“I’m right,” “I’m a good person,” and “I didn’t make a mistake.” These three mindsets regularly keep people from addressing conflict issues. Those I interviewed in China for my dissertation research expressed repeatedly that holding tight to these unexamined views of themselves and their positions was a big hindrance in reconciling relationships. Yet, as their mindsets shifted, a door to potential reconciliation opened.
When reflecting on how she used to never apologize to people, Wang Fang said, “In the past, I wasn’t willing to apologize because I didn’t think I had done anything wrong. I felt I was right!”1 How rigid or flexible is your thinking about yourself and that other person in the area that you disagree over? Do you find yourself viscerally digging in your heels on your own position, thinking or saying, “I’m right; I’m going to prove it to you”?
Min Lei shared a story with me about a woman in her prayer group, Chen Li, who was deeply offended and hurt by something she had said.2 When another prayer group member told Min Lei, she was shocked and even upset. She hadn’t intended to hurt Chen Li! She had spoken with the best of intentions. How could Chen Li have interpreted her words in that way?
When the prayer group member suggested that Min Lei call Chen Li, talk with her about it, and possibly apologize, at first Min Lei refused. She felt she hadn’t done anything wrong. But as Min Lei spent time praying about the situation, God helped her see that the issue wasn’t about whether her words were justified, her motivation pure, or if she had done something wrong; rather, the issue was whether Min Lei would be humble and compassionate enough to call, ask Chen Li to tell her how Min Lei’s words had hurt her, and apologize for causing the hurt.
So Min Lei called and asked Chen Li to tell her what she had said that had been hurtful and how that had impacted her. Chen Li was quite upset and emotional as she shared what Min Lei had said that was so hurtful. As Chen Li shared more, Min Lei realized that her words had triggered a past wound. Min Lei was able to see how hurt Chen Li felt by what she had said. God moved her heart to compassion, and she genuinely apologized for having hurt Chen Li. Chen Li was able to forgive her and their relationship was restored. To accomplish all this, Min Lei had to move past focusing on being right, a mindset that would have kept her stuck relationally.
“I’m a Good Person”
When you know at a gut level that you messed up, made a mistake, or sinned, you may find yourself justifying your behavior, thinking “I meant well. I’m a good person; this isn’t worth losing face over.” Yang Lin expressed the mindset in this way:
We think we are good. Deep inside, we think, even if I am not perfect, at least I am better than the average person.
Even if we hate someone in our hearts and distance ourselves from people, we think we are still good: “At least I didn’t argue with her!” and, “I am being polite to her!” 3
The human ability to self-justify is quite impressive. As humans, we don’t want to see ourselves as being in the wrong. And we certainly don’t want to admit it to others. I have found, even as Christians, we are tempted to think that in some way, apart from Christ, we can be and ought to be good in and of ourselves. Oh, how we long to be good and be seen as good!
“I Didn’t Make a Mistake”
Sometimes even though we subconsciously know that we have sinned against someone or made a consequential mistake, the need to preserve face is felt so strongly that we don’t acknowledge our sin or mistake to anyone, not even to ourselves. Why is it so difficult for us to face and accept our imperfect selves? What Huang Jingjing told me about feeling justified in her anger and face-saving reasons for not apologizing gives some clues:
I used to rarely apologize to my husband or child. For one, I felt there was a reason for my anger toward them. Two, there was also my face. Even though in my heart I felt ashamed of my words and conscience-stricken, I still would not apologize. I would think, “Just wait for a while, it will pass.”
I think a lot of people, like me, really want face. It is extremely hard to take the first step and admit our mistake or wrong; we fear that others will think poorly of us, or even attack us. I have this worry.
I fake thinking I am correct, that I am very strong, because I don’t want to admit I am weak. I feel like apologizing proves I have failed or done something wrong. This demonstrates that I’m no good.4
Did you notice Huang Jingjing’s equation?
doing something wrong or a failure = negative self-worth (“I’m no good”)
Her gut response, even to herself, was to prioritize saving face above all else. If we equate doing something wrong, failing, or making a mistake with our self-worth, no wonder we subconsciously avoid thinking we might have sinned or made a mistake, never mind publicly acknowledging it!
Wang Jia aptly describes what many of us feel unconsciously:
If you are really going to deal with the problem [the conflict], you need to address your part of the problem; I am not that willing to face myself, that I sin, that I did something wrong. I’m not that willing to face this problem; if I do face the problem, it will cause me to feel ashamed.5
Particularly when facing a conflict in which we know we contributed to the problem, we often try harder to be good and revert to acting like nothing is wrong in order to preserve face and protect our own sense of goodness or self-worth.
We have many blind spots and need the Holy Spirit’s revelation of mindsets that are hindering us from addressing conflict issues with others. Proverbs tells us that our way of responding to others often seems right to us: “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart” (Proverbs 21:2). The Lord looks at our hearts and sees what is motivating our conflict responses. As we see what God sees in us, embrace his mindset, and begin to be changed, our relationships reap the benefits.
Note: This blog post contains content from Jolene’s yet to be published book: Changing Normal: A New Approach to Conflict, Face Issues, and Reconciling Relationships.
Image credit: Jan Tinneberg via Unsplash.
Having spent much of the time between 1997 and 2020 committed to working overseas in China, Jolene Kinser now lives in southern California. Jolene works as a global Chinese peacemaking ministry developer and educator and as a peacemaking specialist under the South Pacific District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Jolene …View Full Bio
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