Your Intentions Matter, But Not More Than Your Impact
Updated: Apr 1
“I don’t give a damn what you meant by it. You’re being an asshole!”
Does that sound familiar?
One of the greatest truths I hope you can learn is that two seemingly opposing truths can exist simultaneously. Here are some examples:
Fossil fuels bring jobs and wealth to small communities, and are also major contributors to climate change.
I can love my wife deeply and also be incredibly annoyed at her.
(but here is the big one) You can have an intention to be supportive, kind, and compassionate, but have and impact of being dismissive, hurtful, and invalidating.
Did that sting a little?
Anyone who has ever experienced a major loss, a significant trauma, and/or a lifetime of micro and macro-aggressions (so mostly everyone) can share a story about how awful it was to suffer through the good intentions of people just trying to be kind. You probably know exactly what I’m talking about.
“You stay strong and I know you’ll get through this…
I’m so sorry for your loss, let me know what I can do for you…
This happened for a reason. You just need to find the lesson in it…
Well, have you tried (insert literally anything)? It helped me/my friend/some random tv icon get through it.”
What you don't even know you're saying
The grief counselor and author of It’s OK That You’re Not OK, Megan Devine, points out to readers that there’s a hidden message in all these things. Namely that, “...it’s not ok to feel how you feel.” In other words, these seemingly supportive, kind, and compassionate comments are actually super invalidating and painful.
If you’re supporting someone through a trauma or loss it’s incredibly important that you learn that your intention is never more important than your impact. It’s important that you learn to accept feedback about your impact, if you’re lucky enough to receive it.
The fact is that people who are hurting, from whatever pain, are likely feeling terribly unable or too exhausted to offer up suggestions about what it is they need, much less give you feedback about how you’re negatively impacting/invalidating them.
You’ll be far more supportive if you can help them feel permission to be with the depth of their pain, not try and make it all better by offering up platitudes, or talking about how “you’ve been there.”
it freaking sucks. If you’re the one hurting and being invalidated by good intentioned people, it freaking sucks even more. Being invalidated almost certainly leads to feeling even more isolated, in even more pain, and in even less shape to keep moving forward.
The harmful impacts of well-intentioned people can affect anyone.
But some get this more than others. The truth of good intentions and the truth of negative impact existing side-by-side are rarely more pronounced than when we look towards the way marginalized folks are supported by would-be-allies.
A person can intend to support a person of color, a queer person, a sexual assault survivor, an immigrant, etc… while actually acting in racist, homophobic, victim blaming, and xenophobic ways. And then feel hurt and betrayed when their harmful impacts are pointed out to them.
The veil between being a good person and having a good impact gets lifted, and seeing what’s beyond it is terribly uncomfortable. The identity of “I’m a good person” has to be questioned. The savior complex is shattered (if you’re willing to not react with defensiveness).
The Big Lessons
One of the greatest lessons you might need to learn is how to put away the truth of your good intentions and step in to the truth of what it means to be an effective supporter and/or ally.
One of the greatest lessons you might also need to learn is how to ask for the right kind of support. There are likely (hopefully) some great allies in your community; Great support groups, therapists, spiritual communities, etc.. who you can turn to. People who know how to support you in your pain.
Today is the perfect day to begin reaching out for support.
Always remember two things: Healing Is Possible, And It’s When We’re In Connection With Others That We Thrive.
Hudson Wilkins, MA, LPCC, EMDR, IFS. Hudson is a nature and mindfulness based trauma therapist inFort Collins, CO. He operates a private practice with a specialty in supporting folks who have experienced sexual violence first hand, and those that love them to heal and rebalance their lives.