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We’re All Doing the Best We Can

One of my most challenging discussions in therapy is convincing clients that people are doing the best they can at any given point. I’ve always thought of this idea, along with its counterpart which I’ll describe in a moment, as a given psychological principle or truth. Yet I understand how difficult it is to wrap your mind around.

The concept goes like this: people are doing the best they can, though it may not be good enough. Said another way, If people could do better, they would. Most clients and others hear me say that their parent/child/boss/etc. is doing the best he or she can and start telling me how untrue that is. For example, if your supervisor is constantly critical of your work and tells you so in a blunt and hurtful manner, that is the best she can do right now. Here’s the key point, however. Her best may not be good enough by a long shot. In fact, her best may be awful and totally unacceptable. Moreover, her best is for that moment and may change. Outside forces may cause her to reflect on her behavior and bring her to an ah ha moment of how poorly she treats her subordinates.

Here’s another example. Say, you binge daily and have for years. You’ve been in and out of therapy for this behavior and it improves for a while, then gradually slides back to causing you misery. This is the best you can do right now, and it’s not good enough because you rightfully wish to stop bingeing completely. If you could do better, you would. The pivotal word here is “could.” Our potential is limited by our history and genetics. Maybe both of your parents ate emotionally, and you never learned to cope with stress or distress without turning to food. Or maybe your parents put you on a diet in childhood and you’re still rebelling against not being able to eat foods you desire. Or perhaps you have anxiety, depression, PTSD or other mental health issues which make it harder for you than it is for the next person to manage your emotions.

We can learn and we can change. We can keep inching toward our potential and goals. We can strive and try to become wiser and more functional. What we cannot do is to turn back the clock and alter our histories which hamper improved performance. Our optimum is poor because what came before didn’t prepare us for better. Your verbally abusive spouse is doing the best he can because he was raised by an abusive father; your demanding, controlling mother is doing the best she can because her mother was the same way. This does not mean that their best is good enough. It isn’t acceptable in any way shape or form. Recognizing that someone is doing his or her best doesn’t condone behavior. It simply explains its persistence and the strength of its resistance to change.

Best,

Karen

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