“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.

5 Reasons Why I Try not to Give Advice

There was a time not too long ago where if you had told me any challenge or problem you were facing, I would have jumped in and tried to “fix” it with an immediate solution to your problem and a lecture which included all my supporting logic and thoughts.  Although I often do not have solutions to my own cavernous problems (and would not call myself an “expert” on most things) I would not hesitate to tell you how to go about fixing yourself. Dispensing advice is still a huge temptation for me, but I’ve been working on curbing this impulse.

I’ve touched on this topic before in my post on empathy, but have some more thoughts on why jumping in to “fix” problems is not a great approach in relationships.

  1. Dispensing advice is often more about me than the other person: although on the surface I’m trying to be helpful I think it’s more about me. Giving people solid and thoughtful advice makes me feel better about myself. It’s also self-righteous, unconsciously sending the message that I don’t think you have it under control and that you aren’t “good enough” to deal with the problem. My eagerness is about showing that I am an expert, intelligent, and insightful more than understanding you or your situation. I’m putting myself up on a pedestal saying that I understand the problem and situation more than you. I’ve also noticed my own hypocrisy in that the advice I tend to dole out is also more often than not advice I’ve refused or ignored when offered to me. I feel that my tendency to rush in and try to fix things is a reflection of my insecurity and discomfort at being present with pain and feelings, both my own and others.
  1. That’s probably not all the facts: I recognize that I only ever have one version of the events. You’ve told me your perception of what’s happening, but let’s be real! We all have a tendency to frame things in a way that suits our bias. If the issue is not flattering, we omit things or spin them in a way that avoids responsibility. Understanding this very human self-preservation instinct, I know that I am basing my judgement, reaction, and advice on a partial story. No matter how good my advice is, there’s no way that it is fair or complete because the facts presented are probably not either.
  1. Solving problems builds confidence: getting yourself out of a bind, figuring it out, and succeeding despite adversity are all incredible confidence builders. As much as it may seem like I am helping by sharing my cleverness and insight, there is a chance that by providing overly detailed and forceful instruction I am robbing you of a powerful and necessary learning and growth experience. There is also always a decent chance that I am way off side, and shouldn’t subject you to my bias.
  1. I don’t need to face the consequences: I know this is something I have not given any thought in the past. I was so caught up in “fixing” that I didn’t appreciate the simple fact that I would not have to deal with the fallout and consequences of the advice I was providing. I’m embarrassed at the drastic and pointed advice that I’ve offered over the years that called for intense and total life overhauls with no pause for how jarring those changes would be. I told people that this was the only solution to their problem with no appreciation of the level of commitment, drive, and perseverance implementing those actions would take to make them successful. In other words, making matter of fact and preachy suggestions about how people live their life was a real douche canoe move.
  1. They may not take my advice, and may think less of me for it: despite my good intentions, how clever and insightful I think I might be, I recognize that people only really accept advice when they are ready. In the wrong state, they may not agree or they may not be ready even if it is genuinely the best course of action. I understand that if I catch someone in one of those moments there is a great chance that my advice will not be well received. They may resent or ignore me totally which in turn makes me feel like underappreciated garbage. Further, advice is rarely helpful if it is delivered in an intense I-know-what’s-best kind of way. I know we are all attracted to the idea of tough love but, in all but the most dire situations, delivering advice in this manner makes people defensive, defiant, and closed; therefore, totally unlikely to take the advice anyway.  I also recognize that when I get angry at other people for not taking my advice it is an indication that I should not be giving it in the first place as it suggests that my actions are weighted on my expectations for things beyond my control rather than openness to the best outcome.

The deep irony of this situation is that the best way to give someone advice is often by not giving it at all. It’s by showing curiosity and really listening; by offering them a safe space to talk about the problem without fear of judgement. This is essentially what therapy and counselling provides. A good practitioner will serve as a guide to connect you with the answers you already have but are having trouble accessing. It’s shocking how often saying something aloud and talking it through with someone who is supportive and open to listening will be all that is needed for the person to find the solution. It is worth resisting the temptation to provide immediate solutions in favour of supporting those we care about in finding their own. I acknowledge, this may not always be possible. There are occasions where it is appropriate and needed to offer thoughts and advice but this is something I’m trying to approach more delicately. I don’t regret putting more effort into developing authentic and deep listening skills and allowing other people to share in a compassionate space.

Cheese!

white ceramic bowl
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I’ve always been an over-thinker. I replay scenarios in my head (past and future) dissecting every word, every action, and every possible outcome. I’m sure anyone reading this who suffers from this same affliction can appreciate the slow torturous hell that these loops create — you get stuck holding on to all these real and imagined moments, paralyzed and unable to appreciate the moment you are in. They can also last a shockingly long time.

I’m told this is not uncommon for people in recovery from family addiction issues. I understand that it is a form of coping, survival. Having lived through scenarios that were emotionally or physically painful, we protect ourselves from potential harm by becoming hyper-vigilant. We look for danger everywhere, we anticipate it, and in some cases we probably create it. This is part of that, the endless study of people’s words and actions and in our cases the confusing experience that these are rarely correlated.

This is why when you start digging into recovery literature and programs there is an emphasis on being present. This is a nice way of saying; “let that sh*t go!” and usually involves some combination of meditation and behaviour therapy.

When I first separated from my ex my mind would not stop. I tortured myself with endless questions, such as: was he really an alcoholic? Should I have done more to support him? What if I had done X instead of Y? And so on. An endless daisy chain of questions with no answers that would satisfy me.

I remember having a conversation with a friend where I was off on one of my circular rants. She had just been through the abrupt ending of her own relationship and engagement and I applaud her for even attempting to have the capacity for the flaming tire fire of my emotions. She had enough of her own stuff to sort through.

She stopped me mid-sentence while I was demanding that she give me answers she couldn’t possibly have and told me a story about a time when she was exiting her office and there was a single full slice of processed cheese on the floor outside her door. No one in sight, no clues, but clearly it had not been there long. She told me that when she needed a break from what was happening in her head she thought about that slice of cheese and came up with stories about how it wound up in her doorway.

I didn’t really understand the value of the gift she gave me until shortly thereafter when I found my own cheese story. A harmless event from my past, a mystery that would never be solved but caused me no anxiety and didn’t impact my sense of self worth in any meaningful way.

I still visit that scenario from time to time when I need a break from the loud mariachi band of doubt and obsession that barrels through my brain. I’ve even found that going to that place sometimes gives me just enough distance and freedom to get clarity on whatever idea I am flogging to death.

So – while you work your way up to Ghandi-esque zen, I share this strategy with you and hope that you can find the same power in cheese.