Striving for Harmony: Intent and Impact
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” — Old Proverb
When I first heard the above proverb a few years ago, it washed right over me like rain water over a giant, protective umbrella.
The second time someone reflected this quote to me, it impacted me a little more than before, akin to being caught in a heavy rain with one of those thin, plastic-bag-like one-time-use rain covers, where you’re still (mostly) dry underneath but the wetness of the plastic gloms onto your skin, leaving you mildly clammy and uncomfortable.
The third time someone recited this proverb to me, it was as if I had gotten caught in a violent downpour without a raincoat or umbrella. I was fully saturated by the torrent of meaning behind those words.
Each time this particular quote found its way into my life is representative of the unfolding of the three types of wisdom — received, intellectual and experiential, respectively — I wrote about in Course One of this series.
As I venture the path of becoming a therapist — someone whose intent is to help others navigate and make new meaning of their pain and suffering (which I perceive to be a good intention), I have been continuously humbled by how hollow and potentially wounding good intent is without paying equal (or more) heed to its trouble-making twin: impact.
Yes, my intention may stem from a desire to be of help, to be of use, to ease pain and suffering, and yet, I can think of many scenarios in which my ideas of being helpful may be a nuisance to someone else, with the potential to augment their suffering. Most of us have been on the receiving end of this, for example, when friends and family with the best and purest of intentions offer us unsolicited advice. The Growlers have a song that encapsulates this dynamic beautifully:
“There’s nothing as depressing as good advice. Nobody wants to hear how to live their life.”
Turns out, being a “good” human according to ourselves is not enough. It’s far too reductionist to prioritize intent over impact in our interdependent and increasingly complex and entropic world.
It’s not intent VERSUS impact, but intent AND impact.
We are relational creatures, which means from the moment we exit the darkness of the womb into our light-filled world, we depend on a caregiver to reflect and mirror back to us who we are and how we should be.
As the influential English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott once boldly claimed, “There is no such thing as a baby,” to expound his belief that we cannot and do not exist in a vacuum. There is no such thing as being a good human or doing a good deed without someone to mirror that “goodness” back to us, or to receive that “good deed.” As humans (and perhaps living organisms in general), we are biased towards anything that make us seem and feel like we are “good,” and tend to dissociate from or disown anything that might make us seem and feel like we are “bad.”
While there is an arsenal of self-protective mechanisms we use to defend against uncomfortable and unwelcome feelings and cognitions, splitting and compartmentalization are central to the conversation around intent and impact. In the former, we bifurcate and polarize views of our self and/or an other as a result of intolerable conflicting emotions. In other words, we default to black-and-white thinking.
In the latter defense, in order to avoid the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by holding conflicting values, cognitions, emotions or beliefs within ourselves, we inhibit “direct or explicit acknowledgement and interaction between separate compartmentalized self-states” . An example of this is someone who is a lead scientist during the week, and a church-goer on the weekends.
It’s important to note that defense mechanisms are, by nature, unconscious. When one becomes conscious of and deliberate in using a specific mechanism, it no longer qualifies as a defense mechanism, but rather, a coping mechanism.
By examining intent and impact through the enactment of certain defense mechanisms, we can see how we split and compartmentalize our good intentions (or non-bad intentions) from impact. We have difficulty acknowledging and accepting that the two (intent and impact) may not always be congruent, that two truths — my intention was positive and it impacted my friend in a negative way, or what I said was construed as discriminatory and I am a good person — can exist in the same space.
Conflict is the result of mis- or a lack of- communication and understanding. Intent and impact are often at the heart of a conflict. There are two levels of communication simultaneously occurring: the person centralizing intent is doggedly defending against who they are, while the person feeling the impact is precariously prioritizing what was said or done (or not said or done).
The conscious use of compartmentalization may be helpful here as a way to distinguish who we are (our intent) from what we say or do (our impact), and to assist in cohering the dichotomy of being “good” while occasionally saying or doing something “bad.” It is only through this recognition that space can open up for learning, resolution, and relationship.
Focusing on intent is an anti-relational act. It is self-centered, obstructs relatedness, and converts dialogue into monologue by centering the person whose intention it was (or wasn’t). It is the natural effect of the Golden Rule, to treat others the way we would like to be treated, which emphasizes our own subjective experience.
Focusing on impact, on the other hand, is a relational act. It centers the other person’s experience, creates space for self-reflection, furthers the conversation even if it veers from its original direction, and strengthens relatedness. It follows the Platinum Rule, to treat others the way they want to be treated, and recognizes that someone else may have a different lived experience from our own. Here, we step outside of our own subjective experience and into an other’s subjective experience. It is only there, in imagining and relating to an other’s lived experience, can we begin to understand and learn how better to harmonize intent with impact.
The very act of making a conversation about intent is a privileged action. I don’t mean “privileged” solely in reference to race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, though it is often in these type of conversations where intent and impact are spotlighted and a focus on the latter becomes essential to repair and relatedness.
Two people (or groups) of equal social standing can fall into this dynamic as well, but the person or group who resorts to centralizing their intent keeps them and their identity at the center of the conversation and marginalizes the impact of their words or action on those around them. Doing so rigidifies and skews the conversation towards one side, and obstructs the organic back-and-forth essential to healthy dialogue.
The draw towards focusing on intent is natural, because it is a known variable, something within our control, and therefore feels psychologically safe. I know my intent, but I do not and cannot know (with certainty) the impact of that intent on another being. There is an element of that which is beyond my control, and that can be scary.
In situations where we are uncertain of how our intent might be received, prefacing or annotating what we are about to say or do with a declaration of intentions can feel good and safe, but it is an attempt to wrestle for control of the situation, to make the unknown known. It has the potential to stifle the other person’s freedom to feel, react, or respond, and puts the burden on the other to make us feel “okay” .
A dissociation of intent from impact is core to interpersonal conflict, but there are also vast implications of centering intent in how we make social, political and economic decisions in the world. I would venture to say that many billionaires, entrepreneurs, scientists, and political leaders started their careers with positive, decent, or at least neutral intentions, but over time, their failure to weigh and account for the impact of their businesses, products, theories, and visions are what puts their reputations at risk and makes them easy to crucify under the public eye.
On the receiving end of someone else’s supposed intent, especially those with higher societal standing or power, we find ourselves distrustful and condemnatory, evaluative of impact over intent.
I do not wish to suggest that impact is necessarily more important than intent, but instead to draw attention to those occasions when we resort to intent as a way of warding off the difficult, uncomfortable, or anxiety-inducing feelings that naturally coincide with being confronted with different perspectives, experiences, and beliefs.
In those moments of rupture — however big or small — when there’s a fracture in relatedness, can we pause and ask ourselves what we are protecting? And in that protection, what we might be prematurely foreclosing?
When we make decisions — however big or small — can we pause and reconcile our intent with our impact through reflection and recognition of the first- and second-order effects of what we say and do?
I think a striving for this kind of congruence between our intent and our impact — one that leaves space for others to give us feedback — is essential to a more harmonious society and world.
 Hardy, K. & McGoldrick, M. (2008). Re-visioning family therapy. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
 Leary, M.R. & Tangney, J.P. (2005). Handbook of self and identity. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.