A healthy dose of humility can help us be open to other people's ideas
“I know what I’m doing!” “Who are you to teach me how to do this?” “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I know how it’s done.” “Trust me; I know what I’m doing!” These are expressions we’ve all surely heard, usually from someone who is stubborn and isn’t willing to listen to what anyone says to them.
Today, we live in a world where flexibility is essential: where it’s necessary to know how to adapt and adjust in every way. What’s hardest for us to change — and all of us have likely experienced this — is our own character. But just because it’s hard, does not mean it’s impossible!
First, we should distinguish between temperament and character. Our temperament is something that doesn’t change, and which characterizes us from birth: for example, people are more active or sedentary, more sentimental or more phlegmatic, impulsive or reflexive … This has to do mostly with our biological makeup, and so these tendencies will likely never change. Our character, on the contrary, has to do with our education and our habits, and is something we can shape. With every decision we make in our lives, we adjust our character, and even make significant changes—or, we can simply repeat the same thing we’ve always done. In this way, we form our habits, which are virtues if properly oriented, or vices if they’re disordered.
Stubbornness is the attitude or vice of digging in our heels, of not listening to other people’s advice, and of persisting in our errors.
Unfortunately, the older we get, the more stubborn we tend to become. On one hand, we gain experience with age, and we are often proud of it. It seems hard for us to believe that someone with similar or less experience would know how to do things better, so we think we no longer need anyone to teach us.
Also, as we grow older, it becomes harder for us to learn new things, and our habits of thought and behavior are more ingrained. We generally become less receptive, and more likely to hold on to our way of thinking and acting. We tend to think, “I’m okay the way I am, so it’s better not to try to change it.”
While stubbornness is natural up to a point, it’s not good for us. A stubborn person will rarely improve his or her character. Nor will they want to adapt to the demands of getting along with other people at work or at home. Stubborn people tend to have to “do it their way” always, and the more committed they are to something, the more they are closed-minded and unwilling to listen to different opinions.
Is it possible to overcome stubbornness?
If we realize that we’re stubborn, we’re not condemned to be that way forever. Remember, stubbornness is at least partly a habit, and therefore a property of our character (which can be changed), although it may be building upon an aspect of our temperament.
First, it can help to look back on the times when, due to our stubbornness, we’ve had bad experiences, or perhaps failed completely. Have you ever had the experience of trying some do-it-yourself projects around the house? Or maybe in the kitchen? More than one recipe may have ended up in the garbage, because you didn’t follow the advice of someone who knew better than. We need to learn from our mistakes that we’re not infallible.
Second, we need to cultivate the virtue of humility. Being humble means recognizing ourselves as we are: we’re not perfect, and we all have certain defects. The fact is, we don’t actually know everything. If we’re humble, we’ll be open to learning, to listening to advice, and to taking that advice without it feeling like we are being weak, or somehow less of a man or woman.
It’s difficult to watch someone who won’t listen to reason, who absolutely has to do it their way, and who persists in error. In the end, stubbornness is a manifestation of pride that disguises itself under experience, knowledge, or a “gut feeling that’s never wrong.”
If you’re stubborn, what can you do about it?
1. Practice humility in little things. For example, when dealing with small disagreements that don’t really matter, such as matters of taste or personal preference, or facts about events that aren’t really of importance, let other people’s opinion take precedence.
2. Try a new way of doing things you’ve always done. Take people’s advice about different routes through the city or town where you live, different ways of preparing food, and so forth. There’s nearly always more than one effective way to do things.
3. If someone among your family or friends moves something small in your house or in your personal space, or doesn’t arrange things exactly as you think it should be done, don’t act as if it were a huge scandal.
4. If you go out with friends and family, don’t feel you have to be the one to decide the route or the activities. Let other people decide for once! This will help you to learn to accept other people’s decisions and to appreciate their criteria.
5. If you see you’ve gotten yourself involved in an argument and that you’re being very stubborn, stop for a moment to think, and open your mind. The other person might be right!
6. Ask other people for help. Explain to them that (at last!) you’ve realized that you’re stubborn, and that you need them to tip you off when you’re being particularly bullheaded. It can be easier to let someone twist your arm when you know it’s someone who loves you.
Can we really improve our character?