Mallory Hepp, LCSW, CEDS
This comes up a lot in relational work, whether it be in families, couples, or friendships. And it can be a sticky conversation to have, but an important one.
Basically, having good intentions doesn’t let you off the hook for the effects of your behavior in response to those intentions. You can have good intentions AND hurt, offend or upset people we love.
Our intentions are individually experienced, meaning we are connected with our intentions and those around us may not be. These may not be visible or known unless we articulate them. Our behaviors are what we do in response to our intentions. They’re how we act out our intentions. And the effects are how others experience our behaviors; we are ultimately accountable for effects of our behaviors, regardless of what our intentions are.
Here’s an example: you have the intention of treating a friend to a nice meal, so you pay for the meal before they see the check. Good intentions, right? But, what if your friend experiences this as offensive? What if your friend feels this demeans her ability to show her independence or give you the gift of a meal? Although the intention is good, the effects may not be. And we are accountable for those effects.
One step further. A loved one notices that your body has changed and comments on the changes. Their intention is to make you feel good about this, so they act out their intention by commenting. But, this statement reinforces an eating disorder and might even encourage eating disorder behaviors, which is a very negative effect. Your loved one is accountable for the emotional effects of their comment. They are not accountable for your behaviors in response, but they are accountable for the feeling state they cause.
The way we work through this is by acknowledging intentions and also acknowledging effects. It’s by showing up accountable, not defensive. We can also hear others’ intentions while holding them accountable for relational effects of their actions.