My Answer

It was so interesting to read the responses to the question I posed via the book Rising Strong. People have really strong feelings about this; it’s clear most of us hold ourselves to high standards and we have expectations that others should meet those standards as well. We don’t think it should matter if someone is doing their best or not–if there best isn’t good enough, who cares?

In the book Rising Strong, this question is posed to Brené Brown by her therapist after she comes in for a special session to deal with some serious anger and resentment she is feeling toward an organization and an individual. She is incredibly frustrated by “the sewer rats and the scofflaws” of the world–the people who don’t care about the rules and worse, the people who scorn those who do care about the rules. Her anger and resentment are making her miserable, but she can’t seem to let them go. When she tells her therapist about the situation that upset her, the therapist asks if she thinks maybe the woman who wronged her was doing the best she could. Brene Brown is unimpressed with this response, and after she assures her therapist that no, the woman could not have possibly been doing the best she could, she leaves the appointment in a huff.

But the question stays with her and over the following weeks she asks a lot of people what they believe. Some answer that yes, they think people are doing the best they can, while others agree with her that no, most people are not. She notes that all of the people who do not believe people are doing their best cite themselves as an example of someone who slacks off sometimes and could do better.

It’s not until she asks a new friend what she believes, that the author’s mind is changed. When she poses the question to her new friend, she is not surprised that the friend agrees with her. She is, however, surprised when her new friend immediately launches into a speech about how she is currently breastfeeding and she thinks it’s the most important thing a new mother can do for her child, and that all the people who say they tried their best to breast feed but couldn’t are kidding themselves and that women who are not willing to do whatever it takes to breast feed for at least a year should seriously consider not having kids, because not breastfeeding your child is tantamount to child abuse.

And Brene Brown just sits there, staring, because in that moment she realizes that SHE is her new friend’s sewer rat, SHE is the woman on the other end of the judgement, being told she does not care about the rules and is not doing her best.

Brené Brown did not breastfeed her children for very long. She is okay with that. In that moment, sitting across from her friend and her friend’s judgement, she doesn’t confess her breastfeeding sins, but she does start to rethink her stance on whether or not people are doing the best they can.

That night she goes home and asks her husband what he believes. After ten minutes of careful consideration he admits that he isn’t sure, but he chooses to believe. In the book she describes his answer this way:

I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgement and let’s me focus on what is, and not what could or should be.

That is exactly why I choose to believe that people are doing the best they can.

To clarify… believing that people are doing the best they can does not absolve them of responsibility. If their best at any given moment does not meet certain standards determined by an individual or society at large, there are consequences. We must establish boundaries and maintain them. We must honor our convictions. If we believe people are trying their best, it doesn’t mean we let them off the hook, it means we hold our ground with empathy instead of judgement. It means we try to help people while we hold them accountable, not simply punish them in the name of justice.

Annie asked what the point of this question is… Z suggested that “this kind of thinking can help us be more forgiving and accepting of others’ shortcomings, and of our own.” I think that is exactly the point. If we believe that people are trying their best, we approach them with empathy and compassion. We try to help them, and we do so understanding that they might not be capable of what we think they should be capable of. It means we adjust our expectations to meet reality, even if that reality is deeply disappointing.

Take my relationship with my husband. For years I’ve been asking him to show me more affection. My brain knows that he loves me, but it’s hard for my heart to feel that love without physical affection. Despite asking him many times, in many different ways, with and without the support of a therapist, my husband has never managed to show me physical affection consistently. This has become a real point of contention between us, and I feel a lot of resentment toward him about it. I can’t help but get stuck in the thought pattern: if he really loved me he would show me affection in the ways I have asked him to countless times. If I believe that people are not trying their best, the logical conclusion is: The fact that he doesn’t do show me physical affection must mean he doesn’t care. If he did care, he would try harder. 

This mindset leaves me with a couple of options. Maybe somehow, magically, he does start trying harder, and he shows me the affection I’ve been asking for for so long. Or, more probably, he doesn’t and the cycle continues escalating into further failure on his part and further resentment on mine. Perhaps eventually the resentment becomes so great that it results in the disillusion of our marriage.

If I think that he really is doing his best, then much of the resentment melts away. I believe that he does love me, he just doesn’t know how to show his love in the ways I have been asking for it. With this mindset, the external options look very similar. I can accept the fact that he will never show his love for me in that way and determine if there are other ways that I can register his love for me. Or, more probably, I can recognize that he simply can’t give me the physical affection I crave, and perhaps it again results in the dissolution of our marriage. Either way, if I determine that my boundaries require my husband showing his love for me in certain ways, and in doing his best he is unable to manage that, our marriage is still in jeopardy. The difference lies in how I feel about him and us; when I believe he is doing the best he can, I feel a lot less anger and resentment and I am able to recognize the situation for what it is, and not what it could, or should be.

So that is where I stand on this issue. Of course there is no way to know for sure if people are doing the best they can, but I chose to believe that they are, because it helps me move away from judgement and toward empathy. It also helps me accept what is, and not cling to what I expect. Moving in this direction has helped me immensely, especially in the arenas of parenting and teaching.

When I believe my daughter is doing the best she can, I don’t bring my unrealistic expectations to our interactions and I am better able to recognize what she needs, even if it’s not what I want her to need. I also feel less resentment in meeting her needs, even if doing so feels like my own needs are diminished.

When I believe my students are doing the best they can, I am better able to create situation in which they can be successful, and I avoid creating situation in which they are destined to fail and I am destined to feel disappointed in them and in myself.

Shifting to this mindset even helps me manage my own goals by helping me recognize what I am actually capable of, even when my judgement screams that I should be able to do more, or better. I have a greater chance of creating realistic goals, and meeting them, if I believe I am doing the best I can, and am honest about what my best actually looks like.

Which brings us to an important point: believing people are doing their best does not diminish the need, and ability, to grow and change. I do believe people can improve, that their best can steadily move in one direction (or unfortunately, another). I actually think it’s harder to make real changes when we judge ourselves as lacking the willpower or determination to do things a certain way. If we believe we just need to try harder, we won’t learn the skills we need to create real and lasting change. Instead we’ll just keep berating ourselves for not trying our best, for slacking off, for taking the easy way out.

It can be hard to believe that people are trying their best, because that means when people hurt us, we have to acknowledge their hurt instead of being able to distance ourselves from that hurt with our anger and judgement. It’s understandable that we want to avoid compounding our suffering, and it’s important that we identify what we need to maintain our boundaries so that we can hold people accountable for their actions even as we show them empathy and understanding. It’s hard work, and it can feel incredibly burdensome.

I guess my final thought would be this: If we keep believing that some people aren’t doing their best all of the time or that all people aren’t doing their best some of the time, how do we draw the lines and what do we do with people once they fall on either side? Already, in the comment section of my last post, verdicts were read and it was determined who was doing their best and who was failing to. I guess my question is, if we choose to judge, then with what purpose and to what end? And how can we be sure our judgements are fair?

Thank you for engaging in yesterday’s conversation. I’m sorry I didn’t respond to the comments individually–I felt one post expressing my views would be the best way to continue the conversation. I hope this post inspires a discussion as thoughtful, respectful and interesting as yesterday’s, and I promise to participate in the comment section today.

20 Comments

  1. It was really interesting reading everyone’s answers to the question and your explanation definitely clarifies it. I’m not sure if I give everyone else the benefit of the doubt, but I know I am my own worst critic and would definitely say that I’m never doing my best. Maybe I should cut myself some slack.

    1. I think it can be hard to reconcile the idea that we are doing our best but can still grow and change to better in the future. But I really do believe that both can be true, especially after reading Willpower Instinct and better understanding the affects of hormones on our brains, and how much of what we do is in reaction to forces we aren’t aware of or can’t control. And the best part is that knowing all this doesn’t make me want to give up on improving, but it does make me smarter about how I go about improving and makes me more forgiving as I take two steps forward and one (or more) steps back.

      1. This is such a profound true, yet hard to truly understand and implement reality. To accept yourself/your life (or others) yet still push for better—it seems incongruous to be able to do both, but apparently its the secret to a happy life 🙂

        1. I feel like this is a message that is repeated in different ways throughout the teachings of Buddhism and I have struggled with it constantly. I still do, but I’m starting to understand the nuanced realities of life well enough to believe that both are true…

    1. Oh good. I’m so glad. I’ve found this discussion very interesting. I’ve been asking people IRL the question as well and I find all the answers really fascinating. I really appreciate the conversation.

  2. When we judge others we are doing it without complete information. Our judgements are therefore flawed to some degree.
    When we judge ourselves, most of us, are doing it against some interior mental model of perfection. Perfection really does not happen.
    When I remember to add companion and kindness to the mix it is better.
    When I remember I am trying, and so is the other person from their perspective, it helps me behave better.
    Using your example of your husband ~ When you are frustrated he does not do it your way, it is important to remember he is frustrated you do not see it his way. But oh dear heavens that is very very hard to remember when we are inside our own heads.

    1. The incomplete information thing is really important. And the reality is, when we judge ourselves with incomplete information as well, because we don’t really know what is at work inside our bodies and brains to make us feel a certain way or have a certain thought. And you’re right that we’re usually operating from a place of perceived perfection that is impossible to attain. All the more reason not to judge, in my opinion.

    2. Oh, and as far as my husband is concerned, I KNOW that I am not showing him affection in the ways he wants, at least not with the frequency he wants, and I keep that in mind. But it’s so easy to think that what I’m asking for is so easy and what he’s asking for is hard (it takes more time and effort and requires the kids be otherwise disposed… 😉 and that he should easily be able to give me what I want while it’s hard for me to give him what he wants. So yeah, I recognize that we both need to have patience with each other, and it helps we both believe the other is doing the best he or she can.

      1. I know you recognize this, which is why I thought it was ok to use it as an example. It is so very very hard when each person is different……… and that is always the situation with people.

  3. This post really clarifies that “question” for me, I didn’t quite get it yesterday. I agree with everything you said today, and yes, in that context, I do think people are doing the best they can in that moment. It certainly helps me be more empathetic & kind, which is never a bad thing, right?

    1. I’m sorry if I didn’t present the question in the proper context yesterday. I wish I had. I wonder what kind of conversation we would have had then… 😉

  4. Oddly, I noticed this morning when talking to DH that the phrase I use is, “doing what [I/they] can with what [I/they] have.”

    There’s too much emphasis on best and optimizing. Doing your best all the time is tiring and often unnecessary.

    But yes, giving people the benefit of the doubt is a good way to live your life, even if sometimes other people don’t deserve it. (Extremes such as abuse etc. excepted.)

  5. I, too, have really liked these two posts. As I’ve dealt with the boys in the last 24 hours, I’ve asked myself, “are you doing your best right now?” That helped me stop and think. There was one outburst that ended in a one-swat spank (I hate even writing that) and when I asked that question of myself, I answered, “no, I was not doing my best. Yes, I was stressed beyond stressed. Yes, he was still laying on his brother and hurting him even though I told him twice to stop. Yes, I warned him 30 seconds earlier to stop or get a spank. But no – I was not doing my best, because my best is never swatting my kid.” I just cannot believe, that in that moment when I spanked him (seriously, just one swat… but one swat is one swat), that I was doing my best. I just can’t. And I was even THINKING about it, telling myself to take a breath first. Sigh.

    So… in the context you wrote, yes, I think in general people are doing their best… and I am constantly thinking to myself, “you do not know what that person is dealing with in his/her life.” I have mellowed tremendously with age… letting things go, accepting people’s crappy attitudes as a byproduct of something bad in their life (or in their moment), and generally just walking away. I used to be ridiculously judgmental – in my 20’s. Less so in my early 30’s, and so much better on the eve of turning 40. Is it because I think people are generally doing their best? Probably.

    These have been great posts and comments!

    1. I’ve noticed the same thing with age, I’ve gotten way less judgmental. I used to be quite the self-righteous bitch about a lot of things before. I’m much more able to see that “everyone is fighting their own battle” and tell the kinder story.

    2. So this is where our though processes on this diverge, because I believe the “swat” situation is a perfect example of when you were doing your best, IN THAT MOMENT, because I know that you would never CHOOSE that reaction if you had the time and space to actually make a choice. But in that moment, it was the tool you had available, even though you didn’t want to use it. I believe those situations where we regret what we did later, or we recognize that we did something that goes against our principals, are exactly the times when we’re doing our best, IN THAT MOMENT, because why else would we do those things except that we couldn’t manage to do anything else? And I think it only helps us to believe we were doing our best in those moments, because then we can be more honest with ourselves about what we need to change to make sure we don’t end up in a situation like that again, where the only tool we have left to reach for is a tool we never wanted to use in the first place.

      I’m not sure I’m making sense… I find it hard to articulate my thoughts on this, but I believe it’s especially in the moments when we’re making choices that we later regret, that we are doing the best we can, otherwise we would choose the path that matches our convictions.

  6. I have found that especially after having my daughter, I have done my best to try to judge less and assume that people are trying the best that they can with whatever situation they are working with. I only try to think about whether something else is going on in their lives. The breastfeeding example is a great example actually. The answer should be whatever works for your family, whether it is all breastfeeding, all pumping, a mixture of formula and breastmilk, or all formula. Everyone’s situation is different and from the outside you never truly know what is going on in someone else’s life/marriage/etc.

    1. yeah, i think the breastfeeding example brought it home for me, because I had those struggles and had to make those choices. Never again will I think someone just “decided not to” breastfeed when I see them feeding a bottle.

    2. I definitely had an a-ha moment when I was listening to the book and the breast feeding diatribe came up. I have felt a lot of external judgement (some real, some probably perceived) about not breast feeding or even having to exclusively pump because there are people out there who believe that there is “no try, only do” when it comes to breastfeeding. I didn’t have much opportunity to think about breastfeeding and whether or not I believed it was something people should do before I had kids, but I bet I would have been judgmental about it. And breastfeeding is a great example because I think it’s impossible to understand how challenging it can be if you haven’t faced those challenges yourself, so it would be easy to think someone isn’t trying if you don’t know what it feels like to face those hurdles. I think every time I face my own struggles I become more empathetic and less judgmental. That has been a nice aspect of “growing up.”

  7. I’ve only just read the other one, and commented before coming here. I’m so glad I did, because I love love love this post.

    I 100% agree with your points here, and totally agree with you and Brown that “my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgement and let’s me focus on what is, and not what could or should be.”

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