For Your Own Good
When I hear someone tell me they did something for me ‘for your own good’ (FYOG), it immediately stirs up a mix of emotions. Many NOT thankful. Because most of the time, no matter what the act and outcome are, the connotation is that it’s being done without my permission, and isn’t going to be something I’d actually like/have chosen myself!
We’d like to believe that generally, the FYOG action is almost always a genuine attempt at altruism on the behalf of the person taking the action. In fact, these acts are often associated with being in a position of care over another person, like a parent or a family member making decisions for their children, or a government creating policies and laws and programs for the good of their constituency. The majority of the time, these entities generally consider themselves to be protecting the best interests of the people on whose behalf they are acting.
A parent, for example, may scold a small child reaching for the hot stove in order to protect them from the pain of being burned. A government may enforce laws around the freedoms of individuals in order to keep the larger population safe, such as disallowing indecent exposure or public urination, or requiring the wearing of masks in a pandemic - so that the rest of the public aren’t exposed to health risk or biohazard, or made to look at something they don’t want to see if they’re not at a nudist beach by choice. For most of us, we are generally all in agreement that these are rules we can get behind.
But sometimes, you have to stop and ask – “how do YOU know what is for MY own GOOD – or what GOOD even means to ME?”
Because ‘own’ is inherently singular and ‘good’ is so vague. There are things that are black and white for the good of humans in general, just like ‘don’t don’t touch the fire or you’ll be burned’, or “drink water or you’ll die”, “don’t drive drunk because you could have an accident” or “you need an education to have a future” (though even this one is debatable, depending on what you mean by education). Then there are the lines that get more blurry – “you need 8 hours sleep every night”, “don’t eat fats or junk food”, and “save your money for a rainy day”. While an important guide for what is likely to make you more healthy or secure, I wouldn’t say they are always good for me.
What’s good for one person might not be good for another. Because we are all different – and whether it’s genetics or just personal priorities and preferences, if it was up to me, I’m pretty sure I’m not always going to pick the same thing as you. Junk food makes me happy, so I’m going to eat it … just hopefully not all the time. And spending money gives me things to enjoy now, rather than having lots of cash for all the stressful and boring stuff, or when I’m 80. And I am definitely not wired for 8 hours sleep, and judging myself while lying in bed for 2 extra hours helps no one. There has to be a balance between what’s known to be good at a population level, and my personal needs, doesn’t there?
It often feels like FYOG is pulled out, in fact, when people want you to do something that they know you won’t want to do, but it’s good for them and there is some general public statement somewhere that works in their favour. This can be benign, like the mother who likes to dress her kids a certain way, which they hate, so she argues for a social or safety reason they can’t possibly understand yet "because they’re children”.
But it can also become destructive.
The situation in Afghanistan, for example, reflects an environment that no one who hasn’t chosen it thinks is good for them. For the enforcers of it though, their beliefs dictate that what they are doing, and the world they are trying to build, is genuinely for the good of everyone in it, that it’s that type of world that will be best for their souls. And I’m referring to both the US occupation, as well as the Taliban take over.
The same may be said for people who enforced slavery or encouraged the oppression of people in the LGBTIQ+ community, or really, any minority around the world that has suffered at the hand of others. They were not right - but it can be easier to paint them with the one brush of being evil people determined to inflict pain and suffering on the world when, for some, it was their own “beliefs” of right and good and safe, and their ignorance of other’s realities, and then generally the power they held to enact their version of the world that leads to the FYOG mess. Ignorance is a very dangerous form of cruelty in that it is often blind. And we won’t even go into the sadist or psychopath traits that use FYOG as a nice little excuse to be just plain horrible.
At a deeper level, this apparent inability to empathise comes from the often socially taught egocentric view that what is good for me must also be good for everyone else, and if someone can’t see that or be that, then they mustn’t be equal to me. This propagates the belief that another is this lesser person incapable of deciding or attaining what is good for them, and that is where we give ourselves express permission, and in fact congratulate ourselves, for stepping in and helping. Often, it actually makes our own lives easier – less complexity to deal with, less work to do, less difference to compare ourselves to, more legitimacy of who we are. The treatment of indigenous cultures around the world is a perfect example of this FYOG mentality.
What makes this complex is the moving target of what a “good outcome” is – as the world around us evolves, our needs change too – needing money, an education, a brick home, a car all became legitimate “good things” irrespective of whether they were needs before. And as we become more affluent and have more choice, the specifics of “good” become much more individualised, depending on what we care about- physical looks, health, wealth, entertainment preferences become primary drivers to our decision making… and if we can have both then “good” is a bit irrelevant – I can eat badly now, and go to the gym, get liposuction, or take medications for my bad blood pressure and cholesterol later. And who gets to decide which one is better or worse when the world says it’s all there for you to pick from!
I think the context where this statement is meant to reside is when what someone wants to do has significantly negative impacts on themselves or another, and they don’t have the capacity to have made a better decision – whether it's due to knowledge, personality, or culture. Stopping a child from touching the hot stove (cos they want to know what it feels like), or making them go to school (when they don’t want to because they’re bored), or managing what they eat (because they really love fatty or sugary food flavours ONLY) is the altruistic act of a parent, increasing their own workload and stress to try to help their child make decisions that they will benefit from in the future. Based on the definition though, if the child was suffering panic attacks and being bullied at school, or they wouldn’t eat unless the food was something they liked so they were starving themselves, then the approach would have to be different – because it is in fact the FYOG act that is now inflicting harm.
In the end, we can only see things through our own eyes, and we can never know everything. We do the best we can, most of us, most of the time. But maybe it’s worth just checking in, when we step in FYOG, and just ask ourselves…
“How is this good for them?”
“How bad is it really?”
“How is mine better?”
And if you can’t find a good answer to all three questions, you definitely aren’t doing it FYOG. You’re probably doing it for yourself.