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Carolyn Hax: Defining one’s best self


Dear Carolyn:

You often talk about a “best self” and the ways people should either live that themselves or permit others to do so. I can guess what a best self might be, but I wonder what your workaday definition is?

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Best Self

It’s when you like yourself.

Or, when you’re getting the most out of your strengths and succumbing the least to your weaknesses. It’s highly personal, but here are some ideas for cultivating strength:

Are you doing things that are meaningful to you; well-suited to your interests, skills and talents; and challenging enough to keep you humble?

Are you with people to whom you want to be kind; who reinforce your good choices; and who don’t inspire persistent doubts about whether they’re dependable, genuinely fond of you, free of ulterior motives, honest with you?

Are you that person to those you love?

Do you take responsibility for your choices and their consequences?

Do you honor your promises and commitments, to yourself and others?

When you are impressed by, grateful to or concerned about someone, do you show it?

Do you forgive?

Are you representing yourself honestly, to yourself and others, creating no facades to maintain?

Do you take care of yourself — in small ways like flossing and in big ways like thinking through potential consequences before you act? And do you put yourself first in ways that sustain you, to minimize your burdening of others?

As for taming weaknesses:

Do you realize your needs have the same status as everyone else’s? And you’re not the hero in every encounter with others?

Are you mindful of your flaws and demons?

Do you make choices that put distance between you and your temptations?

Do you resist the impulse to blame others when things go wrong?

Do you understand the boundary between your and others’ business, and stay on your side?

When you’re unsure, do you admit that and seek help?

When you’re about to express negativity or a criticism, do you ask yourself whether it needs expressing? And imagine how its target will feel?

When you fall short, do you admit that? To those who most need to hear it?

Since all of these questions hinge on solid self-awareness, I’d call Step 1 a brutally honest assessment of what you bring to the party — and how you’re most likely to wreck it.

Dear Carolyn:

My daughter got married in July. She and her husband did not receive a gift from some of the people who attended their wedding. She is concerned that maybe a gift was given but they never received it. Is there any way to graciously ask about this?


She can graciously treat their attendance as her gift but cannot graciously sic the accounts receivable department on them under the pretext of finding lost gifts.

So, no. No asking.

Some gifts do get mislaid, but the onus is on the gift-givers: In the absence of a thank-you note, they can contact the couple to express concern their gifts were lost.

Why is one inquiry okay but the other not? Because a note is required for every gift, but a gift is not required of every guest. So, a gift-giver is allowed both to expect something and act on that expectation, but a would-be recipient is not.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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