Sometimes There Is No Right Way

“You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” ~Friedrich Nietzsche 

I was raised in a home where a very common phrase was, “There's a right way and a wrong way.”

The right way was the way my parents wanted things done. There were a great many rules surrounding the right way for nearly everything, in an attempt to ensure that we got it right, and, when the rules weren't enough to enforce the rightness of our behavior, there were punishments, harsh words, and sometimes very public humiliation.

I've spent most of my adult life learning to deal with the fallout of this type of ingrained thinking, once important for emotional survival and physical safety, but no longer useful.

I work, now, to examine the precepts I live by, and whether they are helping me toward my goal of living a peaceful and conscious life. But there can still be some pretty huge blind spots in my view of things—places where I, myself, still expect those around me to conform to my concept of what is right. 

Three years ago, when I began to practice the base principles of radical unschooling, I fell headlong into one of these traps. It caused a great deal of pain, and nearly cost me my oldest and dearest friend.

We altered the way in which we interacted with our children from an authoritarian style to a partnership model. And I decided I would be a missionary for every other family who showed a glimmer of dissension (as all families, even mine, do, sometimes).

I had found a piece that was missing from the puzzle of my own life, and I was awed by the rapid and wonderful changes I saw within my family once I placed it.

I hadn't yet learned that zeal and epiphanies in our lives can also be pitfalls; that not everyone will benefit from what benefits us. I was certain my way was perfect and even necessary—for everyone.

It can be easy to believe, when we find the answer to our life's dilemmas, that they will solve everyone else's problems, too—that we have found the one and only “right way.”

We may come from a place of positive intent, but we are no less invading another's life or suggesting that they might not find their way, without us. We do not trust them to find their own answers, and that awareness can sting with unintended fierceness.

I believe now that these deeply rooted judgmental places may be within all of us who grew up judged, and dependent on the verdict of that judgment for safety or survival. 

What once helped us to survive the harsher places in our own childhoods can become a heavy and cumbersome burden, once we are grown.

It can hinder our relationships and our ability to create or maintain close connections, because, in insisting that we know what is right, we are also saying that the other is wrong.

I've never believed the phrase  “the ends justify the means.”

It seems so unfeeling of the harm, perhaps irreparable, that can be done to other beings, and to our relationships with those beings. And yet, I inflicted just this type of behavior on my dear friend, as though her life, and her ideas of right, must echo my own, else she would be forever wrong in my eyes.

I realize, now, that I was being invasive; I was thrusting myself and my brand-new “right way” upon another who had not asked for my judgment.

I didn't stop to think, at the time, that my goals left no room for her to learn and grow at her own pace, in her own way, and for her own reasons.

I didn't consider that my insistence upon my own version of the right way might bring her more hurt than healing; nor that my right way, which works such magic in our lives, might be absolutely wrong for her and her family—and that even if it was right, only they could judge that.

Now, I've learned (I hope, for the last time), that I can't make others believe or live as I do; that I might cause irreparable harm to relationships when I react to their choices as though I had the “one true path.”

My friend and I needed to step away from each other’s lives in order to heal the damage I had done with my insistence and certainty about the right way and the wrong way. This freed her to find her own way, like mine in some aspects, and very unlike in others, but not ever mine to judge.

I have come to understand that she would not have had this certainty without making the journey she was called to make, with the obstacles and vistas she encountered along the way.

She always had the strength to make it; she was making it, in her own fashion, even while I was so forcefully urging her toward my right path. The true problem was not with her, but with my inability to see that.

Each of us makes decisions based on personality, beliefs, values, circumstances, ability, and many other factors that are diverse and variable.

None of us can see clearly enough into the life of another to see all the hows and whys of their living.

Any time I find myself thinking that I can, it has become a warning beacon alerting me to ingrained and unwanted attitudes.

Maybe the true value of these moments is in giving us yet another chance to ferret out those ingrained, black-and-white patterns so that we can see each other as-is, and to give others the space to determine for themselves their course in those nebulous areas that are neither right or wrong. 

Each time I remember to do this, I find that my own life opens up with possibilities I might have considered wrong, and so dismissed without even noticing them. My mind opens also to the reality that there are as many right ways as there are people and circumstances.

Letting go of judgments about right and wrong helps my relationship with my friend and others with whom I do not always agree; and it helps me to keep my awareness framed in possibilities rather than limitations.

So, these days, whether I agree with your way or not, I acknowledge that it is your way, and not mine.  

I will tend to making the choices and choosing the path that leads my way; you may have yours, and, perhaps, we will meet at some point along the journey, greet each other, and share the way for a while.

When our paths diverge again, I will bid you well for the portions of the journey we cannot share.

Photo by Damian Gadal

About Shan Jeniah Burton

Shan Jeniah Burton lives in upstate New York with her husband, 10-year-old son, Jeremiah; and 7-year old daughter, Annalise. Writing is the thread that weaves through all the other parts of her life.  She blogs regularly about unschooling at The Unfettered Life and on writing at "shanjeniah.”

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  • Goodtimesdotcom

    The right way becomes clear to us when we can look at our actions and know in our own heart that we have done best we can for all persons involved. Be confident in your decisions and remain thoughtful to others

  • Divya5809

    This is timely for me I guess. Someone told me yesterday that I was acting as if I know everything about anything and that I was thinking highly of myself. I have been all dull since then, trying to know whether I was really doing that. It was time to reflect and this article is helping me while I do it. Thank you are this article.

  • You mean MY way isn’t THE right way, for everybody?  But, but, but…. For the most part, you are right.

    I do believe there are a few absolutes – if you see a parent in the grocery store yank hard on a kid’s arm then smack him across the face, it’s NOT “simply another way of parenting.” But yes, people can have many different ideas about how to live, how to eat, how to raise children, and just because somebody has a different belief than mine, doesn’t mean it is wrong for her and her family.

  • zimt-peppermint

    Thank you.

  • Stevenb

    Couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks for string this.

  • Steven


  • fms

    I got hit with this many years ago, in a slightly different form.  One of my employees asked me a question.  I went through and prepared a long, detailed answer — spent half the day doing it.  Sent it off to her.  Later in the afternoon I stopped by her office to chat, asked her if she had gotten my response.  She shyly answered, “Yes, I did.  You clearly spent a lot of time and effort putting it together, and I really appreciate that…  but I would have liked to have come up with it myself.”  Sweetest, nicest little whack upside the head anyone had ever given me!  And that’s when I woke up to what it means to teach.  It doesn’t mean giving someone all the answers, it means showing them the next step down the path when they think they’re at a dead end, and letting them find their own answers from there.

  • Lscorpio13

    I have been told the same on many occassion…it is difficult to let go of our notion of our way as “the right way”, so this post hits home 🙂

  • Deanna

    Very well said!

  • When harsh judgment pervades a family toward one of their own, no amount of “right ways” and “reschooling” is going to alter that fact. I have been able to chip away a notch in that immovable mountain, in the guise of one person, but the collective force of the many prejudicial attitudes against “my way” still possesses the summit of that obstacle. I see little fruition in attempting to create a dialogue with any of them anymore because it is not me with whom they spend the bulk of their time.

    I have spent a multitude of hours with others who have faced similar situations, advising them to not expect others to readily accept their newly found “way”. The world just doesn’t spin in that manner. We can each be our own bright and shining beacon and show the way, but we have no obligation beyond that point to assure that others heed the way. As you say, “None of us can see clearly enough into the life of another to see all the hows and whys of their living.” That applies in reciprocity. Others cannot see into ours. Although it hurts to be alone, I find that there is a far greater sense of purpose in my life by divesting myself of the concerns of particular others who refuse to establish a dialogue with me.

    Thank you for your insight.

  • Debra Lytle

    I have went to many Access classes. Have you? I love your story. It has been a challenge for me to do this. I know how freeing it can be. Keep up the good work, of sharing. May you always have what your heart desires.

  • beautiful…when I give up needing to be right I no longer need to see you as wrong ;-)…this was lovely and perfect in its timing. 😀

  • Thank you for your honesty. Raw blogs like this are what really help others. I am in a point where I am looking back at the roots of my authoritarian child-raising, hoping I can heal some of the hurt before my daughter leaves home. I will keep this in mind in my approach. Namaste

  • Ma La SaHan

    Thank you, Lori, for sharing your insights into this very tenacious attitude which I also share.  Having struggled for many years with the concepts and opinions imposed upon myself by wellmeaning parents who acted more out of fear for themselves than for me, I also found my own answers, my own path, and thought it surely is right for the rest of the world.  I learned  that friends may turn away from my well meaning advice and shun me. 

    I have learned to listen, to thank them for sharing their challenges and their own way of dealing with them.  Although I still feel that great temptation, sometimes coupled with a sense of anger for their “blindness”, to pour my “wisdom” over them, I keep myself aware that I may be the one who is “blinded” by my own ego and that the hurt I feel when I hear about their way, is based upon my memory about my own experiences and my wish to make my own pain go away, which still can be reawakened by someone else’s story. 

    I have decided that it is okay not to participate in an ongoing listening process to someone else’s constant complaints, if and when the other person is not willing to find his or her own way of healing a given challenge or have some insight into their own personality, which unfortunately at times has also cost me a friendship, no matter how well chosen I thought my words were .
    I remind myself that words hastely spoken cannot be recalled and it is better to at least wait a while and during that time allow guidance to come to me as to how to say it, if I still feel called to do so, which most of the time I will realize that I am not.

    Thank you again for sharing yourself with all of us.  MaLa

  • Hi MaLa,

    I didn’t actually write this post. It’s by a writer named Shan Jeniah Burton. I will let her respond to the rest of your comment!

    Have a wonderful day =)


  • Lv2terp

    This blog is fantastic…I felt it was written for me! The journey of trying to rewrite my programming has been a long one, but definitely am keeping diligent on my journey as you are, thank you for sharing this insight and providing this wisdom and vulnerability! 🙂

  • sweetborigirl

    This is something I’ve been working on. I always thought I was always right and my opinions were more like facts to me but I learned that everything is not just black or white, there are shades in between.

  • kathy b

    Great food for thought and I feel i must remind myself of this often.  Let others choose their own way, be respectful of their choices.  My way is just that, my way.  

  • lilewok

    Very insightful.  I esp. agree with:Each of us makes decisions based on personality, beliefs, values, circumstances, ability, and many other factors that are diverse and variable.
    None of us can see clearly enough into the life of another to see all the hows and whys of their living…
    Family can sometimes make this difficult, yet I need to remind myself that DNA does not make us the same in all ways.  And while family tries to be helpful, and was very helpful in getting me out of a difficult situation, in moving forward, I need to find my way, that is very different from theirs… our life experiences were different.  So while I have gratitude for the help and advice I was given, anything after that has become “the right way”…yet not my “right way”. 
    Just the reminder I needed today!  Thanks!

  • MaLa SaHan

    please forward my appreciation to Shan Jeniah Burton for sharing her story with us, and my thanks to you for printing it for me to see.  MaLa

  • Hi MaLa,

    She will see your comment! I sent her the link to her post so that she can respond to comments when she has time.

    Have a great day!

  • MaLa SaHan

    My understanding of the situation you describe tells that you did show the next step, it just turned out to be a bigger one than the other person was prepared to take, and she still had the opportunity to figure it out herself and her approach may have turned out to be other then what you suggested.  She may also have chosen to say “thank you for listening to me, and I would now like to figure it out by myself” when she first confided in you, not doing so was a neglect on her part.  She chose an unspoken and unshared expectation of you the listene.  I see an opportunity for both of you to let go and accept as is.  It is not worth it to beat yourself over the head for not responding in what you may feel in hindsight would have been a more appropriate way.  The chosen approach served both of you in an unexpected way, and therefore may be viewed as the “right” one.  The choice I see here is either to view it negatively or positively, with gratitude or with a wish that you should have….

  • Hello, everyone –

     I am touched by your comments, and hope to return soon to respond to each personally.

    Until then, please know that I am reading, and pondering, and several of you have responded in ways that deepen my understanding.

    It’s deeply gratifying to know that my words and experiences have value to others.  

    It was even sweeter to read these comments in the company of my dear friend, in the midst of an hours long visit that flowed with joy and ease as we shared details of our lives, without judgment.

    Thank you all for responding! =)

    Shan Jeniah

  • Harinder Parmar

    I don’t like to blame parents and how we were raised for all our adult life problems. Parents are trying to do their best with their own struggles while raising kids. Any famous person biography will prove that to you, most of them weren’t raised in a partnership parenthood. Unfortunately, not every parent goes to any trainning. They practice whatever they think is right. I personally may not agree with it either but sometimes we have limited choices in our lives.

  • “When our paths diverge again, I will bid you well for the portions of the journey we cannot share.”

    Love that ending quote!  What a great piece – thank you so much for sharing it here.

  • Divya5809

    .when I give up needing to be right I no longer need to see you as wrong” : WOW.

  • Divya5809

    Hi Harinder,

    Something that is good for one person may be bad for the other, same way something that is right for one person may not be for another, or what we ‘think’ is right for someone may not be right in reality. Parents are allowed to err just like their children, because we all never stop learning, they didn’t go through the same set of things that their children are going through now and vice versa, so there is no black and white but shades of it. Empathy should be practiced by both: the parents and the children. So parents have their own ways, you need not label them right or wrong, it is just their way, and may be different for each parent.

    From the above article:
    “None of us can see clearly enough into the life of another to see all the hows and whys of their living.”

  • I intended to get back to these comments a lot faster than this! Life threw me a few curves, and that didn’t happen.

    I will be working my way through the many thoughtful responses over the course of the coming days, and I do value all of the responses.

    Thank you all for taking the time to reply!

  • fms –

    I know what you mean. My friend had factors in her life that I knew nothing at all about, and some of these made it improbable or even impossible that she could ever have just the life we do.

    Rather than teaching, I might better have simply lived our life, offering her a window into what a more peaceful way of living with children looked and felt like. And, if she asked, I might much better have framed my responses in what we had learned, rather than what she ought to do…

    How generous of you to spend that time formulating your reply. Like me, your intent was honorable, but the approach didn’t have the desired effect.

    Learning to wait to be asked and also to give only what is needed is a tricky and valuable skill.

    Thank you for taking the time to reply, and my regrets for not responding in a more timely manner!

    Shan Jeniah

  • MaLa –

    I don’t see any neglect on anyone’s part here, just a differing set of expectations and needs.

    I do see that fms learned something which seems to have helped, and spent time examining the incident.

    Although I agree that seeing it as a positive and letting go of any residual guilt can only help, I don’t think there are only two choices – i see a whole spectrum, based upon who fms is and what that poster’s life experiences have been.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, and my regrets for how long it took me to get back to your post!

  • Mark –

    I am sorry to have taken so long to get back to you.

    I really know what you mean. Our way is not mainstream, and there have been severed relationships within my family of origin, as well.

    I choose to focus on the peace and joy that pervade our lives, and on cultivating friendships with those who share the desire to be whole and healed, rather than those who will not be satisfied unless I abandon a way of living that is ideal for us, to live as they feel I should.

    I hope for you that you, too, will find the people who inspire and strengthen you.

    In peace,
    Shan Jeniah

  • Dear Goddess (OK, I admit it – THAT was fun to write!) –

    I agree that there are absolutes, but, even then, there are choices in how or whether to react.

    Since I know that we have a very different relationship than many families, I am aware that simply going to the store with my kids will attract some attention – we chat, as equals and they have a great deal of input regarding what we buy. If they want something we can’t manage and are upset by that, it’s not called a tantrum, and I do what I can to honor those emotions (once, I needed to let a cashier know that I did not consider my then 9 year old son a “bad boy” because he was crying at not being able to purchase something he truly yearned for).

    When I see another parent treating a child poorly, I remember that these things are learned, and better ways can be, too. Often, I will engage the child directly, acknowledging that shopping can be hard, boring, and even exhausting for someone dragged along, and often essentially ignored. That alone is sometimes enough to soften an overwhelmed and impatient parent.

    Other times, my children have offered the other child a sheet of stickers (I kept these in my purse, because, until recently, my daughter was very leery of automatic toilets, and these can block the ‘eye’). One mother’s obvious exhale and relaxation was obvious when her daughter stopped crying and smiled at the gift. We ended up chatting a bit, and they left in a much more relaxed and happy way, enjoying each other again.

    I haven’t seen an adult strike a child, thankfully.

    I appreciate your thoughtful comments, and am sorry that I didn’t respond sooner!

  • Lilewok –

    It has taken an embarassingly long time for me to respond to your post, and I am sorry.

    DNA is not in my mind what makes a family – at least, not a family of the spirit. For that, I am blessed with many people who inspire, amuse, support stretch, elevate…and who find some of those qualities in me too.

    I would love if that included people with whom I share DNA, but mostly, it doesn’t, for me. I don’t need to make them into enemies (although that doesn’t seem to be a mutual feeling), but I also do not need their approval to live as who I am.

    I am happy my post found its way to you when you needed it, and i thank you belatedly for taking a moment to tell me so. It means more than you might know.

    Shan Jeniah

  • Sweetborigirl –

    I think it is easy to get caught up in our own perceptions, and forget that each of us experiences reality differently – and so, each of us has our own truths.

    Also, some people are much more black and white in how they see things than others. The friend mentioned in the post and my husband tend to see things that way. I, though, don’t just see them in shades of grey, i see them in psychedelic technicolor, sometimes!

    Learning to see and accept those spaces between is a huge accomplishment. Congratulations! =D

  • Dr. Amy – When I began making changes here, my children were 7 and 4 years old. Now 11 and 8, I can say that there is always further I can go in treating them with respect, and that the journey we’re on has led to a great deal of closeness, and an ability to talk things through and work together on solutions.

    I know this is not where we would be if I had repeated the pattern I was raised with. I hope these last five months have brought happy changes to your lives. As long as your daughter is still home, it’s not too late to make some changes. And it’s never too late to be honest about things you’ve done in the past that you might approach differently now.

    Namaste, and apologies at taking so very long to reply. The response was, frankly, overwhelming – in a good way – but overwhelming, nonetheless.

  • Deborah Sue –

    Thank you. It took a long time to get there, and that need to be right, which was so much a part of my early life, still rears its ugly head from time to time. I am getting better at recognizing it, though, and stepping away from the moment that provoked it. It helps a lot to find a space for contemplating why I am feeling it – that type of defensiveness usually leads me to some unexamined assumption I am still carrying around with me.

    My regrets on taking so long to answer!

  • Zimt- peppermint –

    You are welcome! It’s therapeutic for me to write and share pieces like this.

  • Divya and Lscorpio – Sometimes, these things are said because the person making that accusation is attempting to minimize another…

    I tend, these days, not to trust generalized, subtly insulting comments such as “Aren’t you full of yourself?”

    When a statement like this is directed at me, I tend to ask the person stating it to give examples of what they mean. Often, the issue is in their perception, expectations, or experiences, and I was the unwitting trigger of something within them.

    If the other person can give me clear and calm examples of what they mean, I can consider these. That does happen, and, when it does, I make apologies, try to reframe what I intended to convey, and reflect on how i can avoid such missteps in the future.

    Divya, the specific things said up there sound like generalities more intended to “keep you in your place” than actual complaints. It helps me to consider the base temperament of the person who said them, and whether they expect me to play some role in their life, rather than having a relationship.

    I am sorry I didn’t stop by to answer your posts much sooner! Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  • Goodtimes –

    Yes, that really helps. However, it can be quite a journey getting to a point where one can do this….

  • Harinder –

    I’m sorry i didn’t get back to this sooner.

    I don’t like blame. It doesn’t help to work through whatever the problem is to look for someone to assign guilt to.

    I do like honesty.

    Parents raise their children and provide the environment and experiences that fill a child’s first years, when personality is formed. So, parents are inescapably and intimately involved in who their children will become.

    I think that the phrase “Parents are trying to do their best with their own struggles while raising kids” is a generality, and maybe a dangerous one. It assumes that all parents have the best of intents – and that is simply not so.

    In my case, my mother, who was very badly abused, engaged in a campaign to keep her children under her control, to feed her emotional needs often at the expense of our own. We became, for both our parents, something akin to punching bags. We were the targets of their frustrations. Yelling and shaming were daily practice. Punishments abounded, and increased when my parents were arguing or otherwise stressed. Violence was common – from slapped faces to whippings with sticks, belts, and dowels on hands and bare bottoms, to being knocked down, hit or punched, being dragged by our hair…

    My parents were not doing the best they were capable of. They had resources available, if they had chosen to use them. They might have learned ways to tame their rages, or sought counseling, but they did not. They pretended, and raised us to believe, that there was nothing wrong.

    They did as well as they wanted to, and, even today, they do not see a problem with how they raised us.

    I am not who I would be if I had been raised in a gentler home. I don’t blame my parents for that. Nor do I pretend that I was not broken by this upbringing.

    To deny it is to perpetuate the silent code of abuse.

    Instead, I strive to be the mother my own children need me to be, to heal, before they are grown, as much of the damage we caused in their early years as I can, so that they will be better prepared to be parents themselves one day.

    Because my parents have treated my children and others in the family in a manner that follows the pattern of the abuse I experienced, and because they still wish to interact with me in an emotionally abusive and manipulative fashion, I am voluntarily estranged from my parents.

    I choose to focus on healing, for my children, my husband, and myself.


  • Kathy –

    The other thing I have struggled to remember, too, is that my way is my way, and no one else can be as good a judge as I can about how well it is working, and what, if any, adjustments I may wish to make. Giving myself permission to openly follow my own path in life has been, in some ways, a far greater challenge than learning to let go of judging the paths others were on.

    I do believe both come more naturally with time and practice.

    Thank you very much for taking the time to respond to my post, and my apologies fro taking so long to acknowledge you.

  • Lv2terp –

    One of my favorite parts of sharing my writing is when someone feels it was written for them…there is nothing better than touching someone I’ve never met in that way!

    I am so sorry it has taken this long to answer – I was not expecting such a high and positive response, and I needed to take time for it to absorb before I could begin to reply.

    I suspect I will be making this rewriting journey for the rest of my life. And, so long as that is true, I will continue to share what I can of what I experience along the way. It isn’t always easy to write, but it is always valuableto make the effort, and to share.

    Again, thank you for your lovely words, which make it all the more worthwhile!

  • MaLa –

    I might have written everything you said. Given the attitude I was raised with, maybe it was inevitable that I would struggle with seeing the routes we take through life as either right or wrong, and not a deeply individual thing.

    I, too, have found that releasing some interactions or even a relationship, or taming the reactivity which was once my predominant way of interacting, brings the benefit of greater calm, peace, and joy.

    I regret that it took so long to reply, and I do want to express how much your kind words have meant.

  • Lori – Thank you for stepping in, and for providing this forum for sharing. I am sorry it’s taken so long to get back to these comments – our lives got busy, and I was overwhelmed by the positive response to words I felt so deeply, and which were not easy to share…

  • Deanna-

    I belatedly thank you.

  • Steven –

    I love when that happens! And my fingers often seem to have a mind of their own, as well!

  • Alannah –

    Thank you belatedly for our kind words. My friend and I continue to share parts of our journeys while traveling other parts separately…the difference now is that I see that this is the way it is meant to be….

  • Debra –

    So sorry to have taken so long to reply.

    I don’t know what Access classes are. I have done a lot of reading, observing, and closely attending my assumptions and reactivity.

    I’m still learning and growing. I hope you are, too! =D