Do you give others the benefit of the doubt? When other people disappoint you do you cut them some slack? Today I want to talk about why it’s important to give people some grace, and how it can make you happier with yourself.
“Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility; to treat this person as they should be treated; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in.”
One of the things that went wrong in my last relationship was that I was not very good about giving my ex-partner the benefit of the doubt. When we would have arguments I would often take what she said and twist it into something that was done to hurt me. I would often assume that actions she did that took that I didn’t care for would done out of spite or meanness.
She often complained that I didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt. That I was so sure what she meant by what she said or what she did, and unfortunately, it was usually that I assumed the worst, and gave everything a negative spin. And to be honest, she was correct.
Now, the reason why we reached this state of affairs was because of me. Having grown up in a culture where I had to conform to fit in, whenever things got challenging, I would always try to figure out what I thought was the right thing to say was so that I didn’t get into trouble. This meant that rather than telling the truth about what I thought about something, I would try to figure out the answer that would please the other person, in this case, my ex-partner.
But the thing is, when you live this way, you erode trust with other people, especially those closest to you. When you are constantly lying about how you feel and what you think, it makes it challenging if not impossible for someone to trust you.
What happens in this situation is that the person who has to pretend to be something they’re not feels resentful because they feel like they can’t be themselves. The person that is being lied to is resentful because they feel like they pretender doesn’t trust them, and that they cannot trust the pretender.
To put it mildly, this creates a very unhealthy relationship dynamic. Even if you love the other person deeply, and you want things to work, this kind of dynamic doesn’t foster trust on either side.
I know this is a bit of tangent, but I want you to understand where I’m coming from so that when I dive into what things you can do to be more graceful with people, you can understand how I got to place where I really had to make an effort to work on this. I’ve talked to other people who’ve grown up in similar situations and they’ve talked about how they’ve had similar relationship issues. I hope that by sharing some of these things, that if you see yourself in a similar situation, you might be able to learn from my mistakes.
Road to Ruin
What happens when we don’t give others the benefit of the doubt is that we can ruin relationships. It erodes trust because other people feel like they can’t make mistakes around us. Because we assume the worst of them, they feel like they can’t be vulnerable around us. It means that they can’t have a bad day around us when they aren’t at their best.
When we don’t give others the benefit of the doubt, it also makes them less willing to want to give us some grace when we’re not at our best. This may not even be a conscious act on their part, but more that they start to become protective of themselves. When others, especially those who are close to us, feel like they cannot be vulnerable around us they put up emotional barricades to keep us out because we aren’t safe.
“It is our own opinions that disturb us. Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss your judgment about an act as if it were something grievous, and your anger is gone.”
One reason why we may not give others the benefit of the doubt is that we are so sure what we know what the the other person really means by something they do or say. We assume that our judgement about them is correct, regardless of what they do or say to explain themselves or their actions. And really this is just us projecting our thoughts and opinions on someone else.
In my case, I would project what I thought my ex partner thought of me onto every word and action. Not what she really thought of me, but I what I assumed she thought of me. Since we can never truly know what others think of us, I would assume what she thought of me, and unfortunately, because I was so hard on myself and didn’t think that I was all that great of a person, I just assumed that she felt the same way. I was so sure that I knew the truth it didn’t matter how much she protested and tried to tell me what she really thought.
“The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”
— William James
So why is it important that we give others the benefit of the doubt?
We are all fallible and make mistakes in our lives. Just as we want others to give us some grace when we screw up, we should be willing to do the same for others. None of us are perfect and none of us will ever do everything perfectly. In order for us to get along with others in the world, we need to be willing to trust others, and let them make mistakes.
When we don’t cut others some slack, then they will usually start to disconnect from us, and feel like they have to protect themselves from us. What might have been once a warm and caring relationship, becomes more fraught with distrust and full of resentment. Even in professional relationships assuming the worst of others makes it challenging when you need trust to help each other in challenging situations. I know that I was far more willing to step up and go the extra mile for managers who I felt were kind to me when I messed up. I was also far more willing to step up and own my mistakes when I felt like there was room to do so.
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.”
— Marcus Aurelius
One of the things that we should be willing to do is to take others at face value. Now this is not an easy thing to do because we will often try to read into what other people actions mean or interpret what they say to have some other kinds of meaning. In most cases we’re just better off taking people at face value, and trust them until we have reason not to.
Now in my case this has been challenging. Because the environment I grew up in was never really about being honest about how you felt, you felt like you could never really trust what someone else was saying. At church you never really spoke about your real opinion on something, but rather found the right answers so that everyone thought you were a good member. It was about saying and doing all the right things in front of the right people.
At home, with my father, it was about making sure that when he was angry about something that I figured out the right thing to say to try and calm him down so I didn’t get hit. Both of these factors taught me that people can’t be trusted because they will say what the need to say, and not what they really mean.
When we decide to take people at face value, there will be those who lie to us. In most cases, it doesn’t cause us harm to let them. For example, someone might break a date with us and make up some excuse for it rather than simply telling us they’re not interested in us anymore. We could get upset and call them out on it but what good would that do? The end result is still the same, and it doesn’t do us any good to think poorly of them. I think we’re better off being a little more gracious than assuming bad intentions of others.
And funny enough, I’ve had situations where I ran into people who had broken off dates with me, and because I handled it graciously at the time, they owned up to why they broke things off. A few became friends because they felt like they could trust me.
Ironically, one of the ways that we can get better about giving others the benefit of the doubt is to practice self compassion. Often the reason we don’t cut others slack when they need it is because we don’t do the same to ourselves. When we make a mistake, often we can be very harsh on ourselves, and beat ourselves up for our screw ups.
Often we aren’t kind to ourselves because we have low self esteem and we carry a sense of shame about ourselves. When we carry a deep sense of shame, we feel like we are a bad person and need to be punished when we mess up. While we need to accept the consequences for our actions and do our best to fix things when we screw up, shame pushes us beyond that to a point where it becomes unhelpful and even destructive.
When we practice self compassion, we are better able to step up and take responsibility for our actions. We’re able to see that just because we made a mistake it doesn’t mean that we are a bad person. While our actions might have been harmful, we recognize that we are not our actions, and we can step up and do our best to fix the situation. When we can have that kind of compassion for ourselves, we are better able to extend that to others as well. It’s like when we practice it on ourselves, it’s easier to give it to others.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt is something that can go a long way in helping others to trust us. It can help create stronger relationships where they can be vulnerable with us. It also helps us assume the best of others, and if you’re like me, I know that I really appreciate it when others assume the best of me. Giving each other some grace, and cutting each other more slack would go a long way in repairing some of the rifts that we see in society. It would mean that we could be more tolerant and forgiving for each other when we are not at our best, and as we all know, no one is ever always at their best.