“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.

Amorphous Blob

*This comic was unknowingly sent to me by a dear friend after I’d drafted this article, it was too perfect not to include.  Follow this talented artist, here. Thanks M, you add so much depth to my days.*

From a young age I believed that self worth is measured in personal sacrifice. In other words, you always put other people’s needs first. On the surface this seems like a beautiful and romantic idea, although in the long run taking a bullet might be less painful.

I realize what I’ve been doing isn’t actually all that selfless. I do think that I generally have good intentions, but I’m motivated by the thought that people would value my contributions and reciprocate. Although I acknowledge it is normal to want to be appreciated for your efforts, my self worth is woven up a little too tightly in these outcomes. Whether intentional or not, it puts me in a position of martyrdom. Operating with so many expectations for other people’s behaviour is often disappointing. It’s also manipulative, which is an ugly word I don’t want anywhere near my name.

This approach has also disconnected me from what I want and need. I have trouble answering questions like: what would make me feel better right now? Where would I like to go next? What would I like to do? My programming tells me that what I want and need is irrelevant and unimportant and it takes a lot of concentration and quiet to try and tap into those thoughts and feelings.  After a year of trying to develop this awareness, sometimes I still can’t.

Undervaluing myself has also impeded my ability to express love in a healthy and meaningful way. I’ve never had clear boundaries to enforce. Without them my relationships eventually become strange amorphous blobs of resentment and stagnation. I send the message that I’m unimportant by not asking for what I need or asking then immediately folding because I feel shame for imposing. I therefore don’t get what I need and eventually feel taken advantage of and again can’t express what the other person can do to fix it to salvage the relationship. A vicious cycle that comes with a fragrant bouquet of unpleasant feelings, my focus has always been anger.

I focus on anger because it’s easy and familiar for me. When I’m angry I can be productive and aggressive. Anger motivates action and makes me feel powerful. Alternatively, sitting with any of those other drippy feelings makes me feel helpless, weak, selfish, useless and unmasked. I have illusions that anger hides my weak spots and resolves things quickly when in reality it just weakens (or ends) my relationships and leads others to (rightfully) conclude I’m imbalanced and a jerk.

If there’s no one else to blame? Easy, I rage on myself. This is the worst kind of anger; it erodes self-worth in an even more destructive way. It’s a lifetime of picking yourself last in gym class and then tossing yourself in a locker with an atomic wedgie.

If you don’t love yourself, you have absolutely no protection from the impact of other peoples impressions and thoughts. You are only capable of getting validation from outside yourself: you’ve given away your power. There is a marked difference between taking responsibility for your choices and bullying yourself.

In her book Daring Greatly, Brene Brown distinguishes shame and guilt quite simply as:

Guilt = I did something bad.

Shame = I am bad.

In my world, failure of any kind results in shame and I pass that judgement on to others when they disappoint me. Nothing is ever a simple mistake or a bad choice, it is some kind of reflection of value. Everything is personal to the hundredth degree.

I think society romanticizes the ideas of vengeance, anger, and aggression. The media, politics, and literature are all filled with protagonists who shoot first and ask questions later. I realize how confusing this messaging has been with my experiences in developing my identity.

Anger has helped me avoid vulnerability for years. I carry a lot of grudges and burn a lot of bridges. I play the viking in an effort to avoid being the victim. I operate under the faulty logic that it is better to hurt someone before they get close enough to hurt me. After I drive them away I carry that rage and rejection with me everywhere keeping my wounds open and festering, reminding me that I am unworthy of the things I am so desperately seeking. It has made it easy to get hurt again because I am not able to heal.

Before this year, I thought that forgiveness was weak and designed to make people feel better who probably didn’t deserve it anyway. And frankly, if I wasn’t about to forgive myself why should I forgive you? After all, we are all bad shameful people.

I realize that forgiveness isn’t just for the other person; it’s a gift and a remedy to shame.  Not only can it empower others to overcome their own roadblocks (and regardless of any action they may or may not take) forgiveness means that you don’t have to carry it with you. You can move forward a few pounds lighter. I realize that making bad choices does not make a person bad or shameful if they are committed to improving.

Forgiveness works because the cure for shame is empathy, it is a social wound and it requires a social cure. Shame inspires me to withdraw and isolate and I’ve started to overcome it by talking to people who understand what it’s like and don’t judge me. They accept me for my flaws and encourage me while I take all the right and wrong turns I need to take in order to resolve it. They let me practice boundaries, share my ugly moments, and still reach out to see how I’m doing afterwards.

Since starting my recovery, I’m trying to act with more vulnerability, compassion, and forgiveness; both for myself and others. I’m trying to develop boundaries and be more mindful of my motivations and expectations for results beyond my control. I’m also trying to be more authentic and transparent in communicating my feelings and needs. Based on my experiences I think this is far better expression of strength and bravery. This approach requires honesty, awareness, vulnerability, responsibility, and maturity which are infinitely harder than manipulation and jumping for the throat. Acting this way opens you up to both rejection and acceptance based on your authentic self. This is terrifying to someone like me who struggles with confidence and worthiness in relationships but it is ultimately worth the risk for better quality connections.

I’m also working on my shame resilience by talking to myself with the same compassion I would give to someone else who is flatted by shame: “I’m human. I made a mistake and it does not define me”. I feel my feels and when I’m ready, when shame is manageable, I dust myself off and step back in the ring a little more prepared.

I’m getting better.  Like everything else we’ve discussed, change takes time, patience, and effort. If it was easy, no one would be struggling.

I am hopeful that participating in my own emotional renaissance will help me do my part to contribute to a kinder future. But if no one else joins me, that’s ok too. I’m just happy to be moving forward with a little less shame and a little more confidence and resilience.

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I highly recommend checking out Brene Brown. Her research has changed the way I think in a lot of beautiful ways. This entry is inspired heavily by her research and writing. There’s no wrong way to experience her: audiobooks, print, or Ted Talks. But do yourself a favour and check her out: https://brenebrown.com/.

A little something to get you started:

 

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A little bonus soundtrack suggestion from one of my all-time favourite bands: