To be a better person, stop trying to be a good person

Recently I’ve been realizing more and more that it’s unhelpful to want to see yourself as a good person.

That might seem odd, since you might think that of course we’d want to see ourselves as good people, so let me explain the problem I see.

If you think of yourself as a good person, what happens when someone points out that you’ve done something that’s kinda crappy — such as being dishonest about something or having been inconsiderate? It’s important for you to see yourself as a good person, and so you defend yourself. Maybe you even attack or undermine the other person. You want to preserve your view of yourself, because thinking of yourself as “good” is important to you.

This is something I’ve observed in myself. My partner would point out that I’d said something that was, in some minor way, untrue, and I’d deny it. I’d twist what I’d said to try to make it seem true, or say I’d meant something else. In not wanting to let go of my belief in myself as a good person, I slipped further away from being a good person.

A friend was having problems with her boss overruling her expertise on important matters and refusing to give the reasoning behind her decision, other than saying “It’s what I’ve decided.” This was, as you might imagine, undermining. And when she challenged her boss on this all she got was evasion or blame. The boss wanted to convince her that she hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact I think she wanted to convince herself that she hadn’t done anything wrong. Again, in trying to maintain her status as a good person, she behaved like a person who wasn’t good.

Lots of people think of themselves as good, even as they do awful things. They minimize the harm they cause: It wasn’t such a big deal. They deny they’ve even caused harm, even when they’ve committed extreme acts, such as theft, or even sexual abuse or violence against loved ones. The other person deserved it, wanted it. I can’t help thinking that the belief that they are a good person actual enables them to do these things: “I’m a good person, so the things I do can’t be that bad.”

The alternative is not to think you’re a bad person. That’s just as unhelpful.

The alternative is not to think of yourself as any kind of person at all! This is in fact something that the Buddha taught. He said that there was no view of ourselves we can have that isn’t a source of suffering. And by “view” he meant a fixed belief. When a fixed belief about ourselves is challenged, we feel defensive. The reason we were clinging in the first place was to provide a sense of stability and security: I know what I am. I’m a good person.

Not thinking of yourself as good or bad doesn’t leave us in a moral vacuum, unable to decide how to act. In fact it liberates us.

We can see ourselves in two ways:

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First, we’re a mixture of good and bad tendencies and qualities (although Buddhism tends to talk in terms of “skillful” and “unskillful” tendencies and qualities). There is no one quality, good or bad, that defines who we are. We’re a mixture, and the composition of that mixture changes, moment by moment. We’re mysterious. We’re indefinable.

Second, we can, if we so choose, have sense of moral direction. If we have a clear idea of the kind of person we want to be, and the kinds of personal qualities we want to embody, and if we commit to that, then that becomes our focus. We see ourselves as works in progress, working to let go of tendencies that harm ourselves and others, and to strengthen and develop qualities that bring benefits instead. The important thing isn’t arriving at the goal; it’s that we have a goal and are working toward it.

Instead of trying to be a good person, aim to do good. Don’t focus your attention on what you are, but on what you do.

This may not seem like much of a shift, but it is. We’re not thinking of ourselves in fixed terms. Rather than seeing ourselves as being static we’re seeing ourselves as dynamic, ever-changing, and responsible for our own ethical destinies.

I’ve found it liberating to be challenged to look at myself more closely and to realize that I’d been slipping into wanting to see myself as good. That’s not helpful. In truth I’m not good. I’m not bad. I’m evolving. And that’s a liberating thing to remember.

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