Stubbornness: The Guts to Fight Reality

Fighting reality can get painful.

Stubbornness is, essentially, a determination to fight a losing battle with reality, while accepting as a “reward” for the effort the gift-wrapped deadweight of rigidity and resentment.

My apologies to Frank Sinatra fans, but I believe the theme song or anthem for stubbornness is the old favorite, “My Way.” One stanza stands out:

Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew/ When I bit off more than I could chew./ But through it all, when there was doubt,/ I ate it up and spit it out./ I faced it all and I stood tall,/ And did it my way.

Sure—my way or the highway! When we’re smart and wise, we don’t put the emphasis on my way. We’re just pleased and grateful to find a good, sensible, or brave way to travel “each and ev’ry highway.”

Of course, stubbornness can sometimes be a virtue, as when we adhere bravely to a sound principle in the face of opposition. This post, though, is about the self-defeating expression of it.

Stubbornness and denial are two bad apples in the same basket. The former tends to be a conscious expression of opposition, as in a lady’s stubborn refusal to reunite with an estranged family member, while the latter is likely to refer to an unconscious form of the behavior, as in a man’s denial that his drinking problem is going to get him fired.

Stubbornness is usually a reaction to underlying emotional issues. If we can make these issues conscious and keep them in focus, we have a good chance of letting go of our mulish attitude and the suffering it brings on. Basically, obstinacy is a symptom of three different emotional issues in our psyche.

The first issue involves our ego and our instinct to protect it and save face. The ego, which is usually stronger in men than in women, creates the feeling that we can’t back down and concede that we’re either wrong about something or are failing to see the whole picture. Our ego, which hates to feel diminished, interprets the act of backing down (and even concessions to reality) as a feeling of losing, being reduced, being humbled, and, hence, being a lesser person. An emotional impression washes over us: “If I’m wrong, I’m lacking in value. If that person is right, she’s better than me. She’ll feel she’s triumphed over me.” Obviously, this thinking is irrational. But much of the time our emotions trump our reason. We forego truth and stubbornly embrace the error of our ways in order to stay in our emotional comfort-zone, even when doing so is painful. Consequently, we start thinking less clearly and can even become stupid in what we believe.

The more pronounced our egotism, the less stable we are emotionally. This means we depend on our ego for our orientation in the world. When our ego is threatened, we can start to feel what we’ve been repressing all along—our underlying self-doubt. When activated, this self-doubt is quite painful and can produce acute anxiety. Self-doubt is essentially an irrational conviction that we’re seriously lacking in value and significance. Our instinct is to avoid this anxious feeling at all costs. So truth becomes secondary to our perceived need to protect the beliefs that in turn protect our ego and ease our anxiety. When we hang on stubbornly to a flawed belief or perception, we’re dependent emotionally on being “right.” Saying “Sorry, I was wrong” feels to our ego like a smack to the jaw. We can’t maintain such bullheadedness without paying a price: Our stubbornness is likely to become increasingly painful.

The second issue involves power and submission. Many of our daily dealings with others involve who is in a dominant position and who will prevail. Of course, we’re inclined to resist when we feel pushed around, controlled, and dominated. However, people with unresolved emotional issues are easily triggered when it comes to feeling controlled. A problem for the weak person is that he or she can feel controlled and dominated even when the other person, the alleged controller, is only being appropriately helpful or legitimately directive. The weak person enlists stubbornness as a way of coping with his or her own weakness. As one observer put it, “Stubbornness is the strength of the weak.” British writer W. Somerset Maugham also got it right: “Like all weak men he laid an exaggerated stress on not changing one’s mind.” The feeling is that, “If I’m not stubborn, people will walk all over me.” So stubbornness feels like power to a weak person, but typically it is a self-defeating third-rate kind of power.

Stubbornness can be understood as an illusion of power that covers up the feeling of being overwhelmed and out-gunned by reality. Once an individual emotionally interprets a situation in such a way as to feel controlled, he or she is likely to slip into passive-aggressive resistance. This is a kind of cowardly aggression—a sly, unspoken refusal to cooperate, for instance—but it feels to the weak individual like actual power. Any port in a storm, the saying goes. In feeling forced to comply, passive-aggressive people might say to themselves, “No, I won’t, and you can’t make me!” Often they don’t even register consciously this inner defiance. They seem agreeable on the surface, but their resistance and behaviors soon exhibit the rigidity of passive non-compliance.

The third issue involves our tendency to hold on fiercely to our grudges.  In this version of stubbornness, we refuse to let go of some real or imagined insult or affront to our person. Injustice collectors, for instance, hold on obstinately to the big and small slights they feel have wounded them over the years.  At this point, stubbornness becomes quite simply a determination to suffer. This is why stubborn people are often unable to give a clear reason or explanation for their refusal to budge. I remember one time, probably 25 years ago, being in a snit over some alleged unkindness that I felt my wife Sandra had inflicted upon me. Looking back, I vaguely remember it as some trifle. Anyway, I sat at my desk in a very dark mood, brooding resentfully, determined at the very least to hold this grudge against her all night long and into the following day. Next thing I knew, though, she was sitting down close to me, talking to me in sweet consideration, wondering if we could clear the air. I didn’t want to. I wanted to stay resentful. She kept talking patiently, expressing warm feelings toward me, pondering the nature of conflict and unhappiness. Within minutes, my misery began to melt away. In less than ten minutes I was soaking up inner peace and harmony, marveling at how much suffering her kind intervention had spared me.