On the Phrase: They Did the Best They Could

On the Phrase: They Did the Best They Could

By Amy Eden 06/25/14

Why not say the truth? They didn’t do their best! I got the shaft!


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You've heard it, that well-meaning phrase we hear when saying what our childhood was like. The phrase makes me want to scream whenever I hear it: They did the best they could. The way I see it, the phrase means: “They didn’t mean to hurt you—not on purpose” or, at other times: "suck it up, focus on something pleasant."

I’m sure that when I first heard that phrase, I felt relief as a result. There was comfort in it, in some odd, twisted way. I bet that I heard "their best" at my first therapist’s office, when I was in my second year of college. I suspect that, back then, I felt relief because I’d understood the phrase to mean, “You’re not as bad off as you feel like you are” or “Your parents loved you even when they made mistakes,” or just to mean very simply, “There’s hope for you.”

But isn’t the phrase too trite for its own good? To my mind, "their best" lacks significant meaning because it’s over-used, misused, and all its original power has drained out. And, isn’t the phrase just a bit too rhetorical? (Rhetorical questions and children of dysfunctional parents don’t mix well.) I mean, I don’t exactly feel invited to disagree when someone uses that phrase, even if inside my mind I’m thinking, “Their ‘best'? How could I ever know if they did?”

It’s entirely likely that the phrase wasn’t intended for people who had terrible childhoods and dysfunctional parents. Certainly I wouldn’t expect a child of incest to acknowledge that their parents did the best they could! Which makes one wonder—where do we draw the line? How less-than-terrible does my childhood have to be in order for me to willingly agree that my parents did the best they could? Little-to-no physical abuse? Infrequent verbal manipulation? That they belittled me, but paid for my school photos? And what do I gain, in terms of my healing process, by giving my parents the benefit of the doubt in understanding that they did the best they could?

You all know that I took issue with the label adult children of alcoholics because it defines me in terms of someone else (the alcoholic), and after an entire childhood spent focused on everyone but me, I don’t want to continue living beneath their umbrella. I want to be defined in terms of what and who I am, not another person’s limitations or illness.

Back to this other-focused phrase: They did the best they could (note underlines). The focus is, twice in one phrase, placed on them. Where am I in the concept of they did the best they could? Um?! Nowhere. Thanks for nothing, you rhetorical phrase! (I also feel the word “best” is awfully generous. Their “best,” really? Based on what I know of my own personal best and the effort involved in parenting, I totally disagree.) Essentially, the phrase is a closed-looped system that circles around “best.” I reject that. Completely.

Why not say the truth? They didn’t do their best! I got the shaft!

This is the place to which I’ve come in my personhood work: I want the truth. It seems like I’m ripping away denial and lies and justifications like wallpaper (that is, it doesn’t rip off easily and it requires steam and scraping away at it, muscle, sweat…tears). And yet, I want the pure wall beneath. Show me Panavision color, please dear Universe. Thinking that they did their best was some kind of comfort, way back when—back when I couldn’t handle the truth of admitting that my parents had mishandled me completely. Now, however, I can handle—and need—the plain truth. Because I’ve gotten to a place where my excuse-making for my parents isn’t at all working for me. It’s preventing me from moving forward to the next ring up in the circle of my healing and freedom.

The truth isn’t that my parents did the best they could. The truth is that my parents were selfish, childish, and prioritized addictions and chaos over parenting me with effort and thought. I was badly served by my parents.

(On 8/10/2012 I post about when pigs fly, aka the day on which my stepmother uses the phrase but adds, "...and it wasn't good enough.")

My parents didn’t do their best.

I had selfish parents.

I had addict parents.

And I got the really, really, really short end of the stick.

That hurts to see, to say, to admit. It’s hard to know that reality. It cuts deep. But that truth also has a clean feeling to it because none of that was my doing, none of it was my fault.

So—now what?

The next step is understand this: My life is mine to do with it all that I can, without justification—and there is no one to whom I owe concealment.

It’s for me to run off, run wildly—in full, silly glee—out into the fields under the sky and to feel safe in my skin and to explore this world, not hide from it.

We—you, me, all of us—deserve to take in simple joys and there’s nothing we ought to say about what we’re doing while squatting down and inspecting a rogue caterpillar on a rock, other than, “I’m looking at a caterpillar.”

That is all. I’m taking in life. I’m here in this moment. I’ll be with you in a minute.


Writer Amy Eden founded the self-help blog Guess What Normal Is in 2005. She has spoken about being the child of alcoholics at iGnite, and is crowd-source funding her first book, The Kind Self-Healing Book. Find her on Twitter @GWNIbyAmyEden.