“Are people doing the best they can?”

man holding silver trophy
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If you follow me on other platforms, you probably know I have soft spots for Brene Brown and Russell Brand. I could never have imagined the circumstances that would bring these two minds together to create, but I’m thrilled to live in a universe where this happened.. and my mind is blown by the result.

For those of you not familiar with Russell Brand, he is an outspoken comedian, actor, author, and activist. Although I did enjoy his outlandish comedy, I’ve found a new level of respect for him in sharing his experiences finding sobriety after a tumultuous and public struggle with drug addiction.

Brene got a brief nod in a past blog post, with a small reference to one of the first (and most powerful) books I read in recovery Daring Greatly. Holding a PHD in social work, she does research into vulnerability, shame, courage, and empathy. All topics that easily bring me to a cold sweat.

Although I’m familiar with some of Russel’s writings and videos on addiction recovery, I was not familiar with his podcast, “Under the Skin”. On this platform, he interviews a variety of influential public figures and the talk is anything but small. In his conversation with Brene they covered a plethora of hard topics including (but not limited to): handling tough toddlers, addiction, and boundaries.

The interview is over an hour and those interested in the full experience (at the time of this writing) can find it easily on spotify, youtube, or a number of other platforms. The part that really jumped out at me was a discussion on framing perception by asking the question “are people really doing the best they can?”

Although this discussion includes references to God and religion, it could easily be approached without so I encourage you to look beyond that if it does not resonate with you.

Like Brene, I’ve spent most of my life believing that most people (including myself) could be doing better. I met mistakes and poor choices as a personal reflection of value. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time being wounded and hurt by people not living up to my expectations for their behaviour, which in turn impacted my ability to be compassionate and live a peaceful existence. I spent an embarrassing amount of time being pissed off and burning bridges believing most times that people were either lazy or didn’t care.

I recognize that approaching life in this way is not only self-righteous and douchy, it isn’t fair. Reflecting on my lowest points there were days where the best I could do was not great. I remember not too long ago where the simple act of getting out of bed and to work was a monumental achievement. During that time, I was not a great friend, relative, or human. I was in survival mode and that was truly all I had in me.

At the end of the clip, Brene retells her husbands’ take on this huge existential question. Responding to her prodding, “are people really doing the best they can every day”, he says, profoundly “I have no idea. But what I do know is my life is better when I assume they are” (mic drop).

This really hit me because it illustrates so perfectly what many of us fundamentally struggle with: what is ours to control. A common concept in recovery literature is the challenge to accept the truth that you are only in control of your own thoughts, feelings, and actions; not the thoughts, feelings and actions of others.

In this context, whether a person is actually doing the best they possibly can is irrelevant because it is out of our control; but how we frame our thoughts and perception is totally within our power. I can choose to believe that the hurt someone inflicts on me is a reflection of my value, or I can believe that, for better or for worse, they are doing the best they can and choose my actions calmly, intelligently, and compassionately.

Denial (Not the River)

Denial is one of the hardest things to explain to people who show an interest in the breakdown of my last long term relationship. It is also one of my biggest sources of shame. This topic usually comes up in the form of a leading and judgmental question along the lines of: “You must have known he was an alcoholic.  How could you not?”

The truth is, most people are in denial all the time. Imagine every time you or a loved one got into a car you were pummeled with the realization that on average 100 people in the US die every day in motor vehicle accidents.  Consider living in the constant fear that in the kitchen of every restaurant you ate in, the prep cook added unsavoury things to your food. Think about what life would be like if you settled on the possibility that you would contract a flesh eating disease while on your discount all-inclusive vacation. Think of how crappy life would be if every time you ate something unhealthy you imagined exactly how long you would need to exercise in order to work off the calories.

Truthfully, there are people who suffer constantly with these truths; but for the most part, we all ignore them so as not to interfere with our daily activities and obligations. We do this because the the world is unpredictable and scary and it would be overpowering to carry that around.

Denial goes hand in hand with addiction. Most addicts function in denial of their habit and it is not unusual for the people around them to also operate in denial of the problem. In a lot of ways, this is “easier” and less scary for everyone because the reality of change, recovery, and the social perception of the disease are too much to bear.

I’m sure you can all think of some good real life examples of denial, but I like the way it is presented here as degrees of intensity:

  • First Degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists
  • Second Degree: Minimization or rationalization
  • Third Degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences
  • Fourth Degree: Unwillingness to seek help

– Darlene Lancer (WhatisCodependency.com)

Denial does not always mean there is no acknowledgement of the problem, it can also include a justification or minimization of the impact.

So why do we do it?

Simply, it’s a common coping mechanism; it is a way to avoid physical and emotional pain. It is self-preservation: “If I don’t admit the problem, I don’t have to suffer the consequences. I don’t need to fear the implications of the truth and I don’t have to take any action to correct the problem.”

This is not to suggest that this is something that is always a conscious act. For most, what we believe is formed by our experiences and evidence as it is presented. As humans, we are prone to something called “cognitive bias” which basically means that we create our own reality based on our perceptions which in turn influences our behaviour in the social world. So we take our experiences and sort them into something that is palatable to us and often this is done in a way that is most flattering to us so we can go on with our lives justified in our actions and choices.

I like the example that Mark Manson uses in his new book “Everything is F*cked” to demonstrate cognitive bias. A girl is mistreated by her boyfriend and he leaves her. She has one of two choices in shaping her perception of these events to make it something she can live with: 1. Boys are sh*t, or 2. She is sh*t. Option 2 is too painful, so she subconsciously chooses Option 1.

Cognitive bias is helped by another human thought process called “confirmation bias”. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that reinforces or confirms the persons’ existing beliefs.  Returning to Mark’s example; the girl, believing that all boys are sh*t, spends a number of years subconsciously proving that rationalization correct. She is attracted to boys that treat her like garbage and enforce her cognitive bias that they are sh*t. Faced with a boy that is not sh*t, she is unable to accept this reality and ends up leaving him because the implications and adjustments that would be required to re-write her perception of the world and own cognitive bias are simply too painful to consider.

The truly tragic takeaway here is that there was a third option all along that desperation, pain, and bias caused her to overlook! Neither her nor boys are sh*t, the one that hurt her had his own set of issues which in reality had very little to do with her.

Denial is a defense mechanism that prevents threatening emotions entering our conscious thought due to an inability to cope with that negative state. This leads to all kinds of unflattering and self-sabotaging behaviour such as: lying, developing a “false self”, and social isolation. The often unethical behaviour that results can also be a source of shame, self-hatred, and low self-worth. These messy emotions provide further reasons not to face the truth. There is also evidence to suggest that in those cases where chronic substance abuse is a factor, the substance impairs insight, self-awareness and makes a person unwilling or unable to weigh future consequences in comparison with their present need. In other words, the substance becomes the centerpiece around which denial is build to act as a shield.

In facing my own denial, I’ve come to realize that while reflection is a valuable and insightful tool, dwelling on our mistakes as anything more than learning experiences is an impediment to progress. When people tell me about positive (and sometimes obvious) steps they’ve taken to improve their lives, I’ve tried to stop asking them why they didn’t make their move sooner or comment on their process. Instead I try to applaud them for making it at all. I’ve started reassuring people they don’t need to justify themselves to me, I’m happy for them taking the reigns. Period.

Denial has taught me that the brutal unflinching honesty and accountability required to face our authentic selves and learn from it is the ultimate measure of bravery. It takes amazing courage to look in those dark and hidden recesses of your mind and pull out the shrapnel.

Don’t let anyone make you feel any less than hardcore for doing it.

 

Choices

Recently I had the experience of getting some negative and pointed feedback on something I posted. I’ve taken for granted that my writing has a limited reach. I believe that most of the people who have stumbled across my content have done so mostly by accident and had they chosen to stay or interact it was due to shared strategy towards recovery, or at least something that I said resonated with them in the moment.

The item in question and the person who offered it are not really required for this discussion. I’ve said that I welcome alternate recovery strategies and I do. I also believe that by sharing we can all learn new tricks, which is always a good thing. I don’t think that personal improvement and healing is universal, I believe this process is best as a self-directed and adaptable plan. I accept that what I feel, say, and write is not for everyone and vice versa. It isn’t personal, we just like different things: I’m an autumn and you’re a summer – isn’t that grand?

However, I did find it hard to let go of the delivery of this alternate view point. The implication was that my approach to healing is wrong and they were right. They seemed to take personal offence to my suggestion that self-improvement was required on my part and that codependency is a farce designed to send wounded people on a quest of introspection and self-blame that is totally unnecessary and a waste of their precious time. They berated me for considering any toxicity in my actions which I found interesting considering they surely do not know me well enough to make such a flattering judgment!

I’ve given these comments some thought, and I agree with certain pieces of their argument.

Most of codependency behavior is basic and normal human nature. It is in our nature to want to connect. It is in our nature to want to invest in the growth of our families. It is seen as a good trait in a person to be willing to go to some measure of sacrifice for those they love. It is human to want to help someone you care about who is struggling, we all want to be somebody’s hero. It is normal to be disappointed when our contributions are not recognized. It is human to be upset when people’s actions and words sting us. Most of us also have slivers of narcissism, if only in our belief in our ability to inspire change in others or in our entitlement for recognition of our good deeds.

Much like addiction is to every person’s inclination to numb or require respite from the trials of being human, codependency is also an extreme expression of the human condition. And thus, I agree with the implication that being in a codependent relationship, much like being an addict, doesn’t make you fundamentally broken. We are all vulnerable to these states, and neither should carry the stigma they do. But, I do not agree that there is no room for adaptation and improvement.

Being human is laden with flaws but it also comes with greatness in that we have almost boundless potential for learning and growth. We can reinvent ourselves with enough effort and context. If a person is adequately motivated and determined, they can reprogram themselves in amazing and unimagined ways. That is not to say that everyone should be consumed by personal growth but it seems a shame to not take advantage of one of our greatest gifts.

With a year and a half of this journey under my belt, I see personal development and recovery not as an expression of hate for who I am. I see it as the ultimate expression of self-love; I recognize my potential, my resilience, my adaptability, and my strength. I owe it to myself to grow. I owe it to myself to learn when the context of my life changes. I owe it to myself to be open to joy, fulfillment, and opportunities.  I owe it to myself to be available for the moment.

I thank this commenter for the reminder that I am not broken but rather that I am evolving and that is something I am not ashamed to be excited about and share.

While I anticipate that at least some of you will challenge my ideas, and I look forward to that feedback, I request that we all approach each other with an open and respectful mind. I remind myself that every comment, like, critique, and message is from a live person and request that the same consideration is given to me.

I challenge us all to remember that we have choices. We can always pick where we devote our energy. While I hope that you will continue to share your stories, opinions, and experiences as well as considering mine I respect your right to divert your attention elsewhere.

All my best,

J.