29 Apr

Guest Post: The Righting Reflex (or Why We Are Obsessed With That Wife’s Degree)

Posted by erin, Under Uncategorized

I blog at JustOneWeek about my very long list of habits that I want to create and projects that I want to complete (or start!). I feel guilty way too often about items stranded for years on my to-do list and about habits that never seem to stick. I am done feeling guilty.  And so I blog at JustOneWeek about my quest to find motivation, discipline, and acceptance.

Jenna has a giant item that has taken residence on her to-do list: Finish her degree.  She’s written in the past about her self-imposed deadlines to finish before the wedding, before the pregnancy, and before the baby.  And she has humbly informed us that she has missed all of her deadlines.

What is fascinating to me isn’t the fact that Jenna has not yet achieved her goal (I certainly have items that have taken near permanent residence on my to-do list) but how passionately her readers (including myself) have responded.  It is as though we think our comments could motivate her to change her behaviors?!

Most comments take one of the following approaches:

  • Tough love/bullying/confrontational – Call it what you want, but these comments are aggressive.  We think we can bash her, shame her, help her into seeing the light.
  • Knowledge/statistics/facts – If only Jenna knew that she’d be a statistic, a poor role model, have trouble providing for her children if something happened to TH… then she’d be motivated to change!  These comments act as though Jenna hadn’t thought about why she should finish her degree, and so we kindly inform her.

I left my first comment on the subject over a year ago and I shamefully used both tactics:

… so far I’ve heard 1.) your husband wants you to, 2.) so you can have a baby, 3.) because your parents want you to. This may be rude, but you can add a 4th external reason – the Church would want you to. It is a continuous source of embarrassment for BYU that their 4-year graduation rate for females is deplorable (as is the overall graduation rate for females)…

Ouch!  I love that I pretended to soften it by stating “this may be rude.”  I should note this is only an excerpt; I leave ridiculously long comments.

I recently attended a training seminar for Motivational Interviewing (MI).  In short, MI is a counseling approach frequently used in Behavioral Medicine with patients who need to change their smoking/drinking/eating/medicine-taking habits for health reasons.  More generally, MI is “a directive, client centered counseling style for eliciting behavior change by helping clients to explore and resolve ambivalence.”

The seminar discussed the common myth that confrontation and knowledge (just like our comments) are needed to trigger change.  When I stopped to think about it, I could not recall a single instance where either changed my behavior – and thus why do I use those techniques to try to change Jenna – and why do I even care?  The answer – my Righting Reflex.

The seminar discussed our need (as psychologists) to want to fix things.  But I’m pretty sure that the desire to fix, change, right, or improve things – really people – extends far beyond our profession.  The problem is that the Righting Reflex puts me into their shoes; but I’m not in their shoes – they are!  I’m sure any of you readers can grab my to-do list and start checking things off.  It is a lot easier when it is not your own to-do list.  The Righting Reflex causes us to ignore the ambivalence that makes change difficult.

Ambivalence – the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.

Jenna has a long list of reasons why she wants to finish her degree.  She also has a very long list of reasons why other people think she should finish.  But she also has valid reasons for maintaining the status quo.  She is ambivalent.  And that is very normal.

The Righting Reflex causes me to be very judgmental and not very helpful.  It also causes me to attend to other people’s unrealized goals and ignore my own.  I’d like to be more of a cheerleader and less of a judge.  Recognizing my Righting Reflex is my first step.

24 Comments


  1. “I’d like to be more of a cheerleader and less of a judge.”

    Amen, Erin! I think we all need to work on doing exactly that. I know I do!

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  2. That’s part of those hard habbits to break though isn’t it. The need to want to help others and fix things… I’m sure recognizing it is a first step, but it sure is hard to change. I guess we have to learn to word our things so they sounds more like the cheerleader than the judge as you said.

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    Erin Reply:

    I certainly agree that it is a habit. I think even more than “learning to word things so they sound more like a cheerleader” – we need to truly intend to be a cheerleader. I am a huge Judger. HUGE. And sometimes I pretend to be a cheerleader – but pretending doesn’t work. It especially doesn’t work if you are cheering for a desired outcome (her to finish school) – instead I should cheer for her to be at peace with whatever decision she makes.

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  3. I think we are all guilty of taking a judgemental tone at one time or another. We can’t help but share what we think others should do because hey – if *we* think it, it *must* be true and work for others! (whether or not we know the whole story or person)

    Now, if Jenna asks “Hey everybody, I’m conflicted – what should I do?” That’s a little different, we can feel more free to give our reasons for a particular action. Otherwise, we need to really watch our tone and our words and put it into context. Is Jenna not quite finishing college yet a matter of such importance that we must call her to repentance? (now if I hear she’s partaking in extreme sky diving or cliff jumping on a daily basis, I might strongly urge her to be careful and think about her risks – now that she has baby to care for it really is a life and death matter ;) ha!)

    Thanks for this reminder!

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  4. Great post, Erin. I always like your comments here and I think I’ll be popping over to your blog occasionally also. As I get older I feel like the impulse to judge is actually diminishing– which is a surprise honestly– but I think for me I see more and more how cheerleading trumps harsh judgment, and how life is much more complex than your narrow snap judgment might imply. Thanks for giving us a little psychology lesson to get to know ourselves better. Is there any research that either men or women are socialized to do this more frequently? I tend to judge–here I go!– men as always trying to “fix” things and not understand them first.

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    Erin Reply:

    I know that society talks about men as the fixers – but anecdotally, I feel like I see it just as frequently in women. I’ll have to look to see if there is data supporting a gender difference.

    What we do know is that both genders are capable of learning and undoing old habits. My husband and I have something called “the script.” If it is obvious one of us is not having the “right” reaction, we ask for “the script.” What we’ve both found is that when we are venting about our work/family/life problems – we don’t want to hear solutions – we want a hug and to hear “that really sucks.” He’s much better than I am at cheering instead of judging.

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  5. Have you ever heard of/read The Two Income Trap? It actually found that college educated women are actually much more likely to file for divorce after a divorce than their lesser educated sisters, those who did not attend or finish college.

    I don’t say that to imply that Jenna will get divorced, just that this book makes a VERY COMPELLING argument that what really happens to college educated women, who society thinks are much more capable and independent in the event anything unfortunate happens, is actually counter-intuitive.

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  6. ah shot. i meant to say that college educated women are much more likely to file for BANKRUPTCY after a divorce than women who do not have a college education.

    The book finds that women who have risen higher have farther to fall. I really, really recommend this book, even if it goes against the things you believe.

    (And the two income trap is that most two income families spend all of their income on necessities: mortgages, healthcare, etc. and not on luxuries like vacations, so that if one spouse is laid off, they do not have enough income to pay for necessities and don’t have room to trim back in the luxury department; and also that dual income families have driven up prices in neighborhoods with good schools.)

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    Erin Reply:

    I haven’t heard of the book – but it sounds intriguing. I’m very fascinated by our SAHM culture – which I believe is very unique compared to similar countries. This obviously adds another layer to the discussion.

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    Sophia Reply:

    I’ve read that book, and in that same vein “The Price of Motherhood” is a fabulous book about women/education/motherhood/divorce etc.

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  7. I really enjoyed this guest post, thanks so much. I’m still in a stage where everything feels like competition and I Need to succeed. I’ve never knocked Jenna on her choice to finish school (I’m a college grad but my husband chose to walk away 1 semester short of graduating.. it drove me nuts at first, but it’s something I now support and really admire my husband for). It can really be a struggle to accept other peoples’ choices for what they are (rather than live and let live).

    Aside from recognizing our “righting reflex” — do you have any tools/tips we can use to redirect this negative energy and squelch this tendency?

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    Erin Reply:

    Tools? Hmm… I’ve been working on this for the 5 years I’ve been in grad school. When seeing clients for therapy, it is definitely best that I’m not judging them, but that is not always easy. There are frustrating clients – and I need to improve on my ability to find positive regard.
    Two things that have worked for me – being aware of my righting reflex/judgin, being reflective/introspective, being in a good place where I can discuss my weaknesses. The second – working at an inpatient pediatric psychiatric ward. Working with these difficult and struggling 10 year olds and realizing that they are going to grow up to be difficult and struggling adults AND parents – it gave me more empathy for the adults I work with. People don’t wake up and say “I’d really like to be a drunk, unemployed failure!” – A LOT of things go into getting a person where they are today. The kids were often exposed to toxins in the womb, raised in chaotic environments, genetically predisposed to mood disorders and substance use, neglected/molested/raped, and had undiagnosed learning disorders. Their childhoods in no way resembled mine. And so when they are adults who are making poor decisions and struggling as spouses/employees/parents – I cannot hop into their shoes with my idyllic childhood and tell them how to fix things. So exposure to true diversity has helped me to be less judgmental.

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  8. I like the idea of being a cheerleader instead of a judge. It’s probably much harder to be a cheerleader…in life in general not in this case.

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  9. Great post!

    “It also causes me to attend to other people’s unrealized goals and ignore my own.”
    This strikes at the heart of it for me. Sometimes I feel as though I cannot control the things required to make my life better, and when I see others with realizable goals I want to see them achieve. “If I can’t improve my life, at least you can improve yours” or something like that. Obviously this does not work, but it is still oh so tempting.

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  10. Now you have me thinking about everything I’ve ever said… sadly my memory it terrible so the last thing I remember saying was… hmmm… never mind.

    Often times I find myself writing very very very lengthy comments or e-mail in response to matters similar to this… and then I delete it. It helps me feel better, like I’ve done my part, with out actually doing any thing. I know, I need to reassess my goals here. But seriously – no one really needs my advice. lol.

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  11. I have a hard time with my “righting reflex” as well, but I as much as I’ve been reading over and over again that Jenna wants to finish her degree, and as much as I think getting a college education is a good thing, I never really thought it was a big deal that she wasn’t finishing. Was she going to need a college degree to be a mom and a great photographer? No. What’s the possibility that she’d get a job in her field after graduating? Slim. What’s the possibility she’d even WANT to work in her field? Slim. It sounds like she liked learning and that was a big part in picking her major. Writing a blog helps you become a better writer, I think. So this has been an education for her in a way.

    I have a degree in Social Work. I graduated from a unnecessarily expensive university in 2007 and the one job that I’ve had that even used a BIT of my education could also be done by high school graduates. Any jobs I’ve found in Social Work that I was qualified for paid minimum wage. I did not go to four years of college for minimum wage, and I’m not going to pay off my considerable student loans with minimum wage. So. I did other things instead. I often wondered why I felt so unfulfilled… was it that I wasn’t working within my chosen field? Yes. Was it that I felt my college degree was unnecessary and often left me disappointed and with an unhealthy feeling of superiority. I ended up resenting my degree at times.

    So. I’m sort of on the bandwagon of “do whatever makes you happy Jenna. And read a lot. That helps.”

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  12. Fabulous post – I love the last comment about being a cheerleader instead of a judge. I need to take that heart more because I’m (in)famous for giving my two cents to others. As fas as Jenna, just wanted to share that I am 27 and only have junior status for my undergrad. I’m working on it, slowly but surely. I know I’ll finish eventually, but it hasn’t held me back in terms of work. I didn’t want it or think I needed it at age 19, now a bit older and wiser, I realize I will NEVER use my Communications Major, but I will have completed my bachelor’s degree for myself. And, daddy complex, my PhD father will be beamingly proud of me when I FINALLY walk across a college graduation stage.

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  13. I loved this post, loved loved loved it. It is so true and it hits on the weird ways our personalities interact with one another in social situations. I read a similar essay to this in college about addiction, and how educating smokers on all the “bad things” about smoking usually didn’t make one bit of difference in their behavior, neither did shaming/judging.

    I think where I exhaust myself is earnestly being a cheerleader for someone, not just “going through the motions” of being a cheerleader, and then when they fail/don’t complete the goal etc., for whatever reason *I* feel sad/disappointed whatever. Like, I was SO EXCITED to see them making a positive change or accomplishing something, and I was so rah rah rah about it, that if/when it doesn’t happen it’s like “oh…ok…well…now I feel silly for being all supportive and excited”. I know it’s not about *me*, but I guess I get my expectations up or something. It is usually about Big Deal Things- like if one of my friends/family members says they’re going to stop smoking, or lose weight to be healthier, or finally start paying off the debt that is crushing them- and I’m so happy for them to be getting out from underneath it that when it doesn’t happen I feel sad. So, I need to find a way to be a cheerleader without getting so invested in the outcome. It’s hard for me to find that line between being supportive and being invested.

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  14. Loved this post. I do think education is important though…some of the comments here imply their degrees are take it or leave it – not making any difference to their career. I think education helps us primarily learn how to think (different ways to think). I’m a musician – I don’t use algebra day to day – but all the math I took in school taught me problem solving among other things. So no, you don’t HAVE to have a degree to learn, but formal education sure helps to expand your horizons. There’s probably no way I would have studied math on my own, just for the heck of it!

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  15. Great post! It made me step back and look at myself a little bit more – I definitely have a problem wanting to “fix” people all the time – I’m a cardiac nurse and I get so frustrated with my patients some times. We all say, “well *I* would quit smoking if I just had my second heart attack, I don’t see what it’s so hard!” etc. etc. And really, when I think about it, this does nothing to help my patient.

    So thanks for calling me out on this. What a great and succinct post!!

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  16. Well said, Erin! Thanks for the push to look at myself and the way I try to “right” things every day.

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  17. Learning is more important than a degree…Jenna…if I had any authority to do so I would award you an honorary degree in Photography and blogging. I have a BFA and am the daughter of parents who have a Masters (mother) and TWO doctorates (dad). I know education is always touted as the answer, but education is much more than a degree and in my extended family (at least on one side) the people who make the most $ have the least education.

    I think wanting to finish your degree is great. Just don’t beat yourself up about it. Look at everything else you have accomplished. A LOT! To everything there is a time and season. Life is long. There’s lots of time for finishing a degree:)

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    Rebecca Reply:

    the least *formal* education that is:)

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  18. I just want to say I love Erin’s writing style, as always, and this is quite the insightful post. Thanks!

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      I'm a farm-raised almost-crunchy stroller-pushing picture-taking lifestyle-blog-writing gastronomy-obsessed divine-seeking thrift-store-combing cheese-inhaling pavement-pounding laughter-sprinkling lover of individuality and taking chances.
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