How It Is Used
One of the most common excuses or justifications for someone’s problematic behavior is the catch-all phrase, “I did my best,” or, ”They did their best,” and their variants. Sometimes, some people use it in the context of explaining why they did what they did, but they still accept responsibility for their behaviour.
For example, “I know what I said was insensitive and you only felt worse after I said it. I wanted to help you, but I didn’t realize that you just wanted for me to understand how you feel and you didn’t need my practical advice and call to action. At the time, it seemed as though I was doing my best to help you, but it wasn’t what you were looking for.” However, this example is uncommon and it’s not a real problem.
The actual problem is the other 99% of the time when it is used as a justification for abuse and other forms of toxic behavior to avoid accountability. For instance, a parent saying this to an adult-child when confronted about their parenting: “I don’t understand why you’re bringing all of this old stuff up. It happened so long ago. Just forget about it. Why are you complaining about it? You had food, shelter, clothes, and toys. You’re so ungrateful. You think I had it easy? Why are you doing this to me? You should respect your parents. I forgave my parents. I did the best I could.” And so on….
You won’t believe how many times I’ve heard these sentences from people describing their conversations with their caregivers. After such conversations, the adult-child often feels even worse. Some feel annoyed and angry, some feel incredibly sad and depressed, many feel confused, self-doubtful, even guilty—and all feel invalidated.
Sometimes caregivers use this phrase to try to avoid accepting responsibility for their lackluster parenting. But equally as common are those people who use it to justify their own caregivers’ behavior, or even to defend the category under which their caregiver falls, such as mother, father, teacher, etc. Indeed, in our culture, questioning parental authority is often unimaginable and perceived as offensive.
This justification is also commonly used in romantic relationships, friendships, work relationships, and is often a to-go tactic of people with strong narcissistic tendencies and other dark personality traits.
What Is One’s Best?
Fundamentally, “I did the best I could” is a worthless justification. It is worthless because everyone does their best at all times. That’s just how our brain works. It processes the information that it has, weighs all the factors in the best way it can, and chooses the option that it evaluates as being best. Now, obviously it’s a complicated process and the outcome depends on how conscious the person is about the process, the structure of their brain and psyche, the person’s history, the information available, their emotional state, and many other variables. But the mechanism is always the same: choose the best option.
The very fact that this is the process makes it meaningless. It’s like saying, “I’m breathing.” Yes, yes you are. We are all doing it all the time. So what?
How Good Is Our Best?
Now, the obvious problem is that whatever our brain evaluates as best is not necessarily the best objectively. Actually, it isn’t the best more often than not. Moreover, people often make very suboptimal decisions, and may even deliberately hurt themselves.
On some level, such a brain decides that these decisions are the best in the given situation, all things considered, and, again, considered by a psyche that is often flawed or ill-equipped to estimate what the best is. And sometimes it decides to act in a way that hurts others, including one’s own children. Sometimes it’s deliberate, other times it’s unintentional. But the fact is that it happens, and that the person’s psyche, consciously or unconsciously, decides that this is the best way to handle the situation at hand.
“Yes, but I tried so hard….”
Consider the following analogy. I just made a decision to build a house. I get up early every day and I work really hard late into the night. I don’t know that much about how to do it properly, but it won’t stop me. Finally the house is done. I did my best. Now, an actual architect comes by and quickly sees that there are a lot of things wrong with it: some things are unfinished, the materials I used are really poor and used incorrectly, the measurements are all wrong, and it looks quite hazardous actually. Apparently, it’s just not a good house.
Now, who’s responsible for the house being the way it is? Obviously the person who built it. If there’s an accident and people get hurt, does the fact that “I did my best” or that I didn’t have any bad intentions absolve me from any accountability? No, of course not.
In the context of childrearing, as I write in my book Human Development and Trauma:
…“doing their best” doesn’t mean they have actually taken the best course of action from an objective standpoint. After all, what if your best is objectively inadequate or severely abusive? Thus, doing “the best I could” can never be an excuse or justification for poor decision-making—and it definitely does not justify the mistreatment of children. To try to use it that way, again, only compounds the primary betrayal of the abuse itself.
All of this makes the phrase “I did the best I could” worthless. And therefore, it shouldn’t be used—and accepted—as a justification for anyone’s problematic behavior, especially from a caregiver.