Good Intentions: Why They Cause Pain on Others and You

Who has not experienced this before: We have been hurt and the person hurting us exclaims in a mixture of surprise and justification that they only meant well! The invocation of the good intention seems to them like an absolution of their responsibility for their action (or inaction) and thus our pain. Having worked as a psychotherapist for many years now with people on the receiving end of all kinds of well intentions (of parents, partners, siblings, classmates, teachers, religious leaders), it is clear to me that this not a sufficient ingredient for good outcome. Really, and I mean here even the truly well intentioned efforts of some parents have at times caused havoc on the lives of their children, that it is heart wrenching to behold, how all sides have lost and suffered in these situations. Why is this so?

Preventing Action

It seems that the good intentions may give some a sense of having fulfilled their aim already, thus preventing them to move to action. Like the good intention to ourselves to stop some bad habit of ours and paradoxically the more honest the intention meant at the time the more problematic it may turn out: it thus can better fulfill the very function of calming our worries and anxieties or doubts of being a bad parent, partner or person. Thus good intentions can prove to ourselves that we are not the bad person we may fear we are. To give an example I am very familiar with is procrastinating to study for an exam by repeatedly telling myself, very seriously, that I am going to study “for real” first thing tomorrow, thus feeling at ease today and therefore being able to continue with my not-studying at that very moment, only to have the same pattern repeated the next day. It is the same pattern I see with people struggling with major dependency issues (of any substance and their often futile change efforts), who often will profess with great sincerity that they will stop. It calms them, and often their very afflicted family members as all can sense the honesty of the intent, but thus taking away the force that the suffering provides that is needed to overcome the problem. Good intentions thus can prevent action by removing the psychological motivation that is created by the normal self-doubt, concern about the future (exam, financial situation, you name it …) or suffering that some undesired state creates, and thus turn against us or the people around us.

Mismatch of Gift and Need

Then there is the situation where we do move to action but it fails to meet the need of the recipient. I think this is captured well in the bible when Jesus talks about the ones on the right who have feed him when he was hungry, gave drink when he was thirsty. The gift matches the actual need of the recipient. But at times we give water when the person is hungry. This is especially confusing because the receiver may even feel an obligation to be thankful as the other went through the effort of bringing him a gift (albeit one he does not need)! I am not sure if it is possible to capture all the reasons this goes awry (still assuming truly good intentions), but what seems relevant is that the feedback about this mismatch does not reach the giver, for one because the recipient out of the above mentioned conflict does not give it. The second is that the giver will not hear or accept the signs and or direct feedback of the recipient. Why, because he meant well, which is sufficient in their minds to prove they are not the enemy and thus they can discount the other. This is where tragedies start.

Unintended Consequences of Our Limited Knowledge

To stay in the above analogy, I may know you are hungry and bring you a juicy burger not knowing you are a vegan! It is in the end a variation of the mismatch of gift and need, and in the end suffers from the same break down, a failure to connect and the giver to hear the correcting information he would need. In all of these situations there is no getting around the issue that the giver should be invested not only in meaning well but also in achieving good outcomes, as that will ultimately prove their professed intention true. It is that simple if I am truly concerned about the other I will want not only to intend good but to actually do well.

Veiled Bad Intentions

Finally there is a cluster of behaviours that is so obviously damaging to the intended recipient that the expressed good intentions have to be seriously questioned. They rather are attempts of the perpetrators to hide their self-serving needs behind that mask of well intention. To be clear in all the above mentioned situations there is a self-serving motive present as well (who does not want to be a good person, after all!), but the main difference is that in those situations there is also a real intention to do good to the other, that is clearly not present in these cases.

So professionally I am sold on the concept. Personally, it took me quite some growing up myself to see that even my good efforts were missing the mark at times and that they needed correcting and still do, it’s an never ending quest. It takes all our attention and awareness to notice signs of the people around us for feedback on how we are doing and it its dam hard to not let our feeble self’s come in the way of that.

So does this mean that every time you are hurt, the one who so offended you is then responsible for that? What are your thoughts?

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