Do People Really Do The Best They Can?
Have you heard the expression, “People do the best they can”? Do you believe that? Really? You believe that a father who abused his daughter did the best he could? You believe that a wife who cheated on her husband did the best she could? You believe that a friend who holds back their frustration with you, and then later punishes you without telling you why, is doing the best s/he can? You believe that someone who compromises their values for expediency is doing the best that they can? I don’t believe any of these people are doing the best they can.
The suggestion that “people do the best they can given who they are at any given time,” is intended to offer us some kind of relief. And to promote compassion. Dr. Fern Kazlow, Ed.D, a licensed clinical psychotherapist, explains this commonly held belief.
“People can only do their best, whether or not we think their best is misguided or wrong. When we decide others could have done better—we get stuck. Years of clinical practice have shown me that holding the attitude that everyone does the best they can makes life work better. Is it easy to adopt this attitude? No! It involves breaking lifelong habits and long-standing beliefs about change, motivation and right versus wrong. However, with determination, consistent practice and effective tools, we can change our attitude and our lives.”
Do you do the best you can?
Dr. Kazlow goes on to explain that it helps when we apply this same idea to ourselves. The idea being that what we have done is good enough. “When trying to change our own thinking, the process can be even trickier. When you think you could have done better, it weakens you.”
I’m sorry, but I don’t buy this popular myth that we always do the best we can. I do however agree with Helen Keller, who said,
“When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.”
Helen Keller is advocating that we do the best we can and not letting us off the hook when we don’t.
Why do so many people want to believe that what they did—or what other people did—is good enough when they are clearly unhappy with the results? When I treat my wife poorly (a rare event), she says to me, “That’s not good enough!” She doesn’t excuse my behavior, nor does she buy my excuses. She says, “I don’t care, I expect more from you.” What’s the result of this kind of interaction? I step up. I improve myself. I grow. I work hard to live up to her expectations. And when I do, I feel good about myself. And it’s a two-way street, although she rarely behaves poorly.
I just worked with a client who was telling me that he had recently gotten into a conflict with his wife because he handled a situation in a pretty sloppy way. He went on to justify his actions by saying, “I did the best I could under the circumstances. I wasn’t sure what was the right thing to do.” Somewhat incredulously I asked him, “Really? You really didn’t know what was the right thing to do?”
Very quickly he said, “No, I did.” Of course he did. So why did he start off saying, “I did the best I could”? He used it as an excuse to hide. He was hiding that he knew what was right as a way to justify doing what was wrong. How do we help this man by going along with his excuse? I don’t think we do.
Dr. Kazlow disagrees with me. She thinks that we weaken ourselves when we acknowledge that what we have done isn’t good enough. I think we call forth the best in ourselves by holding high—yet realistic—expectations of ourselves.
Maybe this is the crucial difference. I can be critical of myself, or other people, when our behaviors aren’t good enough, but I do this in a loving context. I want myself and the other people to do better. I believe we can do better. One way to show my love is to hold a high expectation of you and when you behave in ways that aren’t good enough—according to our agreements—respectfully tell you that I expect more from you.