Raise your hand if you’ve been feeling lost lately. I know I have. There’s a lot going on right now. The kinds of things that beg you to wonder about how to be a better person. Everyone has a different definition of what it means to be a good person, of course.
A few weeks ago, I walked into the office of my part-time job and saw a post-it note hanging from the bottom of my computer monitor. It was slightly askew, as if the person who stuck it there was so filled with excitement about their message, that the note had no choice but to flutter a bit before sticking.
Written in my boss’s 7-year-old son’s innocent block lettering, the note read: “Do good work every day.” I smiled. The sheer simplicity struck me. Is the secret to how to be a better person really that easy?
Yes and no. The idea is simple, but the good work can also be hard work. It is fairly easy to conceptualize but is more difficult to implement. Like the post-it note, you might flutter a bit before it sticks.
But that’s ok — it’s work worth doing.
6 steps to be a better person
1. Practice vulnerability.
Perhaps this feels counterintuitive to being a better person. When you think of the behavior, traits and virtues of a good person or a role model in your life, vulnerability might not be the first trait that comes to mind. Isn’t vulnerability a weakness? A drain on others and our relationship with others? Something we shouldn’t aspire to be?
Nah. But vulnerability is a thing that scares the heck out of most people, mainly because it requires us to confront difficult questions and one of the hardest things humans have to face: shame.
Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work (and personal hero of mine), who has studied vulnerability for the past 10 years, found that vulnerability not only humanizes but allows us to connect with each other. It’s honest, truthful living. And while it is incredibly difficult work, it's incredibly rewarding.
I’ve written before about my own need to be perfect — that while I don’t expect perfection from others, it’s hard to not expect perfection from myself. I use it to hide: my thinking often goes, if I’m perfect then I can avoid negative feelings that I know can consume me.
But really what I’m doing, as Brené Brown’s work points out, is avoiding being truly seen.
If we allow ourselves to be seen — to practice vulnerability — we are more open and willing to connect and support others. To take risks. To be better people.
I recommend watching Brené Brown’s TED talk. It’s life-changing.
2. Learn about implicit biases — and identify your own.
Implicit bias is the subconscious judgments we make that affect the way we understand, behave and interact with our environment and others. Part of being a good person is being yourself — but also being a more aware version of yourself.
We’re human and we all judge others; no human being is expected not to. It’s a way for us to quickly synthesize information, which is often necessary for our brains to do given how overloaded we are with information.
But many of these judgements and behaviors are subconscious. They're the by-product of years of lived experience and being inundated with societal, familial and cultural norms.
And while they may be subconscious, continuing to rely on them can be catastrophically harmful to others. So if we can agree that being a better person means causing less (or no harm) to others, then understanding your implicit biases and how they affect others is necessary work. To uncover your own biases, try these resources:
3. Educate yourself about privilege.
Privilege is simply the opposite of oppression — unearned benefits you get from being part of a particular group. It's an uncomfortable subject that causes strong reactions from people, which is why many avoid it.
We live in a society that values hard work, and it’s natural to get defensive when you feel someone is saying you didn’t earn what you have- that you haven’t worked hard. But that’s a limited misunderstanding of privilege.
Privilege doesn’t mean you don’t work hard or that your life isn’t difficult — it means you didn’t have to face the same challenges as others.
And privilege isn’t necessarily a bad thing — you often can’t change characteristics about yourself that give you privilege (for example, I cannot change that I am white). You shouldn't strive to be a completely different person, either. What’s harmful is refusing to recognize unearned benefits because it reinforces and keep systems of oppression in place.
While privilege is often talked about in the context of race, gender, sexual orientation and socio-economic status, there are many different types. To identify ways you are privileged, try thinking of some characteristics you have that make life easier for you.
Are you able-bodied? Can you go to a clothing store and always find clothes in your size? Do you live near transportation that makes it easier for you to access what you want and need to?
Being a better person requires you to do the work to understand and identify your own privilege and power to not only stop systematic injustice but to refrain from exercising your privilege in ways that harm others.
4. Practice empathy and compassion.
Lately, I find myself saying over and over “I just don’t understand how someone can think that way — how someone can do that.” “That” meaning things I’m struggling to comprehend.
I keep coming back to one of my favorite parts from To Kill A Mockingbird, where Atticus Finch tells Scout “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Empathy requires us to see things from another person’s perspective. And while I may not always agree with that perspective, while it may not be the way I would have reacted in a situation, setting aside my own view leads me toward compassion.
But spending time every single day on empathy — putting aside our views — is incredibly difficult and some may argue impossible. We have the tendency to immediately relate others experiences to our own, to filter them through our own lenses.
It’s true we are attached and cemented to the lens through which we view and absorb the world around us. And it’s unique to each of us. But if we can’t truly detach ourselves from our perspectives, then how can we start to understand each other?
The key is to actively listen and believe people when they tell you about their experiences.
This is especially true with anyone who has been marginalized.
If someone is sharing his or her story with you, try not to counter with “well, that’s never happened to me." Resist the urge to filter and relate what someone is sharing back to you.
One of your habits should be asking follow up questions. Part of being a bigger person means acknowledging other people’s pain and struggles. Reflect back what you hear by summarizing or paraphrasing: “It sounds like that was really difficult for you”.
5. Set boundaries to allow space for contradiction.
There’s a tension I often struggle with between knowing someone’s actions are wrong and knowing someone is human.
For example, from my work in gender-based violence prevention, I know there are a lot of reasons why someone may be abusive: that it may or may not be on purpose. I also know that those reasons are not excuses.
It’s very rare that there are absolute rights and absolute wrongs — and when there are, it’s easy to know the path forward: there’s no doubt what you need to do to be a good or better person.
But it’s important to properly name experiences and to hold people accountable for actions that are harmful and unjust. It’s also important that we continue to look for the humanity in each other.
So when that line is blurry between what is right and what is wrong, between balancing someone’s actions with someone’s humanity, try using boundaries to allow space to sort through those contradictions.
Boundaries allow for thoughtful perspective, to let two opposite things be true: this person did something terrible and I know this person has dealt with a lot in life.
Boundaries also prevent me from giving and giving and giving to another person’s wants, needs, perspective, and humanity while ignoring my own. They help remind me where another person ends and I begin.
And they remind me that, as my sister is fond of saying, hurt people hurt. Being a better person requires us to create space, understanding and accountability for all of it.
6. Use your voice.
I’ve learned a lot of life lessons from J.K. Rowling and one that continues to stick with me is this: “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
It can be hard to tell truth to power — it can be even harder to be a bigger person and stand up to people you love and care about. These are divisive times, and it might feel like speaking with loved ones or friends about uncomfortable topics will only add to the problem and further separate us.
Part of being a good person requires us to not only be a good listener but also to use our voices to speak up when something is wrong. This can happen in a lot of different ways about a lot of different things.
It can be as simple as letting someone know that they hurt your feelings (although, even that might not be simple). It can be as uncomfortable as having a conversation about privilege with someone who is defensive. It can be as vulnerable as admitting your implicit biases.
No matter how you decide to approach being a good person or a happier person, spend time thinking about your approach and about your relationship with yourself. You may think that being a good person means you have to be a different person. It doesn't. You shouldn't strive to change yourself completely; instead, focus on your positive traits and look for ways to strengthen them. And if there are characteristics you don't like about yourself, work on challenging them.
Try to come from a place of compassion. And don’t let fear silence the good work you do every day.