A Question

Brene Brown is my spirit animal.

Her six hour talk, The Power of Vulnerability, came to me when I was drowning in the muck of shame and feeling unable, or unwilling, to be vulnerable. I have since listened to it many, many times. That talk, along with her other books, are touchstones for me; whenever I’ve lost my way I listen to them again to regain my footing.

To say I was excited when I heard she had a new book coming out would be an understatement.

I bought the audiobook of Rising Strong a couple of months ago when I was really struggling. The book is about cultivating resilience–how we can get back up when life has pushed us face down in the arena. Reading the reviews I was sure it was exactly what I needed as I felt unsure how to pick myself up in the face of hurt and uncertainty. (I was also thrilled that she narrates the book herself.)

I kind of struggled to get into the book at first. I actually stopped listening when Willpower Instinct became available on Overdrive and I was grateful for the break. I was actually really disappointed that the book was not the panacea I was hoping it would be.

I started listening to it again this past week and it’s been an entirely different experience. Now I am hooked and I “can’t put it down.” It is water on parched lips, nourishing in ways I absolutely need.

In the most recent chapter, Brene Brown is struggling with a question her therapist poses. She is sure of the answer, but after presenting it to a lot of people, and enduring an eye-opening experience of her own, her answers changes and what she learns is profound. I’ve been thinking about the question a lot myself recently, and asking others what their answers are. I realize that I used to feel one way but in the past few years have shifted my perspective, and I see now that that shift in perspective came with personal growth and a renewed understanding.

I’m curious what you all think, so I wanted to pose the question here:

Do you believe people are doing the best they can with the tools they have?

The idea is not that people are the best they could be every day, but that at any moment they are giving what they can right then, that they want to do as well as they can do in any situation.

So what do you believe? Are people doing the best they can? I leave the question with you.


  1. I really don’t– I find it an incredibly irritating cliche, and not profound at all. I think it’s a way of letting adults off the hook for bad behavior. I had to break up with a friend because she had chosen to commit some embezzlement as well as be unfaithful to her husband and break up her family, and she would always say she had done the best she could, but I thought that was just BS. She was definitely capable of doing better, and her choices harmed many people in very concrete ways. Yes, I judge.

    It may feel good to hand out absolutions to everyone on the internet, but it fails to acknowledge the harm that people are doing to others, and that is hurtful and damaging in the long run.

  2. Not generally. I feel that people do what is easiest, and that’s not always their best. Now, there are some exceptions to that, but on the whole…we do what is easiest. When I get angry at my husband for some small, stupid thing…I’m not doing my best…I’m lashing out (because it’s easier for me). When my father, yet again, criticizes me for my weight or the fact that we adopted…he’s not doing his best. I think that most people fall back on old patterns (easy), rather than learning more about our reactions/selves in the situations presented to us daily.

  3. I also find it a lot more comforting to say “I chose to behave badly and can do better” rather than “Bad behavior was the best I could do.” Because if my “best” is pretty crappy, what does that say about me as a person? And how can I possibly do better if I’m already doing my best?

  4. Also with this “tools” or “skills” stuff, I don’t get it. With my former friend, I guess not embezzling requires some sort of “tool”, or not sleeping with the neighbors is a “tool” and it’s not her fault she didn’t have the tools? (Whose fault is it then– her parents’?) Sorry, but I think as adults we have to take responsibility for developing the “tools” or whatever that are necessary to treat other people decently, even if it doesn’t come naturally.

    I think Brene Brown is appealing to people with a lot of internal shame, but I don’t personally struggle with that, so I tend to see more of the down sides of it. I think her discourse is well-intentioned, but is very easily co-opted and twisted into some really self-serving beliefs, and is used to dismiss and silence the people harmed by the bad behavior.

    1. This. I read most of Z’s comments and thought OUCH. But this is spot on here… We are adults who need to update our toolboxes if our current tools are broken. I have broken tools that I can’t quite toss out completely, but I use their replacements more often if I stop to think about it.

      I absolutely don’t think people are doing their best in regards to the general population. I’m not doing my best multiple times a day. I do my best most of the day, but I have moments. And I like what Rain said, to own it when you don’t do your best. THAT is what is important to me. No excuses, just ownership.

      1. Thanks… as you can see I’m still of hurting from the whole friendship meltdown, although of course that was kind of a sideshow considering everything else that was going on there! But I still think grown-ups gotta own it.

  5. I do want to respond to all the comments, and I will, but I wanted to add that the question is not whether people are doing the best they could ever do–there is always room to grow and change–but whether, in the given moment, they are doing the best they can in that moment, taking into account not just the the skills and tools they have but how how stressed, tired and overwhelmed they may be. I’m not saying this will change anybody’s answer or perspective, I just wanted to clarify the intention of the question.

    1. This is interesting. My husband doesn’t do well with being stressed and tired. And so he is pretty unpleasant. Maybe he is doing the best he can with his inner resources, but, ultimately, who cares? His best isn’t good enough. What is the significance of this question? Do I continue to accommodate him?

      1. There’s kind of a rabbit hole there, too. I’m doing my best at doing my best. Doing my best at doing my best at doing my best. And so on– where does it end?

        It’s not that I see no value here. This kind of thinking can help us be more forgiving and accepting of others’ shortcomings, and of our own. For people who do a lot of self-imposed shame, and if it’s out of proportion to the actual badness of their behavior, then maybe it’s a way for them to let go and stop a repetitive thought pattern. But for things that actually are harmful to others, I’m not willing to wave it away as “we’re all doing our best”. I just don’t think it’s true.

  6. Well, to be fair I haven’t even read/listened to the book, so I probably shouldn’t even comment at all. But I know there are times when I have not done my best, even taking into consideration that I’m stressed or tired or whatever. So I have to think that is true of other people as well.

    It’s kind of like how I went off Ask Moxie during the whole “you are the best parent for your child” schtick. It sounds good, it makes people feel better, but the bottom line is that I just don’t think it’s true, and it fails to acknowledge the people who are being harmed.

    1. YES. Everyone seemed to WORSHIP Ask Moxie, people I respected for their logical, intelligent thinking, yet I just did not understand how that could possibly be true. Its a cliche, it sounds comforting, but it is NOT TRUE and could placate people into being OK with the status quo instead of learning new skills for parenting their child.

      1. I was training to become a volunteer in the foster care system at the time, so it really got under my skin. I definitely encountered some people who were not the best parents for their children!

        Of course the whole “yay for my wonderful divorce” thing irritated me too, and now the blog seems to be basically abandoned, so… oh well. Too bad because there used to be some good content.

      2. I think it’s something we tell other people when we’re feeling judgy inside. And when we’re trying to console. And when we’re justifying our own failures. Basically, I think it’s a scapegoat. I hate this statement with a passion.

    2. But that’s the thing. In that moment, Z? You are actually doing your best. Even when you are at your worst, it’s the best you can do. You just expect more from yourself.

      1. No, that’s the rabbit hole I’m talking about. If you adopt that way of thinking about it, then everyone is at all times doing their best, no matter how bad their behavior, and I think that’s just ridiculous.

  7. I’ve never read anything by Brown. I tend to agree with Z and Courtney. That it doesn’t matter if they are doing the best with “the tools they have” at the current moment—if they are behaving badly, they need to own that. Its that fake apology mindset, the “I’m sorry I hurt you…but I was doing the best I could”. Really? Just stop at “I’m sorry I hurt you” and don’t try to shift the blame. And then “I am working on xyz so I won’t ever do that again”. I’d like to believe everyone is “Doing the best they can” but I know it can’t be true because I don’t always “do my best”. Is being tired/stress really an excuse? Does it absolve me of not treating my child kindly? Not in his eyes. I need to figure out how to behave the way I want to behave regardless of being tired/stressed. The onus is on ME.
    I do, however, get the positive impact removing internal shame can have. When you can forgive yourself, you can move forward. There is nothing to be gained from constantly dwelling on your mistakes and spending all your energy on self-flagellation isn’t productive. Acknowledge, apologize, and do better next time.

    1. 100% agree with Ana. In fact you said it so well I’m not even commenting further now, because, well what you said. 🙂

  8. I feel like this is a half glass full test to see if I’m an optimist. I guess I am because I believe that while people could make different choices (of course!) most people, most of the time are doing the best they can. It doesn’t mean that when I’m exhausted, I don’t yell at my daughter, but I do immediately reframe and realize that I am yelling because of me and not because of her (OK, fine, also because of her because GOD, JUST POOP IN THE POTTY ALREADY). And so I realize that I have other tools and I use them better the next time. If I’m too exhausted, hangry, stressed, etc., my tools are just out of reach.

  9. I think very few people intentionally do a bad job of things; unless the real objective is to not be asked to take on the task at all in the future and then their performance is an act they are trying to do well.
    Do people perform at 100% perfection 24/7? I haven’t yet met anyone in that category. Are the perfect tools available, complete knowledge present, skill sets well developed, abilities fully realized and it all comes together perfectly a common event? Maybe occasionally for very brief shining minutes… but more commonly not.
    Maybe the real lesson is to forgive ourselves as we would forgive another beloved person, with generosity and kindness.

    1. “Maybe the real lesson is to forgive ourselves as we would forgive another beloved person, with generosity and kindness.” 1000% yes. Or even someone who is less beloved.

      To the original question: I think as a teacher one has insight to whether or not people are doing the best they can with what they have. It’s pretty clear that there’s a spectrum along these lines. And, of course, as teachers it is our job to give more tools so that folks can do even better.

      More generally: It’s not necessarily clear that there is a “best” or that we should always be optimizing along any front. Sometimes it is optimal to satisfice.

      In terms of the childrearing discussion above: Some parents who are doing great freak about unimportant things (possibly because they read too many advice columns!), thus causing problems where none actually existed. For those folks, being told to chill because they’re doing good seems like the right thing. For folks who aren’t happy with how things are going for reasons other than “some random person on the internet says another way is better”, being solutions-oriented and gathering info seems like a good idea– getting more tools for the parenting tool-box.

  10. I haven’t read the book.

    I seem to be struggling more with this one than mostbof the other commenters. I don’t know. That’s my answer.

    I can see it both ways.

    My mother was mentally ill and had other problems. Not a great parent to us. I hadn’t seen her in 18 years when she died. I couldn’t deal with her issues.

    Sometimes it gives me comfort to think she was doing the best with what she had. Considering her life and problems. Still dealing with guilt for essentially rejecting her.

  11. Yes, absolutely I think that in every moment, at the time something is happening, people are doing their best wth what they have. It’s true that people make bad choices, but even making that bad choice? It is the best they can do in that moment. And if more people believed they were doing enough, we’d take pressure off ourselves to be perfect and therefore rid ourselves of the need to sabotage ourselves.

    1. Sometimes not doing your best is a perfectly fine choice. Sometimes it’s a great choice for the person but not a great choice for other people that are depending on the person. There’s a lot of heterogeneity.

  12. Yes, I think people are almost always doing the best they can with what they have. Many or most of my patients have a mental illness, some pretty debilitating and life-altering. Most of them aren’t doing their best at life when they turn up grumpy after another doctor visit, but they are doin the best with what they have at the moment. Usually they aren’t shouting (love my job) and usually they are walking and in the right pharmacy so that’s something. I use this idea as a way to forgive myself for being imperfect and also to accept that others will seldom live up to my expectations. People are imperfect and will never be at their best 100% of the time, and that’s life. Obviously making conscious bad choices like theft, abuse (maybe, that’s complex), and laziness are outside the realm of “everyone is doing the best they can with what they have” because the person consciously chooses to step over the line. I feel that forgiving people for being imperfect is about me, and when their behavior is stagnant in the bad choice realm, then I move myself as apart as possible so I don’t get sucked in. And for me, forgiveness is about remembering everyone is human and worthy of a chance, not about letting them continue to behave badly because I forgive the bad behavior. Example: I have a patient who irritates my tech by calling 3-8 times a day. Instead of declaring him a nuisance and kicking him out, I gave him the benefit of the doubt, called his doc and expressed my concern about the deteriorating mental state and confusion that leads to many calls. Bad behavior here had an underlying cause that could be fixed and I didn’t write the person off because of it. When someone’s behavior is impacting others negatively I think the forgiveness should remain but the number of do-overs decreases greatly and I personally give people sharp boundaries and clear expectations of how to behave or I am out of the relationship (like a family member who gave us a ride, then demanded to drive us back when clearly drunk… we will never carpool ever again and even 1 drink all night means no driving my kids, period). So I frame it as “how can I direct you to resources to improve?” rather than letting “I’m doing the best I can” be a perpetual excuse. It’s a fine balance and I’m not sure I’m getting where I need to be yet in some relationships, but I’m happier and saner accepting people wherever they are, so long as there is progress.

    1. I think this attitude makes sense when dealing with a patient, a child, a boss. If your boss is driving you crazy and you realize she’s doing the best she can, maybe then you won’t take it so personally. But what about with a friend or a partner? Even if it’s true, then so what?

      1. It’s a fine line on the whole. I personally set a line for how I expect to be treated (sometimes this is explicit at first, usually not until there is a transgression) and if the behavior is over the line, I change the nature of the relationship. If I see the person making an effort, then we try to figure out together how to eliminate the over-the-line behavior. My spouse got a chore chart to help with taking out the trash and the little improvement is enough for me to forgive imperfection. The family member who didn’t help with the girls in an emergency has lost a lot of my respect and the relationship is radically different and more limited now than before, plus I’m no longer nurturing a strong relationship between them and my girls.

  13. My initial, gut reaction was that no, not everyone is doing their best. I say that because, like others, there are multiple times a day that I personally do less than my best. And my main reason is pure laziness. I think the human being is inherently lazy and rarely do we reach our best when we succumb to that laziness. My best is certainly, absouley, inarguably NOT reading blogs while at work this morning. But I’m tired, had a rough night, am slow to start today, etc. So that’s my excuse. Could one argue that it IS my best given my current levels of physical and mental energy? I suppose so, but they’d be wrong. It’s because I don’t WANT to get to work just yet. I’m not being the best employee I could be right because I don’t feel like it.

    On the other hand, as a general rule and when considering people’s lives on a larger scale, I think it’s probably fair to say that most (not all) people are doing the best they can in the moment. One of my best friends lost her 3.5mo son early this year and has been (understandably) an absolute wreck all year. Screw being a good friend or a good employee or a good boss right now; for her, her best is getting out of bed each day and making sure her other child is taken care of, and that’s about all she can handle.

    However, I also agree with some of the other commenters who say that this idea is more of an excuse than anything else. My father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease and some members of our family have been… ahem, remiss about visiting him. My mom is having a really hard time with it and is angry more than anything. I try to remind her that people handle terminal illness in many different ways and perhaps some of the people (his younger siblings and, primarily, my older sister) aren’t prepared to deal with the reality of the situation just yet. She won’t have it. “Get over it,” she says. She thinks they’re choosing to not be their best because being better is hard. I can see that side of things as well.

    So, basically, my answer is no, except sometimes yes, but really, no.

    1. I made a conscious choice not to visit my grandpa when he had late stage Alzheimer’s and I’m sure it hurt someone that I never went, but I doubt it was him. I opted not to go because change was upsetting and since I didn’t live close enough to visit regularly, I was a disruption. That and I saw no need to ruin my memories of him with this horrific end. I didn’t need to make peace and neither did he so I left things alone. Good choice? Bad choice? It was the best I could do with the limited resources I had, excuse or not. Was it enough? I don’t know.

  14. Yes, I do. Mostly. I’ve been very critical (only to myself and my husband) about someone in my life, and the way they approach another person in my life. When I stepped back, as Brown suggests, and thought that this person was doing the best they could with the tools they had, I felt quite differently. Much less critical, and more accepting. Ironically, the first person mentioned would understand the second much better if they applied this philosophy too. But they don’t have the tools or skills to do this. I do what I can to help them. But just accepting this, it has made my relationship with the first person better … no, not better, because it wasn’t bad. But it has made it easier, for me. And that’s helpful.

    And when I know my behaviour isn’t what I would hope it would be, then I try to figure out why, and try to get the tools or develop the skills to improve.

    The thing is, I don’t intend to behave badly. And I don’t believe most people intend to behave badly. But at that time, that’s all they can do.

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