Everyone does the best they can – always! This is probably the most difficult-to-swallow concept I teach in my workshops yet it’s the one that can change your world immediately.
This attitude changes the way you experience the world, the way your life feels, even who you are. People who believe that “everyone does the best they can” tend to have an easier, more relaxed life. People who don’t believe it feel more negative, stuck, angry, frustrated and even hopeless.
The good news is: even if you don’t believe everyone does their best, adopting this stance, even opening to the possibility that it is true, changes things for the better — immediately.
Let’s see how this might work for you. Think of something someone has done that upsets you, something you think they “shouldn’t have done”—perhaps your colleague has taken credit for a project you did together, your child cut school, your spouse isn’t doing his or her share. When you think of this individual, how do you feel if you decide he or she should have behaved differently or done better? Pay attention to your body and your thoughts. Does your body feel easy and comfortable or is it tight, heavy, and tense? What are you thinking about that person — selfish, lazy or stupid? Most likely, you’re not happy or feeling very good. Also notice that you created a story to support your anger and desire to be right.
Now try this: think about what that person did but tell yourself they did the best they could — if they could have done better, they would have. Remind yourself that you really don’t know what is best for them anyway. How does your body feel now—lighter, more comfortable, more relaxed? Again, you will probably create a story: they didn’t know better, felt trapped and scared, followed a bad crowd, etc. This time, your story probably supports a more positive view of others and the world. When you focus on how you feel, you are probably more at peace than in the last scenario.
Believing that we all do the best we can is not meant to be Pollyannaish or to let people off the hook. I’m not suggesting you should be pleased with or ignore “negative” behavior. It doesn’t mean they can’t do better the next time. It only means that, at a certain moment, it was the best they could do. They shouldn’t have done something different because the reality is they did what they did. Arguing with reality never works!
How do I know this? The truth is: I can’t know it for sure. On the other hand, how do we absolutely know anyone could have done better? You may say they knew or did better in the past, but we simply can’t know what they are capable of in the present.
People can only do their best, whether or not we think their best is misguided or wrong. When we decide others could have done better—we get stuck. Years of clinical practice have shown me that holding the attitude that everyone does the best they can makes life work better. Is it easy to adopt this attitude? No! It involves breaking lifelong habits and long-standing beliefs about change, motivation and right versus wrong. However, with determination, consistent practice and effective tools, we can change our attitude and our lives.
People usually want to feel better, get better results and accomplish something positive. They work with the abilities they have and what’s been modeled for them. Even individuals who appear to be self-destructive are usually trying to achieve something — whether it’s the pain or rejection they think they deserve or a misguided attempt to find love and acceptance. Sometimes people are simply responding to triggers or repeating old habits.
When we feel someone should have done something differently, what happens? We feel angry, and they too get angry and defensive. Things get locked in, and patterns get more rigid. On the other hand, when you think someone is doing the best they can, both of you can relax — the fight is over, and it’s easier to understand each other, even if you have different positions. The possibility for change emerges.
When trying to change our own thinking, the process can be even trickier. When you think you could have done better, it weakens you. You get stuck, put yourself down, make excuses or rationalize that you really couldn’t do better anyway. This kind of thinking is usually an unsuccessful attempt to make you feel better, punish yourself for seeming misdeeds or motivate yourself to do better in the future.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t think that we or others can do better. But that is different than bemoaning the fact we didn’t do better — or believing things would have been better if we had behaved differently — something we can’t be certain about.
Think about something you wish you had done differently and accept that, at the time, you did the best you could. Don’t judge it. How does that feel? This frees you to more effectively strive for what you want in every area of your life.
This is not a make-nice, no-accountability scheme. Believing that you and others are doing the best you can doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible, shouldn’t be punished, divorced or educated. However, it paves the way for growth and greater healing. Overall, life flows more smoothly. In addition, your relationships with others will change when you hold that they did the best they could. You are less likely to get embroiled in arguments or to take whatever they did personally.
Again, what proof do I have? My own experience and the overwhelming feedback that I’ve received over the years has substantiated that simply following this principle leads to immediate, dramatic changes. And, ultimately, a richer life in every way. Blaming ourselves or others rarely results in such positive outcomes. The choice to look at yourself and everyone else as doing their best — and to benefit from how this new perspective transforms your life — is yours.