Listen to this story
Have you ever thought about what it is that makes someone a good person?
Is a ‘good person’ someone who puts other people’s needs before their own? Someone who puts others before them, no questions asked and no matter what?
Before reading on, please take a moment to write down your own definition of what being ‘good’ means. It might come in handy at the end of this post.
Perception of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is formed early in our childhood years. Distinguishing good and bad is one of the most important lessons parents have to convey to their children. And it is a very hard lesson to convey, too. While many notions of what being ‘good’ means are perfectly innocent and necessary, there are also many behaviors considered ‘good’ by our parents or other authority figures, which are harmful and/or hurtful for the child at the same time (for instance, labelling absolute obedience as good behavior— teaches a child to be obedient while suppressing their own feelings and opinions).
As adults, we still rely on many notions of ‘being good’ which stem out of what we’ve learned early on from our parents, society, religion, peers, siblings and other authorities.
With these notions, we are pretty much on autopilot, we do not question them; mostly because we’re usually not even aware of them. These notions have, over time, become our deep beliefs around which we form our identity.
For example: Being raised by authoritative parents, who encouraged absolute obedience as ‘good’ behavior, might result in a belief that being submissive and not voicing your opinion, is ‘good’ behaviour.
Being raised by emotionally immature or unstable parents might result in a belief that you are only good if you take too much upon yourself, no matter what the cost.
Being raised by overly demanding parents might result in a belief that you are only ‘good’ if you never make mistakes.
These beliefs are very powerful, especially when we have formed our identities around them. They are so powerful that we might not even be aware how many things we do just to live up to expectations which we implemented early on.
Here are some examples of how these notions of being ‘good’ can affect someone’s adult life:
— working overtime so you can show your boss how dedicated and willing to sacrifice you are, while resenting your boss for not acknowledging it
— being overly cooperative with co-workers or family members at your expense, while being frustrated for not standing up for yourself at the same time
— putting everyone else’s needs before your own, while resenting the fact that no one sees and values how far you are stretched.
So, being good obviously doesn’t mean doing a good deed for a wrong reason (whether it is fear, shame, blame, or some other negative emotion). In other words, doing good because not doing it would paint us in a bad way (as lazy, selfish, or not enough of a victim), is not a good motive to do good. And doing good out of that kind of motive doesn’t make you a good person, either.
Being good means doing good out of the right reason. The motivation behind doing something good is the key difference. Doing good just for the sake of doing good also makes us feel good instead of frustrated, resentful and angry, which is what we feel when we feel pressured into doing good.
Feel good to do good
So, when do people feel inclined to do good just because it feels good to do good?
Basically, they do it when they feel good about themselves. Feeling confident enough to state your own opinion, gives you the freedom to do good, as well as the freedom to decline to do good. Exercising this freedom is the real test of character, and with it comes the real satisfaction in doing good.
What can you do to change your underlying motive?
The hardest part of making a change is detecting what needs to be changed. Since we are all subjective by nature, and since we pretty much appear super normal to ourselves, this part is challenging. On the other hand, just by detecting the beliefs that are harmful, more than half your job is done.
You can try to deduct your conclusion by taking into account many experiences you’ve had and try to add them all up to decipher what they tell you.
Or you can try inductive reasoning — ask yourself in a specific situation what is the motivation behind your action. Are you doing good because it’s the right thing to do and it feels right to you, or because not doing it would make you look bad in someone else’s eyes? How does it play into the messages you received as a child?
If you have taken the time to write down the definition of what being good means in your vocabulary, you might find bits of your answer there. What does it feel like, being good by your definition of good? If the answer is positive — great; if not, then you should detect what are the lessons you’ve internalized early on, that produce the belief that you should feel like that when you do ‘good’.
When you’ve realized what you need to work on, or when you recognize in a certain situation that your motivation is off, make the effort to make the change in the right direction. This will sometimes mean saying no to some people you have usually said yes to. It might also mean standing up to people you never stood up to before.
Make a conscious choice to have a higher regard for your personal boundaries. Respect yourself enough to give yourself a gift of personal freedom.
If you want to be the guy who puts in a lot of overtime, that’s perfectly fine, as long as it makes you feel happy instead of frustrated. If you like to put your family’s needs first, and subsequently haven’t got a lot of time for yourself, it’s okay as long as you don’t resent them for it.
Doing ‘good’ because you have to, and not because you really want to, can lead to frustration and lifelong resentment for you and others.
By being kind to yourself, by respecting yourself, you won’t have the need to prove to others how ‘good’ you are by demeaning yourself in any way. True satisfaction in doing good comes from a conscious choice to do good, not from being coerced into it.