So Brené Brown assures me that we are “all doing the best we can”. This idea really appeals to me, so I started writing this article to further explore the idea. Theoretically holding the belief that we are all doing the best we can, is easy to swallow when I’m having a good day and my emotions are on the “up and up”. When I’m chipper and full of love, compassion, joy etc., then I’m more than happy to look around me and feel warm fuzzies towards everyone, including myself. Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt and cutting them a bit of leeway when their actions aren’t as friendly as they could be. These are my “sunflower days”. I see someone doing something kind and I think – “wow, look at that aren’t people great”. I find someone being narky and I think with empathy – “wow, they must be having a shocker” reminding myself that I’m just seeing their pain in action, deep down there is a little part of god trying to shine on through. I’m easy to forgive and quick to see good and I’m in what John Gottman would term “positive sentiment over-ride”, my positive sentiments are easily ramping up the good in the world and letting the bad slide off my shoulder, like a pancake out of a non-stick fry-pan.
My neurology is really helping out on these days, I’m not feeling under threat, so my social engagement system is on. This means I’m in what Dan Siegel calls a “yes brain state”. I’m receptive, relaxed, open to be influenced by others, happy to admit if I’m wrong about something and I’m up for human connection. If you want to give me a peck on the cheek hello – I’m likely to grab you and bring you into a bear hug. As a mammal, I’m likely to get a good dose of oxytocin when I’m squeezing you tight and I’m not even going to notice that you can’t breathe anymore. I will also have a much better chance of living my core values, even if the situation that pops up in front of me is a little challenging. In these moments, I will consult my moral compass and decide what action aligns with my list of “what makes me a good person”. Once the challenge is navigated, because I’m in an “I can do anything” mode, I might just get a nice top up of dopamine as a reward. it’s on these good days, we get to put our head on the pillow at the end of the day and say “yup, I like who I was today” – I stretch out, yawn and let the well-earned melatonin take me into a relaxed and joyful sleep. I like my best on these days, it comes to me easily and who I am flows nicely into the world around me. I can tick the box- I am definitely “doing the best I can”.
Ok – not so easy on the darker days. On these days I wake up and the cloud is already hanging heavy in the room. I look at the clock and its 3:30 am – not the more desirable 5:30am. But, the adrenaline has kicked in and I’m awake. I’m may even be feeling the attack on multiple fronts and if I glance over, I can see my trusty armour and shield resting on the chair in the corner ready for me to go and face the world. I don’t want to put it on because it’s heavy and I can’t see the world clearly through the slotted visor. The adrenaline is telling me that I’m really scared after the week or probably the couple of months that I’ve had and without it I’m likely to gather some more bruises. It’s likely I will put it on, just to be on the safe side. So, what’s bought me to this? Maybe I’ve found it really hard hitting the targets at work this week. I’m watching my friends around me, breezing through their stuff. How did they manage to line up all those clients so quickly? My comparison goggles are on and fixed tight. Everyone is nailing it, they are good enough, clever enough, pretty enough, loving enough – just plain enough and then there is me. Maybe I’ve been struggling on the home front for a while, sometimes the phrase that we can pick our friends and not our relatives is all too true and I’ve been stepping into the arena with a couple of family members for so long now that I’m exhausted. I’m trying to be values driven and I keep second guessing myself (am I really the problem, deep down I must be an absolute bitch and just don’t know it). Only my friends know that I lost something precious to me this week, it wasn’t the same as losing a loved one. It was a material possession, a first world problem. I find myself feeling guilty – not wanting to label the real emotion of shame – because two of my closest friends are walking the path of deep grief and another is going through chemo. They are doing such an amazing job of staying positive, so really my lot in life isn’t all that bad. Anyway, it’s gone and there is nothing I can do about it, just need to kick on – but I’m finding it hard to do. There is some other stuff too, places where I feel I’m failing but the story is getting too long and the darkness is gathering. Sitting here, feeling like this – if this is me doing the best I can, then I’m in deep shit.
Now my neurology is rigidly locking me down, I can feel the pressure cooker of the amygdala constantly firing. I’m running my system hot, have been for a while and cortisol running free is taking its toll. I am trying to remind myself that Dan Siegel says to thank the amygdala for firing it’s just trying to “help me” –but it’s offering misguided help and it would be so much easier if it would shut the ‘f’ up. Unfortunately, I’m the one who has to work out how to turn it off because I attended this great workshop once where the facilitator said it’s in my brain and only I have access to it. What was suggested – meditation, exercise, healthy eating, play, hobbies, talking it though – yeah, I know but red wine, chocolate and 10 episodes of The West Wing seems easier. Usually I’m kind but my tolerance to others is low today. My “no brain” state is locked and loaded. I’m looking at others with a critical eye and have become hypervigilant to any ambushes from the side or the rear. This means that I’m not giving people the benefit of the doubt – because I know they are wrong anyway. I’m not interested in empathy or compassion, I’m tired and I just wish they would step up and get it right the first time. My negative sentiment is definitely overriding the positive and when my daughter rings and asks really nicely for help with the grandkids, I give an audible sigh and say sharply, “you’re kidding me aren’t you!” She slinks away wondering what she has done wrong and I can’t believe she had the audacity to ask. Ironically, I take these liberties with those who are kindest to me, shame about that!
Maybe it gets really dark and Steven Porges reminds me that Poly Vagal System has kicked in and I go from the activating emotions of the flight/fight system, into debilitating freeze. I disengage and withdraw, desperately trying not to be seen by any predators, I mean people. My face has gone still, looking more hostile to others than friendly, emotionally I feel distant (maybe they would say cold) and like I’m walking through molasses – my thinking is sludgy and making a decision is hard. My negative self-talk is running on and on about being useless and helpless – is this really the best that I can do. My neurology is trying to get me to stop and take respite, I know deep down I need to rest and give myself some self-care but “I can’t”. I can’t because this feeling is unique to me, it’s my failure, no-one else ever feels this way – look at them flying high, I can’t let them see this side of me. If they do, I will never escape from the shame!!!!
So I believe Brené is 100% correct, we are all doing the best we can, given some of the burdens surrounding us and the internal storm that whips up in response. Sometimes we just need to remember that on some days our best is higher and comes easier than on others. This applies to those around us too – when we feel the sting of their defences, we are seeing their hurt and their struggle. In our defensive states, the armour we wear is heavy and on a given day, we may not have the insight or the skills at hand to turn the internal alarms off. If in my dark moments I can trust Brené, Dan, John and Stephen and remember that the neural alarm systems are trying to help not hinder and that “I’m doing the best I can,” then I am more likely to give myself some compassion and self-sooth. I may even be able to remember some of Kristin Neff’s self-compassion first aid and put my hands gently on my heart and breath, deeply and mindfully. Quietly telling myself that even in struggle, I am always worthy of love and belonging. When I am feeling the sting of someone else’s tail and I can remember that others are also doing the best they can, I get to release judgement (like dropping a hot coal) and give kind-hearted empathy instead of criticism. Remembering this doesn’t mean we don’t stop setting boundaries by speaking out to “what’s OK and what’s not OK”. Also, on some dark days we may still need to come with a warning label– “Not Fit For Human Consumption. Approach with caution and sprinkle some kindness please”. We’ve often said in workshops there is no excuse for offloading our hurt and harming ourselves or others, but understanding what lurks in the darkness is helpful when we want to bring more of our best on the hard days. Turning our defences off, shedding the armour and putting down our shields takes time and effort, yet the rewards are great. With this effort you don’t ever totally lose the darkness because suffering is a part of life, but you get more of the “sunflower days”.