Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Doing the best you can

Is it always a good idea to do the best you can do? Moreover, can we ever be sure that it’s really our best? These questions came up recently in a therapy session and catalyzed my looking more deeply into the nature and implications of this common expression.

The man with whom I was working felt it essential that they were always doing their best. In his case, this inclined him to constantly measure himself, as to whether he had acted at this optimal level. He confessed that very often he was stuck in analyzing the past, debating whether his words or behavior were the very best choice. When he wasn’t stuck in that groove he was typically fretting over future decisions, concerned that they might not be the very best choice. The nature of his inner voice was highly self-critical, addicted to measuring his actions.

The irony is that this individual was rarely present in the moment. He was either stuck in his past or fretting the future. Doing the best you can sets up a never-ending competition within one’s own psyche. Competition has its place in our culture, but can you imagine never getting a time out from the competing? People with such tendencies incline toward being perfectionists and I have learned that perfectionists are rarely present, as they ruminate the past and worry about the future.

To further illuminate this dilemma, I asked my client what might happen if as his therapist, rather than being actively present in listening to him, my thoughts were wandering off measuring whether my previous words to him might have been misplaced? That would be completely unacceptable in my role as therapist, which would require my vigilance in being present. This individual’s wife often complained about his not being emotionally available and we can readily imagine the impact of being wed to doing his best might have on his marriage.

I am not proposing that we shouldn’t selectively choose endeavors in which we really might try our hardest. With due moderation, doing your best, makes much sense very often. But as a mantra of life it looks like a runaway competition and a throw away line. I believe that if we integrate the wish, I want to be present alongside I want to do my best we might begin to live a more balanced life. And when we do choose to proclaim that we did our best, we should truly mean it.

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