You know that expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions?” It’s probably slightly overstated, but I think it’s essentially true.
First of all, it’s not often that we have the intention of hurting other people. And when we do, we know we’re being bad. That’s why in an argument you want to think long and hard before you say something cruel, because it’s not going to work to say I didn’t mean that afterwards. You can’t take it back. Whether you meant it or not, your intentions weren’t good.
In my experience, most of the time when someone uses the good intentions excuse, they were just as concerned–if not more concerned–with seeming helpful. That’s why they get defensive rather than apologize.
I am no exception to this. Especially since I’ve dedicated my life to helping others. So you better be helped, damn it! And you better appreciate my help!
The other reason people say well-intended but unhelpful things is because they want you to stop hurting, but they don’t know how to make that happen. So they tell you to stop in ways that are sometimes downright hurtful.
Some of my personal favorites are I’m suffering more than you, in response to my first divorce. And well, at least you have 3 other kids, in response to my brother’s coma that resulted from falling out of the car when he was 4.
Some clients are aware of how offensive good intentions can be, so they ask for advice about what to say. I tell them to ask the person directly what they can do. Maybe the person won’t know in that moment, but they know they can ask you for help when they need it.
The other thing I tell them is to listen carefully to what the person has to say. This isn’t easy, because most of us aren’t very good at bearing witness to other people’s pain. So you have to practice by starting with yourself.
You know all those unhelpful things you say to yourself to try to feel better? You have to replace them with accepting, nonjudmental statements about how it’s OK that you’re upset. That it doesn’t have to make sense. That you don’t have to know the reason why. And that you will be by your side for as long as it takes until you start to feel better.
When we can be good to ourselves in this way, we will have more to offer than just good intentions.
Christy, You are very correct about the listening. It is not easy for most people to listen to others, for a number of reason to include that their minds are unfocused for much of the time and checked out while they stare straight at you nodding. More mindfulness would help in so many ways, to not hurt others, and to not hurt ourselves. By the way, my personal favorite (kidding here) is when and older person dies or is near death and the first thing someone says is “how old are they” instead of “how are they?” This is usually followed up by “well, at least they were (old) (70s)(80s)(90s)” etc. I am sure you have heard it. For a person who is losing a loved one, having someone else imply that the entire thing is a non-event simply because they lived so long can be a hurtful comment backed by good intentions. I always try to think about what it will be like when I am old (hopefully will make it) and laying there dying and other people are saying “oh well, at least he's XX(age).” Somehow, I don't think that is going to make me or anyone else in my family feel better.
When i was in high school I remember making that exact comment about someone's age, and my teacher said that it hurts to lose a parent at any age. I was surprised by this, but I never forgot it. And I've tried never to say it again.
You wrote, “The other reason people say well-intended but unhelpful things is because they want you to stop hurting, but they don't know how to make that happen. So they tell you to stop in ways that are sometimes downright hurtful.” I see the wisdom in this observation. Playing the role of comforter for a loved one in crisis is an awkward one. Which is why, many of us choose to say nothing at all when we are called into that duty—opting to demonstrate our support through our presence more than through our words. This is a much safer tactic to employ.
I remember Mom comforting me through one of the darkest moments of my life. The thing that she did that finally helped me find peace was to admit that I had in fact lost something of value but reassured me that I was still loved & that I would be happy again one day. I didn’t need a disingenuous cheerleader at that moment—just acknowledgement that my grief was warranted if only for a moment. My acceptance of the temporary despair served to highlight the fact that I was blessed in my past. And if I could be so fortunate in the past, then it was possible I could be fortunate again in the future. It felt good to know that I didn’t have to be ashamed of being sad.
I also recognize the validity in the statement that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” While this is often true, I’ve observed that the things for which we suffer the most are often the hells of our own making.
It is hard to strike that balance between saying nothing because you don't know what to say versus being present to someone else's pain. You are lucky to have a mom who was able to be present. Not many people know how to do it.
I agree about the hells of our own making. I am far more rejecting and cruel to myself than anyone I know.
Great post – one of the things my partner and I do for each other is when the other one is hurting asking, “What can I do for you?” …even if the answer is nothing at the moment, it still expresses the genuine concern we feel and it’s not us trying to solve the other’s problems with our own ideas of what will work.
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Thanks Joy! I think it’s just nice to hear the question, even if you can’t think of an answer.