Wanting to be good is a good thing. Right? I want to be a good person, a good mother, a good friend, and so on. And I want others to see me as good. I want my goodness reflected back to me in how others think of me, talk about me, and act towards me.
Wanting to be good and to be seen as good can motivate us to conform our behavior to this ideal. And that seems like a desirable aspiration.
It can, however, also result in avoidance of noticing thoughts or behaviors that do not meet this ideal of goodness. We can become defensive instead of receptive when someone reflects back to us something we’ve done or said that falls short. We rationalize, justify, explain – whatever it takes to deflect an honest assessment or genuine listening.
Or perhaps we go to the opposite extreme. If we acknowledge our imperfections, our identity as a good person is crushed, and we are lost in self judgment and condemnation. If I do something bad, then I must not be good. I am one or the other.
We are so invested in our identity of goodness, and fearful of not measuring up in our own eyes or the eyes of others, that we cannot accept ourselves as complex human beings with a full range of thoughts and behaviors. We lose any chance of being or knowing who we are, and with that loss, any chance of true connection with others. It’s like “my people will talk to your people,” but it’s really “my facade of goodness will interface with your facade of goodness.”
This issue of being a good person comes up a lot in conversations about bias, especially about unconscious or implicit bias. Bias is often denied because someone is a “good person” and therefore cannot be biased, because any bias would make the person “bad.” That denial then effectively closes off any open dialogue or genuine self reflection about the inevitable existence of biases woven into our conscious and unconscious thoughts and behaviors.
Such denial also takes a lot of effort to maintain. It is exhausting to fragment ourselves, defending the parts that reinforce our goodness, and rejecting and hiding the parts that don’t. It tires me just thinking about it!
As the saying goes, what we resist, persists. Our resistance to open and honest self inquiry doesn’t make us better people. It strengthens those aspects of ourselves we try to keep hidden. What if we could set aside our need to be good and our fear of being bad? What if we could allow ourselves to see the fullness and richness of who we are? Those parts locked up in the darkness, when brought to the light of acknowledgment with honesty and compassion, can be transformed with the love of understanding and forgiveness.
It’s not as scary as it sounds. On the contrary, it is a relief. Not long ago, someone reflected back to me something I had done that was hurtful. Before, I would have gotten defensive and explained how the person had misinterpreted what had happened. I would have told my side of things, in such a way to show how my intentions had been good. In short, I would have tried to convince the other person that they were wrong to feel the way they did, and if they would just see things the way I did, all would be well. My “goodness” would be reaffirmed.
I admit, that impulse was still there … for a moment. But I was able to take a deep breath and listen. That listening helped me see the situation from the other person’s perspective, to acknowledge the pain they had experienced. While I couldn’t go back and change what I had done, I could accept responsibility for my own words and actions. I could accept this person’s experience without trying to invalidate it or fix it. Instead, I could learn from it. I could consider how I might have handled things better, how I might be able to take that awareness with me into future interactions.
Goodness is not the issue. I was not a bad person because I had done something hurtful. I was not a good person because I listened. Honesty is the issue. Compassion is the issue. Compassion for the other person’s pain. Compassion for myself as a person who makes mistakes. And in that compassion is relief.
When we release ourselves from the trap of goodness, we are free. And in that freedom, genuine relationship is possible. And that is good.
Writing this post reminds me of one of my favorite children’s books – The Fire Cat, by Esther Averill.
“Pickles, you are not a bad cat. You are not a good cat. You are good and bad. And bad and good. You are a mixed-up cat.”
Aren’t we all?