Brene Brown is my new arch nemesis.
Maybe you’ve watched her TED talk. You may have read one of her best-selling books. Or maybe you’ve just watched one of your friends cry a lot as they read one of her best sellers. In case you’re totally lost, Brené is one of the leading researchers on really fun topics such as shame and vulnerability.
In her book Rising Strong she talks about failure and what happens when we mess up either personally or professionally. Her research walks you through how to recover from the shame that life’s most embarrassing moments can bring- whether that’s through an argument or getting fired or a break up.
Brené mentioned the very simple, but wildly scandalous idea that most people, most of the time, are just doing the best they can.
I decided to clear my head and try to process Brené's theory. As I was walking my dog through the neighborhood I internally argued with one of the world’s greatest researchers.
No Brené. People are not doing their best. Have you turned on the news lately? Have you driven in 5 o’clock traffic? Have you met me? No, people suck. You clearly live under a rock you research nerd.
And then, mid argument, I felt a tug on the leash. I yanked backwards to turn and see my dog hunched over, motionless. My dog was taking the world’s most massive poop in someone’s yard. In my anger and haste I had forgotten a bag. I was caught bagless in broad daylight. To my horror someone across the street had witnessed the act.
“Are you really not going to clean that up?! I ought to throw that right at the back of your head!”
First of all, rude. Second of all, sir, are you really going to pick up poop with your bare hands? Gross. Thankfully, I had my headphones in. I pretended to not hear the hurl of insults, or hypothetical poop, as I proceeded to drag my dog down the sidewalk. Tears filled my eyes and my face flushed red with shame and embarrassment. Internally I screamed back:
DUDE, I’M DOING THE BEST I CAN. BACK OFF!
Ouch. There it is. The whole rest of the walk home I cried a strange mix of tears. I was partially still ashamed and angry about what happened. The other part of me felt oddly relieved because maybe, just maybe, people really are doing their best.
Assuming the best about people requires hard work.
It’s been so easy to lead a life full of harsh assumptions. It keeps me at an arm’s distance and protects me from harm. I’ve always assumed people want something, are out to get me, or I operate out of a worst-case scenario. If I portray every person or situation in a negative light then it won’t hurt as badly when I’m disappointed or things don’t go my way.
To assume the best about people and assume that, at any given moment they’re just doing the best they can, would require a vulnerability and humility that often exceeds my capacity. It would require me to actually get to know people, to let them in and hear them out, to sit under the weight of their story, or simply to get out from underneath the weight of my own.
Honestly, my assumptions about other people start with my assumptions about myself.
Really it’s more of an internal problem than an external one. I see the worst in other people because I’m constantly hashing out the worst things about myself. I’m not generous with others because I don’t have the grace or the patience to first be generous with myself. At any given moment I’m on the hunt for my biggest flaws and most blatant failures so I can minimize my insecurities and maximize my likability.
Which made me feel like a fraud.
Which made me very cynical about others.
So walking home that day through the tears I realized maybe people are doing their best. Maybe the world isn’t out to get me. And maybe I’m not my own worst enemy. Maybe I’ve been trying to do the best I can with what I had.
If people are doing their best then we have one of two options: forgiveness or freedom.
Forgiveness is tough. It starts with a lot of self-forgiveness and exposing the lies we’ve believed with a dose of hard truth. Operating out of generous assumptions means we go from living with clenched fists to healing hands. It causes us to live in a state of forgiveness because we’re more understanding and empathetic rather than accusatory and defensive.
It means your husband didn’t leave the dishes in the sink to make you angry and late for work on purpose. It means your boss didn’t send that short email because he wants to sabotage your career. It means your mom wasn’t trying to make you feel guilty by playing the martyr. It means you didn’t mean to lash out with angry words; you were just a scared kid and you didn’t understand what was happening.
They were all just doing the best they could.
We also have a lot of freedom. If we’re all really doing our best then we’re free to either move towards someone in grace or walk away and draw boundaries. Sometimes people are doing their best and that best is very hurtful. Sometimes people’s best is toxic, cyclical, and incredibly damaging, in which case we’re free to walk away. We’re also free to speak the truth in love because we’re able to empathize, not sympathize, and understand where the other person is coming from.
If the toxic person in our lives happens to be ourselves then we’re free to walk away too. We’re free to walk away from years of thought patterns, unhealthy habits, or abusive shame tactics with ourselves. We’re just as free to say no and set boundaries internally as we are externally.
So tonight, when your head hits the pillow, instead of beating yourself up over every mistake I want you to try something different. I want you to whisper to yourself, “I did my very best today. So-and-so did their very best today too. And today that was enough.”
Because you really did the best you could.
So, what would it look like to assume the best about people? Who in your life needs you to assume the best about them- could it be yourself? Where do you need an extra dose of forgiveness and freedom?
I hope you feel a little lighter today knowing we're all trying our hardest.