“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.

What does addiction look like?

When I met my former partner I was at a low point in my life. I was lost and unhappy in a job I didn’t like and surrounded by unhealthy relationships. I didn’t think I had anything or anyone I could count on and I approached most things prepared for failure. I had been let down enough times that I thought that was my destiny; to get close to what I wanted but never be able to hold on to it.

He was lost too and shared some intimate stories of betrayal and hardship. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. He brought me flowers every week and showered me with attention and affection. I wanted to believe that he was the sweet, kind and thoughtful person who made me feel appreciated in a way I truthfully hadn’t felt before.

As time passed I noticed he drank frequently and in quantities that should have sent me running. We were in our late 20s and many of our friends and acquaintances were drinkers. I’d grown up thinking it was normal to have a drink after work or on the weekend and didn’t have any real understanding of the spectrum of addiction or the warning signs.

In hindsight, there were a lot of clues.

He kept changing jobs because he was being singled out, treated unfairly, and overlooked for promotions; the same explanation for several lateral moves. He grew apart from his oldest friends, saying they were always unavailable as they slowed their partying and started families. He missed payments and was caught driving without insurance and an expired license, blaming someone else for misplacing the registered letter informing him of the cancellation. There was often a justification for whatever crises arose, and they almost always involved the negligence of another person. I wish I could tell you I called him on the inconsistencies in his stories, but instead I enabled him; in the last example by paying the hefty fine he received.

He used subterfuge to work late and to stay home alone instead of doing things we had planned together. I started catching him in little and then bigger lies about where he was, money, and other things. I’ve since learned that a lot of what he told me about his past was not truthful, but the only part that shocks me now is how consistently and effortlessly he could lie, as easy as I can breathe. Eventually, he became more erratic, secretive, and adept at deflecting my concerns and manipulating me by pushing my buttons and accusing me of doing things that made him unhappy.

There were many excuses to drink. Often something was annoying him that justified coming home, flipping on the tv and eventually passing out on the couch. If I gave any indication that I was having a bad day, there was a bottle of wine waiting “for me” that he had already been opened and sampled.

His sleep patterns were always strange but became more irregular. He was napping all the time, which he justified with his physical job and inability to sleep through the night. He was often groggy and moody in the evening but sweet, disarming, and apologetic in the morning. I even remember a period where I believe he attempted to cut back himself. Our bed was soaked with sweat and he would twitch randomly throughout the day.

At several points in our relationship I found empty bottles hidden around our living space; sometimes he offered weak excuses, other times he ignored my questions entirely as if I didn’t exist. His personal grooming suffered and he showed less and less interest in me. He withdrew and so did I as it became harder and harder to make excuses that others would accept. I didn’t understand what was happening, but I believed that there was something wrong with me. That I was crazy and somehow causing his mood swings, his lying, and his lack of interest. Slowly and insidiously the sweet and kind man I loved was replaced by another person. In the last year of our relationship I would call him Jekyll and Hyde not realizing how appropriate that comparison was.

I hid what was happening from our friends and family. I sacrificed what I wanted and gave up a job I was passionate about because the money was erratic and I couldn’t count on him to make contributions to our bills. I neglected myself, my needs, and over time became obsessed with him: what he was doing, what he was spending, and trying to solve the mystery of why it always felt like my life was falling apart.

The worst part is that although he was not a good partner, I wasn’t either. He didn’t ask me to do any of the sacrifices I made. I chose them. I tried to control and change him by belittling him, begging him, giving him empty ultimatums, and bribing him. And when none of my tactics worked and I couldn’t control the relationship that would not live up to my expectations I grew bitter and resentful.

I gave up and became a husk of a person. I hated myself. I stopped taking care of me, I gained weight, avoided people, and I sunk into a functional depression. I worried all the time and I drank more than I knew was safe for me both to cope and because it seemed to be the only time he was interested in spending time with me.

Believe it or not, shouldering it all was easier than believing that I was the other woman. That I had interrupted his relationship with something he loved more than he would ever love me. I recognize now that he was an addict when I met him; I didn’t cause it and I couldn’t change it but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As I write this now, I am grateful for the power of truth and acceptance. I’ve sat down to do this post several times since starting the blog and this is the first time I’ve made it through without tears, overwhelming embarrassment, and (I hope) without casting blame. I finally accept that as personal as everything that happened seemed, it wasn’t. We both made choices that served our own unhealthy agendas and there were consequences. The empowering thing about owning that, even if it lead to mistreatment and victimization, is the knowledge that I can make different choices going forward, I have that power. I’m also able to keep working on the process of letting go by acknowledging that although there is grief for the loss, I understand that the relationship was not healthy for either of us.

If you suspect that someone you care about is struggling with addiction, I encourage you to educate yourself. The correct way to help an addict or someone in a relationship with an addict may not be what you think. Addiction is a complex disease and its effects can ripple outwards for generations. You need to understand that so little about what is happening with the person or people you care about is logical or easy. You need to be ready for the reality that giving up the substance is just the first step in the long, difficult, but worthwhile process of recovery. You need to understand that some people never recover and what that means for you.

Addiction is a dangerous and progressive deadly disease. It’s so important that we help each other in recovery by example and by sharing our stories.

I recomend using your favourite search engine to look for local addiction resources. I guarantee there are people and groups that can help, including Anonymous groups for addicts and families of addicts, rehabilitation centres, intevention councillors, phone hotlines, and crises centres to name a few. I have also seen free online support groups and consultants. Help is closer than you think.

To get you started, here is a good article from MedicalNewsToday.com which discusses some of the common symptoms of substance addiction.

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: