Being contrary is not self-esteem

We all know at least one person who likes to disagree, simply for the sake of disagreeing. That person is easy to identify: disputing minor facts such as the weather, carrying on an argument over something that doesn’t matter to anyone, or hanging on to a point for no apparent reason.

Different theories can be advanced to explain such a personality trait. One is boredom. The person who passionately disagrees over insignificant things may be trying to ‘work out’ his pent up intellectual energy. Instead of pursuing something useful or creative, he takes the edge off his boredom by starting petty arguments with people who couldn’t care less.

But there might be more to it than just boredom. A person who does this kind of thing is looking for a short-cut to self-esteem. Most of us earn confidence by doing something well. Some, however, would rather not exert that effort or take the risks involved in achieving anything useful or productive. Instead, they prefer to get into a verbal tussle about the name of a song on the radio, what day and year something happened, or who won the Super Bowl in 1979. Like the singsong mocking of a little child, ‘I know something you don’t know,’ the sad truth is that some adults never outgrow this immature stage.

Another word for contrary is ‘oppositional.’ The mental health profession defines ‘oppositional defiant disorder’ as an ‘ongoing pattern of disobedient, defiant and hostile behavior toward authority figures that goes beyond the normal boundaries of childhood behavior.’ And, yes, I suspect that a lot of the problems with these contrary adults started in childhood.

Perhaps they were exposed to arbitrary or contradictory rules and punishments. Some will take the high road; becoming better parents themselves, or maybe just distancing themselves from the erratic parents who drove them crazy. Yet others will grow into adults who want to ‘fight back’ by doing battle over the name of the salesman who sold you your car or whether or not it’s going to rain. There are functional and dysfunctional ways to handle your negative childhood experiences, and the contrary person hasn’t yet found a healthy outlet.

Don’t confuse a chronically oppositional adult with an independent thinker. Sometimes, genuine independent thinkers are unfairly labeled as troublemakers just because they disagree with the group. The independent thinker has his own ideas and isn’t depending on you to say something so he can dispute it. The independent thinker (right or wrong doesn’t matter) has formulated a conclusion on his own. If it goes with the majority, fine. If it’s different or even unpopular, as when Galileo upset the narrow minds of the time by suggesting that the earth revolved around the sun, then equally fine. We all enjoy countless benefits thanks to independent thought exercised by a minority of individuals over the centuries.

An oppositional person thrives on conflict for its own sake. Furthermore, you don’t have to engage in conflict unless you see reason to do so. If Charlie wants to dispute me on my casual comment that it’s a nice day, and really wants to have an intense discussion about it, I’m in no way duty-bound to honor his desire. I don’t need to win a debate I don’t care to have. I’m free to walk away.

By the way, this is a good technique for more contentious or debatable issues as well. Somebody might be trying to argue with you about a political or philosophical point you hold near and dear. In one sense, you want to be true to your values and ideals, and may feel obliged to fight back. Maybe you should, and you certainly can, but you never have to just because of somebody’s neurotic prodding.

Pick your battles wisely. Hold on to serenity by deciding for yourself what’s a battle and what’s not. Rise above the pettiness and see those quarrelsome people for whom they really are.