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.

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.”

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I think you’ve made insightful comments here (and in many of your other articles). You are correct in stating that we don’t always do our best but that we can do better. Really, it is impossible for any of us to do our best all the time, because we are imperfect and fallible. I agree, too, that there is always room for growth, which is why services like counseling are very useful to some individuals.

    Defense mechanisms are likely to be employed when individuals aren’t ready to accept their imperfections, emotions, actions, etc, like in your example of projection. It is difficult to recognize and accept our own flaws, weaknesses, and challenges. Sometimes it is just easier to deny they exist, although in the long run that coping strategy backfires.

    Thanks again for your articles! One of my favorite counseling related blogs.




  3. No, sadly I do not always do the best I possibly can. I feel sadened when I am unable to ‘catch’ one of the parts of myself I do not like, the sad angry little girl who always felt she needed attention, the part that still ‘snaps’ and needs to be right at times. I do stop myself someimes, actually more times than ever before these days but I still feel sad when I let that part ‘get away’ from me.

  4. The title of this post ‘struck’ me too.

    For many years I have struggled with controlling my weight. I am at the top end of the weight range for my height so I am not obese or unhealthy but I have been unable to maintain a lower weight for any length of time. When I got married 18 months ago I was 6kg less than I am now and I have not been able to get my weight back down. I self-sabotage by eating chocolates, cakes or cookies; not many, just enough to keep me at this weight. Can’t or won’t? I know I can, so why won’t I?

    I feel incredibly frustrated with myself over this. I just can’t get it together over this. Why?

    1. I was thinking more about this last night as I was lying awake at 3:30 a.m., knowing that I needed to quiet my mind in order to get back to sleep. I’ve had to deal with sleep issues for most of my life and I know the “solution” is having a quiet mind; but there are times of very high stress and anxiety when I *can’t* and others when I’m very interested in what I happen to be thinking about when I *won’t*. The “won’t” is a very willful, bratty part of me; sometimes he just gets his way and then after a couple of days, I’ll pay more attention to the cost of not sleeping and get myself in line. Maybe it’s something like that for you. It’s not self-sabotage, necessarily, but a very bratty part of you that just wants her chocolates and cookies NOW, damn the consequences.

      1. Not everybody works by scheduling all the time. Some people work by prioritization. With prioritization, it might not matter what time it is or what else is happening anywhere else. You might be fully engaged with your top priority for as long as you can stay awake.

        Some people alternate between scheduling and prioritization strategies when resourcing projects.

        There is no right or wrong. The scheduling strategies may be most effective when working interdependently with other people and outside parties and services. e.g. organizing fork lift refueling in a warehouse.

        The prioritization strategies may be most effective when you are racing to exploit growth opportunities that don’t quite exist yet but which you have intuited e.g. the iPhone development team at Apple in 2005.

        On a personal level, just because you have an appointment tomorrow morning doesn’t mean you can’t get fascinated in something else tonight, does it?

        1. Frank, you’re right, of course. When it comes to priorities, “won’t” would involve people who set priorities but still don’t manage to get them off their list. Remaining “fully engaged” is one thing; procrastinating with excuses is another. Also, I don’t mean to sound perfectionistic. There has to be room for spontaneity and also fascination, as you point out.

  5. I like Dr. bob dick’s comment that the definition of “best” might best be used as a relative term. I would also agree with your friend Sue rather than you about how to use this term, for reasons I’ll explain, though I believe I understand your mindset about judgment. Perhaps my perspective is different because of the way I’ve decided to deal with my own difficulties.
    It is useful for me to allow that I have done my best at any given moment for several reasons. First and foremost is that I can’t go back in time and do “better.” So I train my brain to think in terms that make sense for each moment. And that is that OF COURSE I am always doing my best….FOR THAT MOMENT. Is it always the best I can do? No, it can’t be. This is where I’m very careful about the words, the language I use. I try to be very precise about how I say what I mean. Which is that I am always doing the best I can in any given moment, given the complexities of will, motivation, appraisal, energy, desire, context, etc. etc. For individuals who hear only “you’ve done your best,” there can be extreme distress–shame, guilt, regret, pain. If it is possible to lead them to hear the rest of the sentence, I believe it is a useful understanding to bring to our choices, and our memories of our choices.
    I can’t take credit for this approach. I’ve been acquiring it through readings of zen and buddhism to try and find ways to deal with my own distress.
    I greatly appreciate what you do. Love reading it, thanks!

    1. I think the problem many people have with this idea concerns the dynamic I discussed in my post on “crime and punishment”. How are we to think about not doing our best without coming down upon ourselves in a harshly judgmental way. I think Marla Estes in her comment offers some important help; there is also a place for having higher standards for ourselves. It may be a question of “maternal” attitudes that are nurturing and accepting and “paternal” attitudes which might expect (at their best) something more without being harshly critical. It seems like few of us have good internal fathers, any more than we have good internal mothers.

      1. Thanks for the useful reply. It’s interesting that you seem to suggest that if someone accepts he was doing the best he could at that moment, that he fails to have high (enough) standards. I’m not sure I believe the two concepts are mutually exclusive.
        I think I would say the same thing to Marla…
        Is it possible to always intend to achieve the best possible and still accept what is achieved? At least, refuse to condemn, castigate, or even criticize, what has been achieved…?

        1. Yes, just because we don’t achieve our best doesn’t mean we’re “bad” or “a loser”. As Marla points out, there are often very good emotional reasons why we don’t do our best. And sometimes we choose not to work harder for our best result for reasons that aren’t terribly healthy or constructive. The goal is to be honest with yourself, neither to brutalize yourself for “failure” nor uncritically condone every result.

  6. I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject. For me, I think there’s a qualifier: if it’s about something task oriented, a project, homework, I know I don’t often do the best that I can for different reasons…lack of time, other priorities, “laziness” (although I think that word is a catch-all for a lot of different things). But if there’s a situation where I am triggered and hijacked by emotional, unconscious material, I think that often (maybe always) I do the best that I can under the circumstances (usually accompanied by too much anxiety to do anything different than I’ve done). It’s upon reflection and processing that I can get better the next time that particular issue comes up.

  7. Yes – that is EXACTLY it! The feelings at the time of the overeating are “I don’t care”, “I want it!” and other as you quite righly say “bratty” thoughts/feelings.

    I guess I am ‘beating myself up’ because I don’t get it right all the time, and now that I think about it more, that I don’t always have control of this part of myself.

    What is tha answer?

    I have made an appointment with a Psychotherapist who works in this way, her words – “I work holistically with these issues which would include understanding your own neuroscience, mindfulness and relaxation/meditation techniques.” However I am unsure I need this or whether it feels right. I think I am on track with my own ‘work’ that I have previously done but that as yet I have just not had enough practise.

    1. The “answer” is to encourage yourself to do better without brutalizing yourself (and probably not to keep any tempting foods in the house!). As for the psychotherapist, the mindfulness and meditation techniques sound promising, but I’d be leery of the “understanding your own neuroscience”. It does no harm to go for the appointment and see how you feel, whether you have a sense that this person has something of value to offer you.

  8. Ah yes, I remember those words “encourage” from my therapy days. I now see that more of the same work is needed – gentle encouragement yet with firm consistency is what is required with my little girl within.

    Over the last couple of days this has been my focus again and I have noticed all sorts of ways she is ‘acting out’. I had been too busy to notice and slowly she has been, not getting the upper hand, but still getting away with her behaviour.

    It’s… lifelong!

    1. Without a doubt lifelong. Nothing mental ever goes away, but we hopefully develop new abilities to cope with it.

      1. Yes, lifelong. But whatever way we cope, the threescore years and ten of most men can hardly be called a long time. And I suppose we all come to the end without knowing why we were here.

  9. I think the concept that “we are all always doing the best we can” is a sometimes useful *concept* – a tool.

    It’s especially useful when applied to someone we are naturally tempted to be too harsh with – whether that someone is someone else, our ourselves.

    Whether it’s always “true” seems like a rather philosophical question 🙂

  10. Should we all attempt to do our emotional best all the time? With qualification, I say ‘no’. It smacks too much of perfectionism and can be down right paralyzingly. Doing ‘good enough’ is often just fine. The trick is to recognize when extra effort, attention and care is needed. Here’s the qualification: it’s not a level playing field. If I am emotionally mature, my ‘good enough’ may be far more honest, insightful and humble than the ‘best’ emotional behavior of someone who is very young, immature, or personality disordered. Even if those folks do their emotional best they might not meet society’s minimum standards for decent behavior.

    I wanted to comment too on ‘judging’ people. I have been called judgmental for seeing bad behavior in someone else and making moves to protect myself. The word ‘judgmental’ isn’t meant to mean that either. That’s being a ‘witness’, and people who behave badly never like to have them around.

    I just found your site a couple days ago. I’m looking forward to reading all your articles!

    1. Yes, I agree. Expecting ourselves always to do our best *does* smack of perfectionism; let’s just not pretend we’re doing our best when we’re not.

  11. I’m just catching up on your posts having recently discovered your blog. I find this a very insightful post. I struggle with something in this context and wonder if you have any advice. There is a former teacher of mine who is a thoughtful and sympathetic person who has always had some time to listen to me. I always turned to him (via email) when I was in a crisis, and outside therapy (or not trusting my therapist yet) when I desperately needed somebody to hear me. More recently, I sometimes still have that feeling of needing somebody to hear me and will turn to him by email, but I am conscious I may be exploiting the friendship or fossilizing its ability to grow (though he says no to the first worry when I ask him). I’m wondering more and more if my ‘can’t do anything but email him’ is turning into a ‘won’t’. Is it still a valid coping mechanism or am I repeating an old pattern that makes me feel a mixture of relief and dependency? I really can’t seem to untangle this and have been trying for some years, maybe it’s partly because I lack faith in the ‘friendship’ continuing in another way and want it to – but we do share other news, positive anecdotes etc as well so that could continue….

    1. Maybe a way to figure it out is to refrain from contacting him next time you feel the urge, see if you can cope with the situation on your own and also see how it makes you feel. You can tell yourself in advance that it doesn’t mean you can NEVER contact him; just try it as an experiment.

  12. Why even ask the question in the first place?

    It seems to me when we look at our own unchangeable past behaviors (or those of others) and ask, “Could I (or they) have done better?” what’s really relevant is WHY we’re asking those questions. You might be asking that question because you’re looking forward to the future, to how you can deal with the past event and respond in a healthy and responsible way, and to how you can deal with similar things in the future in a different manner.

    On the other hand, you might be asking the question because you want to label yourself, or another, in some kind of judgmental (in the negative sense) way. This is a defense mechanism, clearly. You know the sort of thing: I’m “just” a loser or they’re “just” being a jerk. I/they COULD do better, but “just won’t.” I’ve also found that the “won’t” label is often a crutch for therapists who are frustrated with a lack of patient progress and would rather dismiss the troubles as the patient’s fault than look at their own failings or lack of understanding.

    The actual philosophical question here is complex, vague and abstract; it dives right to the heart of the age-old “free will” question. More importantly…it’s not really the necessary consideration in therapy. The important consideration is the approach you’re taking, whichever philosophical answer you associate that approach with. I think, Dr. Burgo, your associations with this question may simply be different from those of a lot of the rest of us.

  13. I do not think there is such a thing as free will, in fact the more I look into it the more it doesn’t make sense to me. That being said however this doesn’t completely erase accountability. There is a huge difference between the circumstances not allowing it and one allowing themselves to get into circumstances that cause the limitation. We call people who can’t learn of have trouble learning stupid or impaired. Using the term in it’s real form means those who don’t learn from mistakes are impaired and while it may not be their fault with the idea of free will being out the window in my view, it doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to not repeat the mistake or make better decisions in the future. Making mistakes and NOT doing your best is ground for learning how to be better. Those that don’t are making the “decision” or their brain is assessing that it’s not worth it. Even if I don’t think free will exists, people still have accountability to me, it’s just not in the same way anymore. Refusing to learn is the problem to me, as opposed to making the “wrong” decision actively. There seems to be this whole idea that if free will doesn’t exist then we’re stagnant machines, completely forgetting that we change and grow with every single experience and second that we exist. That’s just my two cents on it. But over all, no, I don’t think that people ever technically do their best, but I also think that it’s not a good notion to have. I think learning and using that knowledge is honestly the “best” thing to do. If in a situation you felt like you didn’t do the right thing, use the idea that you made a mistake and figure out where you went wrong. If it’s of benefit to both yourself and others to change behavior or word choice or actions in the new situation then do that.. I think doing my “best” is only important if there is benefit to myself and others. Otherwise I don’t see this whole thing about always doing your best and I don’t think doing the best is even the sign of a “good” person.

    I don’t want to open up a can of worms, just wanted to share my perspective on how I see this topic. Very interesting read.

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