Intent: Does It Matter?
Intent. We talk about it a lot in marginalized communities, like the mental illness community. So many times, those of us who are mentally ill (and, from here on, I’ll speak only for myself) are responsible for hurting someone. When we apologize, does our intent not to hurt matter?
I get snappy when I’m anxious. I can be meaner than I ever intend to be. I push people away when I’m in sham,e and I can’t think clearly when I’m in panic. I’ve learned (thanks, therapy) that there are situations where I am likely to lose my shit. I try to let the people I’m with know what I need, and if I do fuck up, I try to apologize as quickly and kindly as I can. After all, I didn’t intend to hurt them. My brain was not myself in that moment.
I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to hide my imperfectness from everyone. I try not to blow up at anyone; as a result, I have kept a lot of my mental illness a secret from people over the years. I hide and withdraw because facing the shame of screwing up and maybe hurting someone was just too large. To this day, when I mess up and someone gets hurt (or when I don’t think I messed up, but someone still gets hurt), my first reaction is an intense desire to get hidden and small and silent, to never speak up or out again.
Lately, I’ve heard a lot of apology discourse that states, “Intent doesn’t matter.” I agree. And I also think that this discourse, without clarity, can be dangerous to people in pain. Functionally, intent doesn’t matter to the person damaged—damage is damage and that needs to be addressed. However, for the person who did the hurting I think the problem is far more complicated, especially for those of us that try so hard to be good, caring people but get caught up in mistakes, shame, or mental illness. An apology is supposed to be about the person harmed. It is not supposed to be about the one who did the harm. An apology that comes with hemming and hawing and a declaration of “I didn’t mean to” can seem disingenuous. An apology should be clear, simple, straightforward and neat: “I’m sorry I did X. I understand now that X was hurtful and damaging. I will avoid doing X in the future.” That’s lovely, but, oh my heavens, it’s not nearly as easy as it seems.
When I was healing from much past trauma, one of my practices was to be far more honest and vocal about things that hurt me. I had stuffed a lot inside. Like, a lot. I had to learn to be far more vulnerable, which meant people who had known me for years suddenly learned that I was pretty pissed off about stuff. They had no idea I was that angry or hurt. They were not to blame for my hiding, and when I stopped hiding, they were hurt by my surprise strong emotions. I’ve had the occasion to apologize for that, and I couldn’t say “I’m sorry I did X.” I wasn’t sorry. I was relieved, grateful, and able to be a much better friend and partner for being more honest and more openly angry and hurt. I was sorry I had hidden myself away, and I said that, but there was no way for me to atone for a thing a younger, sicker me had done in the name of safety and PTSD. My intent was never to hurt anyone. Even so, my behavior did. Somehow, my people and I had to reconcile those truths. It was not easy, or clean, or straightforward.
The way I’ve learned to apologize now has required a long walk through self acceptance. That’s what’s missing from apology rhetoric and call-out culture. If a person cannot accept that they are flawed, and, yes, good intentioned, they cannot fully apologize (in my opinion). It’s only by knowing and trusting that I have good intentions that I can honestly and without defensiveness or hesitation say, “I’m so sorry I hurt you. I understand how, and I will do my level best not to do it that way again.” Intent does matter. Not to the person I hurt, but to myself. If I doubt my own intent, I will hide, shame myself, run away, be defensive, and hem and haw. It’s only by having a deep faith in my own goodness that I can be as good as humanly possible to others. Call-out culture challenges the goodness of anyone who errs; it attacks the identity of those who have fucked up. Well, I’m here to say I have fucked up. I keep fucking up, too, because I keep learning and growing and being vulnerable. And I won’t accept the labels that people want to give me just because I make mistakes. My goodness is not questionable. My behavior can be, but not my goodness.
I suppose the answer is no, intent doesn’t matter. And yes, intent matters deeply. Our self-compassion can make all the difference between growth and stagnation. I hope that we can all be a bit less either/or and a bit more willing to accept the complex and rich nature of the people we care about, even when it’s hard to do so.