Righteousness Vs. Self-Righteousness: A Slippery Slope


For weeks, I woke up and tried to talk myself into feeling something I didn’t feel. 

I tried convincing myself that things were okay. I tried telling myself that I was seeing an incomplete picture, and that with just a little more information, things would feel okay. I tried getting out of bed, getting dressed, and carrying on as I typically would on any old happy-go-lucky kind of day. No matter what I tried, each day the feeling persisted. 

Over time it became overwhelmingly clear: Something was wrong. 

Something was up, but I didn’t know what. There were no words to name it. Just images. Like moving through mud. And questions. Like, how come I can’t seem to understand what’s happening? There wasn’t a name for the wrongness I was feeling inside.

The Wrongness

The wrongness was characterized by several things that I just couldn’t get forward movement on. First was a near constant pit in my stomach–a sensation of being knotted or twisted deep inside for most hours of the day. Then there was the mental fogginess, as if I were trying to make my way through a strange jungle with only two inches of visibility in front of me. To round it off was an impenetrable sadness, a feeling that dampened my enthusiasm to do something (anything), and that rendered me discouraged that a better future was possible.

As I put myself through the motions of daily living, I knew I needed clarity, but there was no indication about where I might be able to get it from. Not knowing what else to do, I started studying the situation. 

I attempted to notice my patterns of reaction throughout the day. When did the pit in my stomach tighten? When did the fogginess intensify? How did my sadness transform in response to events, time of day, tasks, conversations, etc.?

Each day I questioned whether I was overreacting. After all, there was a small tribe of people involved in the situation, and many of them seemed to be just fine with how it was unfolding. Maybe I was the problem. Could it be my temperament, my resilience, or my mindset that was the fundamental issue? 

I went back and forth on this for a long time, falling asleep at night questioning whether the wrongness was all in my head, interrogating myself until I crumbled under the pressure and gave into my brain’s bad cop thesis that I must be inventing it. Lo and behold, each morning I woke up with the wrongness firmly back in its place, assuring me with its evil grin that it was, indeed, a legitimate entity and not merely some psychologically induced phantom that could be warded off with tough love self-talk. 

As the days progressed, I did what I often do in situations like these: I confided in Oli and my close people, I tried to find words to name the wrongness in my daily journal entries, I listened to podcasts and devoured books that were relevant to what I was going through.

Righteousness: Finding the Right Words

With each passing day, it became clear: I was right about the wrongness. Maybe I didn’t know how to talk about it, maybe it wasn’t entirely clear what was going on, and maybe I was also part of the problem. But one thing was most certainly not a maybe in my mind, and that was that the wrongness existed.

Eventually, I began to find some words. They came slowly at first, with a lot of fanfare– like the first lucky letters that get revealed during a game of Wheel of Fortune. I started testing out my new language, first to my journal, then to myself in the mirror, then to Oli and my close people, and finally, to those directly involved in the situation. 

My body understood the wrongness before my brain did. More perceptive than my brain, my body was able to pick up on environmental nuances that indicated something was up. It was reacting to real injustices in the world, and it was desperately trying to tell my brain about them by manifesting the pit in my stomach, the mental haziness and the sadness. Now, with the help of my support system, my brain had some words for it. They weren’t perfect and they weren’t complete, but they were enough to start some crucial conversations.

It was sloppy at first, the way all first drafts are. I was not successful in aligning with everyone on every aspect of the wrongness. I leaned on those around me to edit my words. I paid close attention to what they said. In some cases, I found myself changed by the discussion as they tore into the superficial or misguided bits of my argument. I was careful to not internalize anything that might have been gaslighting or otherwise dismissive of the wrongness I was trying to express. In other cases, I held my ground with conviction, even if it meant trying forty thousand different ways of saying the same thing.

As the weeks wore on, I found myself more and more on the same page with those around me. It was by no means a perfect match, but I at least had validation from my surroundings that the wrongness was not, in fact, all in my head. It was out there in the world, and it required justice. And most importantly, other people saw it, too.

Finally, I was vindicated. 

I took a cold victory shower. Overwhelmed by the stress, I put my hands over my head–a true I’m surrendering to this roller coaster moment. Cold water cascaded over me, and I exhaled deeply through my mouth, welcoming the resulting goosebumps and shivers as medals of honor for my service. I puffed up my backside and exposed it fully to the stream, ensuring every inch of skin was doused in the crisp liquid. I turned around and flared my chest up towards the stream, allowing the cold water to trickle over my entire frontside. 

In an instant, my sense of wrongness transformed into a sense of righteousness. Yes! It was not wrongness, per se, that I had been experiencing this whole time. I was experiencing righteousness–a sense that something is unjust and fundamentally out of alignment with how things ought to be. I was not able to talk myself out of it because I can’t talk myself out of what is right, even if there aren’t words to talk about it yet.

Self-Righteousness: When The Tables Turn

Although I found myself more aligned with the people around me, action was slow to the uptake. After all, a problem must be fully thought through and evaluated before it’s wise to do something about it.

But in my world, each day that action was postponed was another day that I lived steeped in the wrongness. I may as well have spent my days hunting an endangered species or trying to remove a zebra’s stripes. That would have made an equivalent amount of sense to living in the wrongness.

Soon, I found myself justifying my own wrong behavior. New logic moved itself into my brain that went like this: You have been wronged, so now it’s okay to wrong others. I found myself acting out, justifying my behavior because of the pain I was living in.

If anyone wanted to have a sober conversation with me about the wrongness I was exhibiting, I was not open to it. As far as I was concerned, there was only one valid discussion to have, and that was about the wrongness out there (not the wrongness in here). 

I was certain. I was correct. I was morally superior. 

As I splashed my face with cold water one morning, I made eye contact with myself in the mirror. Suddenly, it hit me: My righteousness had turned into self-righteousness. The tables had turned.

I had never noticed before that righteousness is a slippery slope to self-righteousness. As I looked into my eyes in the mirror, the connection strengthened in my mind. I remembered back to the many times I had felt justifiably wronged by something, and how I used that as an excuse to behave poorly. I remembered the many instances where I had allowed my attention to be so singularly focused on the wrongness in the world, that I had neglected to hold myself accountable for the wrongness I had within me. 

My self-righteousness had given me a hall pass to behave however I wanted. It had allowed my bias to distort my perception, where evidence held more or less weight depending on whether it confirmed or rejected my hypothesis of the wrongness in the world. It had turned me into the very monster I was lashing out against.

Righteousness Vs. Self-Righteousness

I knew I needed to course correct. It was clearly making matters worse. Without the humility to address my own problematic behavior, I could feel my influence on others start to wane. How could they trust me to evaluate the wrongness in the world if I couldn’t see clearly the wrongness within myself?

I knew I needed to focus my attention equally in both directions. I needed to start balancing my conversations with others between the wrongness out there and the wrongness in here, if only to repair whatever trust had been ruptured in my storms of self-righteousness.

I am grateful for my sensitivity to right and wrong–it’s a power of sorts. With that comes the responsibility to straddle the place between righteousness and self-righteousness, to ensure that I am behaving fairly towards others, even (and especially) when I perceive an unfairness towards me. 

This is not comfortable to admit to myself. Frankly, I’d rather throw temper tantrums like a 3-year-old whose Ipad just ran out of battery power. But somehow, in the name of righteousness, I know that it’s the right thing to do. 

And because of that, I will move forward in that direction.

About Yoga In Your Living Room

Our yoga platform features smart, simple movements that help you feel better without confusing you, overwhelming you, or asking you to do impossible things. We believe you are capable of moving well, resolving pain, overcoming obstacles, and feeling capable beyond your wildest dreams. Try our online yoga membership risk-free for 7-days, or subscribe to our mailing list to stay in touch.