Can’t or Won’t?

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.

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The Pleasures of Solitude

In my post on grief and gratitude, I discussed some of the emotions that come to the fore in the termination phase of psychotherapy.  With the client I described in that post, another issue has recently become prominent:   the loneliness of personal responsibility balanced by the pleasures of solitude.

Diane began a recent Monday session by telling me she had the strong urge to fill me in on all the details of her weekend, to spill out her experience in a mindless way very familiar to us.  Throughout her treatment, she would communicate in that fashion because she wanted to feel that I was a part of her experience, as if I were there at her side going through life with her, always available to process that experience and to do her thinking for her.  She knew she felt a little angry and rebellious, as if to spill all those details would be an act of defiance.   In recent months, we’ve focused on the need to communicate in a different mode:   instead of unloading her experience in a mindless way, she needed to digest that experience first and decide which details should be communicated, what she intended to say and what she felt to be the crucial issues.  In other words, as the end of her treatment approaches, the responsibility to think for herself has shifted increasingly onto her own shoulders.

During that Monday session, she went on to discuss an article she’d read, about the rise of binge drinking among middle-aged professionals.  It made her recognize that her alcohol use had been creeping up lately as she faced various stressful situations in her life; she felt the need to get it more under control. This topic reminded her of early struggles with substance abuse when we first started working together. In those days, she used to carry a moralistic and disapproving “Joe” around in her mind; he held her to very harsh standards with no areas of gray, banning drug and alcohol use entirely, and came down hard when she slipped.  She often felt resentful toward this “Joe”, as if she were a teenager and “Joe” the unreasonably strict parent; over time, however, she came to obey his rules.  Now, she said, even though “Joe” still appeared in her thoughts, she didn’t believe in him in the same way.  She’d come to feel that the issues weren’t so black-and-white.

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