My favorite coaching principle is this simple truth: Everyone is doing the best that they can with the resources they have. Adopting this belief has radically changed my relationship to myself and to others.
This idea has been explored by a constellation of religious, spiritual, and wellness practitioners, including heavy hitters Brené Brown ("All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be") and Deepak Chopra ("People are doing the best that they can from their own level of consciousness").
At first, it's a hard concept for us to swallow. In a culture that constantly urges us to do more, to be better, and to excel, "I'm doing the best that I can" sounds like complacency - like an excuse. But what if we took a step back from our culture's infinite growth paradigm and considered - "What if, right now, there is a limit to what I can achieve? Can I be okay with that?"
I first stumbled across this principle a few weeks after I quit drinking in 2016. It was a challenging time for me. In the absence of alcohol, I watched my anxiety soar. I stayed away from bars and clubs to avoid temptation, but then felt guilty and "boring" for spending Saturday nights at home. When I met up with friends who'd previously been drinking buddies, our interactions felt stilted. I knew sobriety was the healthiest choice for me, but I couldn't accept the way it impacted my ability to be social. I felt like I wasn't trying hard enough.
I spent weeks in a frustrated mindspace until I stumbled across that precious idea: "I'm doing the best I can with the resources at my disposal." At first, I recoiled. The high achiever in me - the climber, the pusher - scoffed at the suggestion that I was doing my best. "But other people have healthy relationships with alcohol. Other people maintain active, thriving social lives."
But in that moment, I realized that my negative self-talk was an exercise in futility. It never boosted my inspiration or activated me towards progress. It just sparked a shame spiral that sunk me deeper into inaction and guilt.
So over time, I began to internalize this idea as my own. And as I did, I felt like a blanket of comfort had been draped over me. For the first time in weeks, I could sit back on my couch and watch Vampire Diaries without hating myself. It enabled me to find peace in the present moment and accept - not even accept, but celebrate - that I was doing the absolute best that I could.
I've found that this principle has been easiest for me to internalize when I've been going through deep stuff. After a painful breakup last August, it took all of my energy to drag myself from bed in the morning. My intense emotions were riding shotgun, which sometimes meant canceling plans last minute, postponing work calls, or calling a friend to cry it out. Because I was so obviously using all of my inner resources to get through each day, it was easy for me to accept that I was doing the best that I could. Throughout those months, I gave myself total permission not to do more, not to be "better." For that very reason, those painful months were also some of the most peaceful months of my life.
Here's the thing, though: We don’t have to hit rock bottom in order to show ourselves compassion.
We don’t need to be heartbroken, shattered, or at wit’s end. Maybe we're just having a rough day. Maybe we're feeling anxious. See, our abilities in any given moment depend entirely on our inner resources, and our inner resources are constantly in a state of flux depending on our emotions (pain, stress, anxiety, fear), our physicality (sickness, ailments, how much sleep we got), our histories (the habits we’ve adopted, the trauma we've experienced, the socialization we’ve internalized), and so much more. When we consider everything that affects our capacity to turn up as we'd like to be, we realize how narrow-minded our negative self-talk is. We also begin to understand that everyone comes from a wildly complex, diverse array of experiences, and that comparisons among us are useless.
Consider how this idea can be applied in some more challenging situations:
The Friend Who Is Stuck In A Cycle of Stagnancy.
This goes for anyone who complains about a monotonous cycle in her life but can't seem to break it: the friend who hates her job but doesn't leave it, or the friend who complains about her partner but won't end her relationship. Those of us on the receiving end of our friend's complaints may get tired of hearing the same story every day. But our advice to "just leave your job" or "just break up" will fall on deaf ears because it's not that simple. She is doing the best that she can in that moment because her current need for familiarity and security outweighs her desire for exploration. She is experiencing a tension within her desires, but doesn't yet have the ability to act on that tension. The limitations of her emotional (or sometimes, financial) resources make it impossible for her to move on.
The Parents Who Hurt Us When We Were Kids.
It can be especially challenging to apply this principle to those who have wounded us most deeply. But oftentimes, those are the folks most deserving of our compassion. Parents have a responsibility to their children, and parents who hurt, neglect, shame, or otherwise harm their children are not doing their job as parents. But sometimes, our parents can't do their jobs well because they don't have the resources at their disposal. And even then, they are doing the best that they can. More than likely, our parents didn't learn the necessary parenting skills from their own parents. Maybe they never got therapy to heal old wounds or never developed the coping skills necessary to handle intense emotions. This principle can be very challenging, yet very healing, when applied to parents and other family members.
The Binge Eater (Or Other Addict).
This used to be me, and it took me years to accept that even when I was in the thick of my eating disorders, I was doing the best that I could. From the outside, the solution seems simple: "Put down the cake." "Don't have a third serving." But for folks with addiction issues - food, alcohol, sex, drugs, you name it - the anxiety or emptiness of not engaging with the addiction can be insurmountable. Resisting the impulse to fill an inner void requires extensive resources, including self-love, self-empowerment, and oftentimes, a web of support from friends and family. Folks in the throes of addiction are caught in a painful cycle of indulgence, shame, and self-judgment, which makes it all the more difficult to develop the emotional resources necessary to resist the tug of the addiction.
It's worth noting: Our actions have consequences, and when we harm others, we should be held accountable. But simultaneously, we can acknowledge that we are doing the best that we can, even when we "fall short" in others' eyes. Forgiving ourselves (and others) is an emotional experience that transcends logic or justice. We can make the conscious choice not to hold ourselves to a constant standard of absolute perfection.
Believing that we are all doing the best that we can opens our hearts to kindness and compassion. It allows us to see one another as humans, flaws and all.
Next time you feel frustrated with yourself, stop to consider that maybe, just maybe, you’re doing the best that you can. Sit down with a piece of paper and divide it in half. On one side, write down the voices of your inner gremlins. What exactly are they saying? Are they calling you lazy, selfish, mean? On the second side, consider what inner and external factors affected your actions or decisions. Consider the emotional, physical, historical, and financial obstacles you face. As you review your list of obstacles in contrast with your negative self-talk, summon compassion and kindness for your inner self. If she is struggling, you can ease her burden by quieting the self-judgment and replacing those negative messages with an honest truth: That you're doing the best you can with the resources at your disposal.