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Why I’m (really) through with trying to be a good person

YOUNG,WOMAN,CAFE
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 Nothing is going to change unless I can call the problem by its real name.

I spend a lot of time feeling guilty about things. Sometimes it’s over specific failures — lost my temper again, chose to prioritize doing nothing over meeting some deadlines. More often, it’s not that there’s something I particularly regret so much as that I can’t shake the idea that I’m just not doing as well as I should, and I’ve got to shape up. Unsurprisingly, that feeling mostly crops up when I’m exhausted, but it always feels like a crisis at the time.

Whatever the source, my response is generally the same. I sternly tell myself, “You’ve got to try harder, you’ve got to do better — you need to focus on being a good wife (or a good mother, or a good person).”

I’m done with that, though. I’m done trying to be a good person.

It’s not that goodness isn’t a worthy goal. It’s actually the only worthy goal. But focusing on goodness as an end goal is totally unhelpful. The concept of goodness is much too vast and vague for us to be able to bring it into focus. It ends up being a surefire recipe for burnout to keep telling yourself, “You need to try harder to be a good person!”

After all, what does it even mean to be a good person? It means different things in different situations. It means big things like not stealing or killing, and little things like keeping calm and being patient. And really, most of the time I’m not presented with the choice of whether I’d like to steal something or kill somebody, so I don’t get credit for not doing it. I get credit for making the right choice out of whatever options are in front of me.

That’s why it’s so important to be specific. Forget “goodness,” I need to put my efforts into being more gentle when I’m anxious, or into not jumping to conclusions when I’m insecure. That sort of self-improvement is manageable, and although there’ll be ups and downs, you will still ideally be able to see whether you’ve made any progress, so it’s less likely to lead to burnout.

Once, when I was daunted by the sheer number of venial sins I knew I’d committed, most of which I couldn’t even remember, my husband reminded me of the best advice he’d ever gotten about how to make a good confession. Apart from mortal sins, the priest had said, just keep your focus on your three biggest problem areas. Come to think of it, the advice actually applies to everything from housecleaning, to relationships, to self improvement. Three problems at a time is plenty, and past that, it’s counterproductive to divide your attention further.

So I’m trying to catch myself when I use that word good. If I can’t even figure out what I mean by it, I get some sleep and that usually solves the problem. If I’m able to use a more specific word, then, at least, my work is cut out for me. Either way, nothing is going to change unless I can call the problem by its real name.

All of this helps me relax a bit. I’d like to become better in every single area of my life, but that change doesn’t have to come all in the space of a week. Better to go slow, and chip away at a few goals at a time than try to do everything at once, and end up with nothing to show for it.

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