Relationships With 'Know-It-Alls' May Not Be Good for Your Mental Health

A: "Hey, can we stop arguing for a minute, step back, and reconsider our positions? After all, I could be wrong, and I’d want to be able to admit it. I’m sure the same is true for you, right?”


B: (Automatically) "I agree completely. You could be wrong, and you are, you idiot."

Personal growth, like all learning, is a trial-and-error process, which means you have to be able to own your errors. Learners are people who can stand corrected, standing tall while admitting they were wrong.

That’s hard, if not impossible, in the company of know-it-alls. It’s easy to see why.

Yes, in general you should be open-minded, receptive, sympathetic, generous, and kind, giving other people the benefit of the doubt, but that makes sense only in the company of those who afford you the same courtesies. In the company of psychopaths, narcissists, egomaniacs, bullies, and gaslighters, such self-softening is downright dangerous.

Likewise, being willing to admit your mistakes is a good thing in the company of people who will do the same, but dangerous in the company of know-it-alls. You’ll be steamrolled. You’ll say lots of sorries, and they’ll say few or none. Every point you concede to them is a point they claim as further evidence that they’re always right.

Admitting that you’re wrong is hard on the gut, even in the most accommodating circumstances. It’s all the more difficult when it serves someone’s plan to maintain their dominance over you.

Perhaps you recognize this from personal experience. Perhaps you’ve ended relationships with partners, colleagues, or friends, because they acted like know-it-alls. No matter how many concessions you made, they wouldn’t let their guards and superiority down.

You might leave such people on moral grounds, voting with your feet against generally bad behavior, or just because they made you like yourself less.  

Here I’m suggesting another reason to leave such people: If you really want to grow and learn, you need an environment where it’s safe enough for you to admit your mistakes. Being in the company of know-it-alls will stunt your growth. You don’t just leave them because they make you wrong all the time: you leave them because in their company, you can’t afford to admit you’re wrong. If you’re a learner and a grower, you don’t want to be in relationships where there’s that kind of added pressure to not own your own mistakes.

Now extend this to whole cultures or countries where one tribe or faction is employing the know-it-all strategy (the U.S. these days, for instance, although there are plenty of international examples). In such situations, growth will be stunted for whole populations, who are loathe to admit their errors, because if they do, their opponents will pounce.

You can’t fight with a pig. The point here is that you can hardly learn in the company of pigs, people who hog every opportunity to reaffirm their invincibility. The pig will gobble you up for every vulnerability you show and every error you admit.

It’s like trying to learn what’s wrong with your perspective in the middle of a war zone. There’s a war going on. Every moment of self-reflection and uncertainty will look like surrender to someone who never has moments of self-reflection and uncertainty.

Democracies die in darkness in part for this reason. Democracies learn by trial and error. They die when those who won’t admit errors make it impossible for others to admit errors. In the presence of know-it-all leaders who will never admit their mistakes, democracies just turn into heels-dug, ever-escalating infallibility competitions, until there’s no democracy left. 

Postscript: How can we tell who's really just a know-it-all?

I've been researching that question for 20 years. I'm loose about the terminology — know-it-all, butthead, jerk, narcissist, bully, A-hole, gloataholic, I don't make distinctions. I'm looking for the general characteristics of people who can't, won't, or think they shouldn't engage in any give and take. I also don't distinguish between know-it-alls for this cause or that. They come in all cultural flavors. My culture, however you define it, generates about as many jerks as any other culture. Sort of like sexual predators, an equal opportunity exploiter.

I think this is the priority moral question for our times. In a free society, you don't want to tell people what to do, but you've still got to put a leash on the jerks. Doing it subjectively is a core problem these days. The world over people deciding by gut that their opponents are buttheads, a world full of butthead-on-butthead conflict. 

And I don't think it's easy to answer. Still, it's well worth trying. I call the effort to discover what makes a jerk a jerk a fruitful exercise in futility. Here's a collection of short videos I've made on the subject.

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