Are People Doing the Best They can?

I was listening to this podcast of Russell Brand interviewing Brené Brown (pause for head-scratching reaction.) Indeed, it seems that Russell Brand is quite a cogent and sensitive thinker… who knew? And of course you *know* I’m down with Brené (see my aforementioned attraction to Sincere Southern Christian White Women). 

So, I decided to give it a listen. 

Of the many interesting and truth-filled things they discussed, one has stayed with me for weeks: Do I believe that people are doing the best they can? 

Brené poses this question to groups with which she works, asking each individual to ponder: Do I believe that — for the very most part — people are doing the best they can? 

She goes on to say that our answer to this question really matters – and the more I think about it, the more I agree with her. As a teacher, as a parent, as a person, it really does matter whether I fundamentally believe others are doing the best they can. 

What difference does it make

Like most of Brené’s audiences and, I’m guessing, like many of you, my first instinct was, “Hell no. People are lazy and always cutting corners… most people are just phoning it in.” 

Implicit in this assumption is actually a judgment on myself. I can be quite critical of myself interiorly. I wish I could be perfect all the time and handle every situation gracefully and wisely. I don’t. So, I reason, if I am regularly lazy and phoning it in, I presume most other people are too. 

But, if I can turn around this thinking to acknowledge and believe that when I think I’m being lazy or phoning it in, perhaps that is my best at that moment, given the circumstances. 

Therefore, perhaps our “best” varies from moment to moment, life stage to life stage. When I write it out like that, it totally seems like a rational, reasonable thought. I really haven’t lived this way, though. Prior to hearing this podcast, my “best” was a static, ultra-high bar of excellence and mastery. It was an A+. 

In reality, however, my “best” definitely slips and slides all up and down and around the grading scale, under and over the boundaries I set for “best.” Sure, there are moments (many) where I’m not as ‘good’ as I was before – not as patient, not as wise, not as present – but, given the particular circumstances, that may have been my best for the moment. 

Here’s what got me: Brené said that, in a sociological study, women in abusive relationships who believed that their partners were doing the best they could… GOT OUT. If women were harboring beliefs like, “I know he can be better… If I could just do this or that, if I could just stay patient, if only…” then they never left the relationship. But if they could acknowledge, “This is his best. This is as good as it’s going to get. And it’s not good enough for me,” then they could leave. 

Ooo- there is something in there that feels Holy Spirit-y to me. That’s what I call it when something feels so true that I’m goose-bumpy. I know the Holy Spirit loves truth — naked, plain-spoken truth. This sounds like that to me. 

This is where I want to make something very clear before we proceed: acknowledging that someone is doing her or his best does NOT make her or his behavior automatically justified or acceptable. Just like these women who were able to cut off relationship when it crossed a boundary, accepting the other person’s best simply gives us information about which to make our decisions about what’s okay in our relationships. 

In teaching…

As a teacher, what I believe about my students and their effort is critical. I really do and must assume they are doing the best they can… AND – as a person charged with teaching them to know and do better – it’s my job to show them exactly how to do better. They are in school to make their “best effort” even better. As a teacher-mentor friend of mine says: “If you don’t see it, you must teach it.” So, if Ulysses (my fictional student) turns in writing that is misspelled, disorganized, and unresearched, I could assume he is lazy and disobedient (a condition for which I do not have clear and specific steps to overcome), therefore I must assume this is his best effort at the moment and give him specific feedback on how to make his best even better. It places the focus on the product, not the person. 

In parenting… 

Similar to teaching, I am charged with showing my daughter how to make her “best” even better. If she speaks to me in a nasty tone, rolls her eyes at me, or yells back at me, it’s my job to show her how to up her “best” game. If I say to myself, “So, this is her best at this moment,” then I am less likely to take her nasty behavior as a personal attack on me, but rather as an inappropriate expression of a feeling or thought she may have. Thinking this way changes my orientation toward unacceptable behavior. I can also set boundaries and limits around what will fly as “best” behavior in our house because I am the Mommy. And I am very likely to complete the thought in my head, “So, this is her best at this moment… damn. We have a long way to go. I better take some Advil.”

In peer relationships…

In personal relationships, I think this gets a little trickier. In friendship, partnership, and neighbor relationships, none of us are paid or charged with making someone else’s “best” effort even better. Yet, we often need to communicate why someone else’s “best” doesn’t work for us and put up some boundaries about what needs to happen in order for this relationship to continue. And if these requests are not met or cannot be met, then it’s time for this relationship to change or end. 

In the podcast, Brené gives helpful examples about how to set boundaries with people whose “best” doesn’t meet your needs. Specifically, she talked about a neighbor-friend who drank too much at parties, making Brené uncomfortable. When inviting her to the next gathering Brené said, ‘You are most welcome to my party, but you may not drink here.’ She goes into how difficult it was to set this boundary with this person (and how the person reacted). My takeaway was: taking the focus off the person and onto the product removes any judgment or personal attack from the situation. 

Something new

So, I’m inspired to try something new! Let’s gather on Instagram and report what happens this week when we focus on this question:

What happens when I believe everyone around me is doing the best they can? 

I’d love to hear what this practice yields for you – in the comments below or on Instagram. Invite your friends to participate!

I wish you my strongest blessings for courage, vulnerability, and transparency with yourself as you embark on this process! 

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