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Are Good Intentions Enough?

good intentions

by Andrea Blundell

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” according to an unknown proverb.

Would psychologists beg to differ? 

The meaning of intention

What are we really talking about when we talk about our intentions? It  refers to the reasons we do things. Of course our  meaning for taking an action (intention), and then the outcome of that action (result), don’t always directly relate. 

The power of intentions

It’s our intent around helping others that has the interest of psychologists. It seems that a desire to be useful and kind really does have an affect on those around us.

A study looked at three scenarios of giving chocolate, receiving a massage, and administering a shock. In all three situations, even the last one which wasn’t pleasant, knowing the giver had good intentions made a difference. The chocolate tasted better, the massage was perceived as more useful, and the shock was thought less painful.

When it came to the massage, which was carried out by an automatic massage chair, it was even just simply another person putting the switch on that made the experience better. 

Why do I always let others down despite good intentions?

Always have good intentions? Want to make others happy, and do the right thing? But always just end up upsetting those around you? Until you start to wonder if it’s even worth trying at all?

Some of us don’t naturally see the perspective of others, or easily understand those around us. So we impose our own views onto the other person. Instead of remembering that the other person isn’t comfortable with heights, or thinking to ask, we simply go ahead and book a surprise day on a viewing tower high above the city. And then feel crushed when they have a panic attack.

When thinking through an action we are taking with an intent to help someone else, we need to ask:

  • Have I considered their perspective of the situation?
  • Is this a choice to actually help them, or is it really to make myself feel better? To feel useful and liked?
  • Would it be a better idea to ask them what would be helpful, over assume I know?

Why good intentions for others are good for you, too

In some ways it’s obvious. If we have good intentions for others, they are more likely to have good intentions for us. 

But there is also research that shows that if we consciously decide to do things to be kind, we feel better, regardless of how the other then treats us.

good intentionsA study on university students with social anxiety found that actively engaging in acts of kindness, from washing dishes for roommates to mowing someone’s lawn, lowered anxiety and raised wellbeing.

What do you intend for yourself?

While we might have no trouble intending good things for others, it might be a different story when it comes to ourselves.

We might say that we intend to be happy, have a job we like, and be in a loving relationship. And we might consciously believe it. So then why do we feel miserable, keep taking jobs we hate, and find ourselves endlessly attracted to destructive relationships?

Even if we consciously intend good things for ourselves, it might be an entirely different story when it comes to our unconscious intentions. There we might find we have what are called ‘limiting beliefs’ — unconscious assumptions we made as children we then mistake as ‘fact’ and live our lives by. These can look like, ‘I am not worthy of love’, ‘I don’t deserve good things’, ‘the world is a terrible, dangerous place’.

If we believe we don’t deserve love, for example, our real intention is to ‘prove’ this true. So there we go, chasing yet another unavailable or critical partner.

To truly have good intentions for ourselves we need to look at what beliefs are holding us back, process the experiences that gave us such negative beliefs, and commit to having better ones.

But all my best intentions come to nothing…

Do you truly have the best of intentions for yourself? And others? But feel like you can’t get anything into action?

It’s not unusual to not meet all our intentions. For example, an American study found that less than 20 per cent of us keep up our New Years’ resolutions over the long term. 

Sometimes it’s a case of understanding what a good goal is and how to implement it. This could mean learning the SMART model (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely). It can also look like engaging others to support you and check in with you at certain points. (A Harvard study found that being prompted to do things increases our carry through). 

But if you daily feel like you can never get done what needs to be done, forget things, or end up rushing things and not living up to your intentions? It’s worth learning about things that can affect our carry through, such as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and adult attention deficit disorder (ADHD).

Worry your inability to stay focussed is serious? We connect you with top talk therapists in central London locations. Or use our booking site to find your perfect UK-based therapist now, as well as online therapists you can book from overseas.


Still have a question about the power of good intentions? Post below. 

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