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Brene Brown's Answer to Are You Doing The Best You Can

Originally posted 4.6.17

Happy Thursday!

In my last post I asked you a question, do you believe that people are really doing the best they can?

I will tell you that I asked my husband this question and he emphatically said, “NO!” He admitted, “I know I’m not. There are lots of things, especially at work, that I know I could do better if I tried. I’m sure that everyone is the same with that.” Truth be told, he’s somewhat of a perfectionist who often sees the world as a glass half empty. His response did not surprise me.

I’m not sure where I stand with this question. I didn’t have the luxury of having the opportunity to contemplate my answer before hearing what Brene Brown said in her book Rising Strong. I hope that I would have the grace and humanity to think the best of people. The truth is, I can’t help but be persuaded by the research that Brown shared on what influences our answer to this question. She writes that if we are feeling whole, generous, and compassionate—which generally means that we are being our best selves—that we are more likely to be empathetic with the plight of others, even if we cannot see the obstacles that are in their way. Put another way, when we are in a position to offer generosity, we are ourselves feeling healthy.

It is when we are feeling taxed, stressed, and compromised that we are more likely to be judgmental and less likely to believe that people are doing the best they can. Interestingly, “We often have great awareness of all that we are going through but assume others have it easy and don’t offer grace. Some of us are willing to offer grace to others but hardest on ourselves” (Keith E. Edwards, 2016).

The best example I can think of with this is when one of my children wants attention. If I’m in the middle of trying to get something done—even things like making dinner or doing laundry, and not even things that feel more selfish like going for a run or doing work—I am less likely to be patient and loving in my response. If I’m not distracted and they ask me if I can help them or play a game or get them a snack, my response is different. That is, when I am not divided, I can give to others in a way that when I am divided I feel like I have less to give. In these moments where I am not divided I feel not only like I’m giving, but like I’m receiving in the process because I feel fuller by giving. When I am divided, unfortunately, I feel like I am sacrificing when I give. I feel inconvenienced, depleted, and irritated.

Brown writes that those who are inclined to say that people are not doing their best are, themselves, perfectionists, or people who always feel like there is more that they can do. Perfectionists, however, tend to be people who truly are giving their best in the moment, but what they are capable of in that moment is never good enough. It’s not that they are holding back; it’s that what they can do is perceived to be insufficient. Therefore, if they’re trying as hard as they can and it’s still not “the best” they see their efforts as something less than what it should be even though it is still everything they have.

This is a difference between looking at the input versus output. People who are inclined to say that they are not doing their best view the OUTPUT. They view the result. People who are inclined to say that they are doing their best view the INPUT. They view the effort spent to accomplish the task. Of course there are exceptions to this simplified summary. Not everyone who says people aren’t doing their best is focused on the output. They, like my husband, say I could have given more and, as a result, gotten a better result. Brown argues that even in the case where someone says “I could have given more,” that there were underlying reasons why that was someone’s best for that moment. In other words, on the days when you did not rise to the same level of aptitude that you once had, there were likely underlying causes that created that day’s “best” as something different from what it might have been before or will be in the future. Maybe you didn’t get as much sleep the night before. Maybe you had something else that you were trying to do at the same time. Maybe…Maybe…Maybe. The next thing you know, whatever you did, in that moment, really was your best. “This doesn’t mean not hold people accountable, but holding them accountable in a wholehearted way, which may be the only way to reach them and invite growth, change, and transformation” (Keith E. Edwards, 2016).

In looking for a good summary on this section in Rising Strong, I found this blog entry on Brown’s thinking about doing your best written by Hannah Collins. I liked it because it did a nice job summarizing the thinking but also doing so in a humorous tone. I would encourage you to read it if you have the time!

My point in sharing any and all of this is to push our thinking about our efforts. For some of us, it is easiest to offer grace and empathy to others but not ourselves. We look at our family, friends, coworkers, and random strangers and give them the benefit of the doubt. The things they are dealing with must be hard if they made that choice. As a result I’m going to offer them my kindness and grace.

For others, it is easiest to offer grace and empathy to ourselves and not to others. This may not be perfect, but given the challenges that I am facing right now, this is the best I can do. I will do better next time and be at peace that this my best.

While I’m not sure that I fall solidly in one camp or the other (since there are times that I am kinder to others than myself but also times when that can be inverted), what I hope to be mindful of is that I do not have to choose. Both are possibilities. I can be emphatic and kind to others even if their efforts may have first struck me as disappointing. I can also do the same for myself. At the end of the day, even if we are wrong about people doing their best, “I would rather live my life assuming that others are doing the best they can and be wrong about that occasionally than treat people like they are not doing the best they can and be right occasionally” (Keith E. Edwards, 2016).


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