Ep. 158: Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

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One of the reasons I LOVED being a psychology major is I got to study my favorite question: Why do us crazy humans do what we do? Exploring this question was thrilling and enlightening. I could easily obsess over it. 


We can have lots of judgments about people and why they do what they do. 


Why some are clingy while others need lots of space. Why some people felt safer wearing masks during the pandemic and others rebelled against it. Why your fave songwriter chose to pull from Spotify while others stayed. Why some people get involved in crime and others don’t. 


We think, they are so immature; close-minded; stupid; irresponsible; such a narcissist. We can insert any judgmental word here. 


In the field of psychology, it’s been shown that we tend to apply the Fundamental Attribution Error, which – in part – is when we attribute someone’s actions to their personality, a fundamental part of their being, and not due to their circumstance. 


But then the question becomes: If we choose to believe that people do things due to a fundamental part of their character, what forms that personality in the first place?  


The answer to this is more complex, and involves the timeless debate of nature vs nurture. 


I find that what gets me through most days without closing my heart and what helps me hold compassion and love instead of hate is my belief that every single human is just doing the best they can with the resources they have – and that we all have different resources. 


It depends on things like the biology we were born with, the environment we were raised in, the socioeconomic status we had, and the karma that came to fruition in this lifetime. 


You may look at all this and say, “Well, I grew up in the same environment as so-and-so, but I didn’t make those choices.” 


But why? Did we have a caring teacher? A more attentive caregiver? 


Was it our skin color? A brain naturally skewed toward optimism vs pessimism? Our neurochemistry or epigenetics? 


Did we have an empathetic witness to our suffering… or not? (which we know contributes to whether an event is processed as a trauma or not). 


I choose to believe that each of us is doing the best with what we have. 


And, if we go a layer deeper, I believe that – given those circumstances – I would have likely done the same thing as someone else. 


For example, if you were born with the exact same biology and social set up as someone who committed a serious crime, do you think maybe you would have made that same choice? When I get deep enough into someone’s life experiences, I believe that for the most part, I likely would. 


I encourage us all to really explore that possibility. 


In the end, I choose to believe this because I can have more compassion for others and MYSELF, which feels a whole lot better than hate or judgment. 


One of my big regrets is that the last time I saw my mom, I was a total bitch to her. We were on a road trip to Yosemite, and I was irritable, trying to work on my doctoral degree and submit exams and papers with nearly non-existent internet. I was burned out from working full time and doing a lot of solo parenting on top of all my doctoral program demands, and trying to recover from postpartum depression. 


Maia was only 3 at the time and needed a lot of attention. My mom was on dialysis and required regular treatments on the road. It was a perfect storm of overwhelm for me. 


I apologized to her at the end of the trip, and of course she forgave me, but I felt so bad about it. I’ve often looked back and felt guilty about those moments… 


But in the end, I realized that in reality, I made the best decisions I could and showed up in the best way I could have given my circumstances. After all, I still chose to visit her, even with a toddler and being in a doctoral program and working full time, barely managing my depression. 


This, my friends, is part of self-compassion. This capacity to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. 


When we can offer ourselves this compassion, we can also do the same more easily for others.  


If we have a hard time giving others the benefit of the doubt, let’s make a U-turn, look at ourselves, and consider, “Do I believe that I made the best decisions I could given my unique circumstances? 


The lack of sleep 

The way I was raised  

How I was cared for 

My stress levels 

My past traumas and patterns I was taught  

The resources I wasn’t taught  

ALL of that 


And perhaps we can see that yes, I did my best. Yes, I did. 



And then perhaps we can look towards the other and say, “I can feel compassion for what their life must have been like for them to be that way. I can see why they did what they did, given all of that.” 


As we have more self-compassion for ourselves, more belief in our inherent Buddha nature, may we be more able to see it in others, and feel compassion for them. 


Because really, being a human is hard, and a little gentleness can make the biggest difference in someone’s life – including our own. 


You will learn: 

// Why we do what we do 

// What we can do when we struggle to give others (and ourselves) the benefit of the doubt 

// The biggest mistake we make when judging others’ behavior (and our own) 

// How our myriad circumstances can impact the choices we make 

// What feels better than hate and judgment 



// Episode 51: Self-Compassion 


// Episode 128: Bearing Witness – Who did you tell? 

// This American Life episode: Switched at Birth 


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