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.
I read with great interest your article on “What’s Good Enough?”
Who decides what’s good enough?
Dada, thanks for the question.
I decide “what’s good enough” for me.
You decide “what’s good enough” for you.
This is the point, we each must decide for ourselves. But how are we to have a healthy relationship if I don’t make clear to you my definition of “what’s good enough”?
Also, this is why I object to the blanket assumption that everyone is doing the best they can. According to whom?
I think we need to look at each person and each situation and each relationship as being unique—and then within the context of each we can determine for ourselves what is good enough.
When I explicitly answer this question, “what’s good enough,” by sharing my answer with the people in my life, I take greater responsibility for myself.
I found this to be a very valuable topic to dwell on for a bit in my own thinking. At first, I wrote a long response, but that really served more to deepen my own appreciation for your approach to this, Jake.
Thank you Jake! Your insight and wisdom really helps me with my own dealing of my perceived thorns in my blossoming. I appreciate your help in that. (I delight myself when I allow myself that. -baby greenspeak babble?)
Farice, thanks for commenting.
Since you are practicing the language we teach—it used to be called “greenspeak” and now we call it “ReSpeak”—I’ll offer the following.
You say my insight and wisdom really help you. Using ReSpeak, we would say, “I help myself with your insights and wisdom.” Or, “I insight myself with your wisdom.”
The point being that you take responsibility for whatever you do with my words, or those of other people. You are the one who makes them valuable, or not.
This is my way of encouraging more “baby” steps on your part. Thanks again for sharing.
Thanks for replying Jake. I astound myself with the attempt of relearning language.
I astound myself with the implications of relearning language. Language becomes so unconscious over time. If we stop ourselves and make our use of language more conscious—I think we can wake ourselves up and become much more intentional.
If you want to have some fun with this, just try not using the word “it” for one day, or even one hour. This is best done with a partner, because you may not hear yourself when you use the “it” word, but maybe they will and they can point “it” out to you.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson
As an atheist, I don’t ascribe god to any of this, however the main point still stands for me. By denying my own “greatness”, I cannot be fully “great” for others, I define me as “less than…” And then wonder why the world doesn’t respond to me as being “great…:”
Bruce, thanks for sharing the Williamson quote—one that I love.
Yesterday, one day after Donald Trump was sworn into office, we saw these enormous rallies around the world. We saw the light shining in hundreds of thousands of people. Maybe something in us as a people is waking up. No more shrinking! I hope this is the case.
This is what our work is about, living consciously, inhabiting our potential.