When did intentions lose their value?
"...people’s intentions reflect their character, therefore we should not overlook them."
A couple of years ago, I made a comment that my daughter took the wrong way and as such it hurt her feelings. When she told me what I said had hurt her and she felt it was insensitive, I apologized and said I did not intend to hurt her. I explained she misunderstood my comment, and that I would never intentionally say something rude or hurtful to her. In response to my apology, she said that by saying I did not intend to do it I was not respecting her feelings and therefore the apology meant nothing.
I was very confused by this reaction/comment. By saying I did not intend to do something it negates the apology, how does that work? If I accidentally step on someone’s foot and then say, “sorry, didn’t mean to do that,” stating lack of intent means I was not sorry? An apology only counts if you admit you intended to hurt the person? “Oh, I meant to step on your foot, sorry about that.” That is better? Would my daughter have felt better had I said, “yup, I said what I meant, and meant what I said, sorry it hurt you?” I was/am so confused by the idea that intentions do not matter.
But since she responded that way, I have seen the sentiment expressed in social media posts and articles many times. When discussing BIPOC of LGBTQ issues, intentions are often scorned. I frequently hear/read, “it does not matter what you intended, it is my feelings that matter.”
I do not want to undermine anyone’s feelings. We are all entitled to them. And it is important that we acknowledge other’s feelings. But when we discount people’s intentions, we also discount who they are and automatically label them as bad or insensitive. If you remove intentions from the equation, then it implies that every hurtful action was committed with intent. And that in turn assumes (incorrectly) we are all shitty people.
I think people’s intentions reflect their character, therefore should not be overlooked. If people say or do something that hurts us, I think it is in all our own best interest to give each other the benefit of the doubt. (I am not talking about racism, discrimination or abuse here, but more familial relationships.) Assume that what they did or said was not meant to hurt you. Of course, approach them. Express yourself and let them know you have been hurt but try and do so with an open mind and heart. If you assume the person did not mean to hurt you, whatever it is they did will likely hurt less. But also, if you when you assume the best of people, you are less inclined to attack them in defense. And, if you do not start the communication with an attack, you are much more likely to get a positive response/outcome.
Sadly, in the example of my daughter and I, she waited more than 24 hours to say something, and then she did not say something to me, her husband sent me a text message. And it was an attack. If my daughter had given me the benefit of the doubt and said something in the moment, she would have provided me the opportunity to correct my mistake immediately. She would also not have given the situation time to fester and grow into something bigger. And it would have given us an opportunity to talk and then hug. Instead, she let her feelings in the moment take control and she turned what should have been a nothing incident, into a major one. In her opinion what I really said and meant did not matter, only her feelings did.
The same thing has occurred with my daughter-in-law. I have not talked about the situation with our oldest daughter too much, but she too is not talking to us right now. More will come out about this over time, but our daughter-in-law has gone to great lengths to ignore all our best intentions; to the point where every kindness has been relabeled as acts of malice against her. An offer to pay for a hotel room was taken as an insult. A request to bring strawberries to a bridal shower was taken as an insult. Gifts given were taken as insults. Family events hosted were twisted into insults. Basically, she decided what kind of person I was-terrible-and then tainted everything I said and did with her negative view. Who I am, what my intentions are, and what I feel do not count; only her feelings matter; she has decided she is hurt and insulted, end of story.
The problem with this “my feelings” approach to all interactions is that the person who is placing their feelings above all else, is assuming the person they are interacting with is cognizant of their feelings. A great number of the things my daughter-in-law has been offended by are things that never would have occurred to me in a million years would offend her. And she did not bother to express herself until after they stopped talking to us, and then her complaints came in a 7-page letter that did not offer any path to or interest in a reconciliation.
She was genuinely angry with me because I hosted a Christmas party so she insulted my choice of format, size, and activities. She felt justified in her feelings because she and our daughter had wanted to host a family Christmas games night a few years earlier that for various reasons did not happen. Apparently, it was insulting of me to then host a completely different kind of party, with completely different people, four years later! How the F could I possibly know that action would hurt her? And the fact that the intention behind the party was to give the family a chance to get together with extended friends and family over the holidays, while easing the pressure on our girls to see everyone on Christmas day. I was trying to create a new tradition for them to make the holidays easier for them now that they were parents. Somehow, she turned that into an insult and my intentions did not matter!
The last argument I had with my youngest daughter before she stopped talking to me was because I apparently crossed a boundary that I did not intend to, mostly because I did not understand the boundary. She had pulled out her phone and I saw that her screensaver was a photo of my grandson. Seeing it made me cry. It was not something I expected; my eyes just teared up. I miss him and I was/am incredibly sad that I am not being allowed for form a relationship with him. So, seeing his photo made me emotional. When my daughter saw that I had teared up, she asked what was wrong. When I explained, she got angry with me and said she did not want to talk about the family with me – I was crossing a boundary. I told her that I was not trying to cross a boundary, nor was a talking about the family, I was just telling her how I was feeling. I then told her that I did not understand how telling her how I was feeling, without mentioning anyone or anything specific, was crossing her boundaries. Her response? It did not matter if I understood, and it did not matter if I was trying to cross them, I was, therefore I needed to shut up.
Again, how the F was I supposed to know that my instinctive reaction to seeing a photo of my grandson was crossing one of her boundaries? And why did my intentions not matter? It is not like I purposely started crying in front of her and started making a big scene about how awful her grandmother and others were treating me. I just teared up a little and answered her question. In doing so I unintentionally crossed her boundary, and so her feelings in the moment trumped mine?!
This idea that people’s intentions do not matter is ridiculous. Saying, “I didn’t mean to,” should not be a lame excuse for not taking responsibility for your actions. But separating people’s intentions from their actions and discarding them as inconsequential leaves an incomplete picture of an interaction. There are two sides to the story: feelings, and intentions. It is important that we listen to and try to understand as best we can others’ feelings, but it is equally important that we consider people’s intentions. We all have sensitivities and trigger points, it is difficult for each of us to know, understand, and respond to everyone else’s all the time. We are human. We stick our feet in our mouths, we can be self-centered and insensitive, but that does not mean we intend to hurt others. If we choose to ignore intentions, then the other guy will always be the enemy out to get us. It is only when we consider feelings AND intentions that we will find common ground, understanding, and reconciliation.