Does each of us always do the very best he or she can?
Over the weekend, my good friend Sue J. and I got into one of our regular “debates”, this one about whether people always do their emotional best — that is, do they always try as hard as they are able, at any given moment, to master their impulses and behave in the most constructive way possible? Sue insists that “We’re all doing the best we can … and we could always do better.” I disagree, not only because the statement is logically problematic but because it flies in the face of my personal experience.
Let’s begin with the logic. If one can always do better, then how can one be making the best possible effort right now? Unless we entirely dismiss this statement as illogical, we have to assume it implies a process of growth where each step of the way always represents one’s personal best, with expectation for improvement rising exactly as much as one’s growing capacity to meet it. As a logical proposition, however, it still leaves something to be desired. From my point of view, it sounds sentimental, like saying that human nature is inherently good (and never mind the atrocities occurring every minute of every day around the world). If someone were to argue instead that people are usually trying to do their best, I wouldn’t put up much of a fight; but insisting on always makes it impossible to evaluate anyone’s behavior or render judgment about it. This was your best effort, but that was not.
Judgment, of course, is the problem with the original question. If I state (which I do) that people aren’t always doing the best they can, it implies that I’m making a judgment about them and their psychological efforts (which I am). In the course of our debate, Sue accused me of being “judgmental”; I felt, for possibly the thousandth time, that our culture has lost the distinction between exercising judgment and being judgmental. The very act of “passing judgment” will bring denunciation down upon your head. People will accuse you of being “holier than thou,” or arrogant for presuming to judge other people. It seems that for most of us, any kind of judgment is the equivalent of being judgmental. The problem also seems to be with the word itself: most of us can’t hear “judgment” without investing it with harshness. My friend Marla Estes suggests I use a less charged word, such as “discernment”, to describe the process of making distinctions.
In my earlier post on narcissism vs. authentic self-esteem, I mentioned an incident where I felt badly about myself because of poor choices I’d made in a social situation, knowing I could have done better. I’ve had this experience repeatedly in my life, and in those instances, I don’t necessarily feel harsh or judgmental; I often feel disappointed in myself because I haven’t lived up to my own expectations. Usually, it’s because I didn’t want to exert the necessary effort. I took the easier route, by doing what felt better in the moment, instead of restraining myself and earning my self-respect in the long run. To me, saying that everyone is always doing their best implies a kind of relativism without authentic standards, since it has been decided in advance, by definition, that the standard has been met. The standard = the behavior.
In my practice, I’ve had many sessions where clients, after telling me about something they’ve done, subsequently experience me as if I were being harsh and judgmental when in fact, I’m feeling sympathetic or neutral. Sometimes this is because my clients themselves feel harsh and judgmental about what they’ve done. On other occasions, it’s because they feel disappointed, knowing they could have done better, just as I did in the example I gave. Rather than owning up to that feeling and bearing their remorse, they get rid of it (project it) into me. I try to address this process by showing them that they feel disappointed in themselves for not living up to their own standards and values, even when those standards aren’t harsh or perfectionistic.
From my point of view, to believe that people always do the best they can is to live in a world without genuine standards or expectations, without discernment. If we don’t voice the right kind of disapproval and hold our children to certain standards, how can we expect them to behave as they need to do in order to get by in our world? If there are no consequences, why should they change their behavior? What do you think will happen if you always tell your child, “That’s okay, honey — I know you did the best you could. And next time you’ll do better!” The alternative is not to come down with harshness but rather to articulate standards and explain the consequences of not meeting them — to help your children discern the different possible outcomes of the choices they will make.
I believe in free will and personal choice. Some people who come to me for treatment don’t actually have a choice; they are so overmastered by their pain, with so little capacity to bear it, that they can only do what gives them relief in the moment. After a time, they develop a larger capacity and so become able to choose. It’s a crucial and delicate point in therapy, when can’t becomes won’t. The distinction is real. Not everyone is always doing the best they can; if you tell them that they are, they’ll know on some level that it’s untrue.
Finding Your Own Way:
Do you believe you’re always doing the best you can? How do you feel about yourself when you look back on behaviors that cause you to cringe or feel regret? Do you accept that, in every instance, you chose as well as you could under the circumstances?
Or maybe you’ve had an inkling (as I’ve often done) that you probably shouldn’t do such-and-such and then decided to do it anyway. Maybe you talked yourself into it, rationalizing away your common-sense objections. Maybe you mentally turned away from the choice, dropping it like a hot potato and shifting to something more pleasant. Or maybe you had too much to drink, knowing you should stop, after which your judgment was impaired and the impulse had its way.
There was likely a turning point, a place where you had a choice to make, either to live up to your own (healthy) standards and expectations, or to do what felt best/easiest/most relieving at the moment. In every instance, do you believe you were incapable of choosing any better than you did? It’s crucial to discern the difference between our actual best and not confuse it with “has room for improvement.”