automatic work of their brains generating the situations that allow them to “win.” One thing I remember doing a lot was finding some kind of sad story to tell, even if it wasn’t my own! When I would consciously ask myself why I was always finding those stories to tell, I couldn’t come up with a good reason. It was just my knee-jerk reaction, especially in situations that I felt uncomfortable, because survival mechanisms tend to become stronger in uncomfortable situations. I once knew someone who played this pattern out by always being the announcer of death—if someone famous died, she could be counted on to announce it first.

When I recognized this pattern in myself and started working on it, I started to ask myself what it would be like to share what’s right with me, instead of what’s wrong.

If you don’t have this pattern, yourself, you might be surprised to know just how strong my resistance to that idea was.

It felt scary—like I would either be in danger or that I would just disappear entirely if I only had good things to share. I kept working on it, though, and as I’ve unlearned the need to have the most wrong, my comfort zone with sharing good things in my life has grown immensely. When the old familiar feeling that I need to share something bad pops up now (out of a need to be seen or win), it’s much less intense.

And, over time, as I unlearned the need to survive that old way, my brain started actually generating the good things to share more often, too.

This is really fun to watch happen for my clients. Especially the ones who have been really sick or in continual crisis. The solutions to their health problems start to appear or their crises just stop happening. Life gets smoother, easier, more joyful.

Is this a pattern you recognize within yourself or in someone near you? Hopefully, this gives you a bit of compassion and understanding for why this crazy thing keeps happening. I’d love to hear about your experience with it in the comments below.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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