Doing Their Best

Posted on November 3, 2016


At our church, we are in the process of looking for a new senior pastor.  Actually, we have been in the process for a year since our last pastor retired and moved closer to his children and grandchildren.  Fortunately, we still have a strong group of pastors and a world renown consultant as a transition coach so things have been going well.  As part of the transition process last year, we updated our mission, vision, and values statement.  One of our stated values is “grace.”  Underneath that value are four bullet points.  One of those is “Assume everyone is doing the best they can given their present level of awareness.”

As a therapist, I have found this to be true.  Everyone is doing the best they can.  We all do and say the things we do and say for a reason.  I have clients who have done some really damaging things and who have had really damaging things done to them.  This is not to say that those things were in any way okay, but rather that on some level, they were doing the best that they could.

This week I have been reading Brene Brown’s latest book, Rising Strong.  In the book, she spends an entire chapter wrestling with this idea that everyone is doing their best.  If you have read much of Brene Brown’s work, you know that she is a social scientist that has done extensive research in the areas of shame and vulnerability and their impact on our lives.  In her research, she identified a segment of individuals who are able to accept their imperfections without succumbing to shame, and to embrace love and life by risking vulnerability.  She dubbed these “wholehearted.”  When she dove into researching the idea that people in general are doing the best they can (and whether individuals she surveyed found this to be true), it was these same “wholehearted” individuals who were able to accept imperfection in themselves, that agreed with the statement that everyone is doing the best they can.

Operating from an assumption that this statement is true, that each person you meet is doing the best that he or she can, is actually beneficial for your mental health and relational well-being.  This is not unlike the power of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not just about the recipient of that forgiveness.  The recipient may well be unrepentant for the pain they have caused.  Rather it is about the well-being of the giver of forgiveness.  Letting go of resentment is tremendously healing.

We can’t go down this path without talking about boundaries.  Assuming everyone is doing their best and maintaining healthy boundaries are not mutually exclusive.  This is not about exposing oneself to hurt from unsafe people.  Rather it is about your fundamental approach to life and relationships.  It is a movement from judgment toward understanding without abandoning discernment and boundaries.

A big chunk of the counseling I do is marital therapy so I tend to look through the lens of how this applies to couple relationships.  In the research on couple relationships from John and Julie Gottman, the focus is often on those things that separate the masters of relationship from the disasters.  One of those aspects that the Gottmans have identified is “the positive perspective” versus “negative sentiment override.”  This has to do with how we interpret different actions of our partner as either being driven by favorable or negative intent.  There was an old internet joke that was a list of “the man rules” which was intended to humorously speak to the way men think.  One of the bullet points on the list was “If something we said can be interpreted two ways, and one of the ways makes you sad or angry, we meant the other one.”  When a couple has a positive perspective on the relationship, the assumption is that your partner meant “the other one.”  If negative sentiment override has taken over the relationship, the assumption is that your partner was intending to hurt you.

The tricky thing about negative sentiment override is it is hard to work on directly.  Getting past it tends to be a gradual process of rebuilding trust since the negative sentiment is reflective of a loss of emotional trust in your partner.  In therapy, here is a good place to start.  If you are both sitting in the therapist’s office, it says a great deal about the importance of the relationship to each of you.  People come in wanting things to be better…because this relationship is important.  If your partner is there with you fighting for the relationship, let’s assume that you are each doing the best you can according to your present level of awareness.  From there, you can be in this together instead of each of you alone.