How Could Having a Good Intention Cause Harm?

therapist-with-clientOnce, I invited someone to take my workshop and she replied, “Oh, I don’t need to take your right-use-of-power workshop. I won’t cause any harm because I have good intentions.” I want to talk about how good intentions are necessary but not nearly enough for ethical use of power.

The simplest reason is the profound fact that our impact doesn’t always match our intention. In the example described in this article, the therapist’s intention was to set good and ethical boundaries with her client. The impact on the client, as you will see, was that she felt hurt, abandoned, betrayed, confused, and wrong.

Other reasons include cultural differences, impact of the power differential, projection, shame, and trauma responses. These are subjects for another article.

In the paper the other day, I found a letter in the “Dear Abby” column that was a painful example of how good intentions plus lack of skill and awareness of impact can cause more harm.

A summary of the letter: The woman wrote about seeing a therapist for issues of abandonment and trust. They became friends outside of therapy. “I trusted her completely,” the writer wrote. “During our therapy sessions, she shared her life and problems with me to the point that I feel I know as much about her as she knows about me.” The therapist, after several years of therapeutic work, “suddenly decided that ethics had been breached and that she was setting new boundaries.” The new boundaries were for no contact outside the sessions, but during their sessions, the therapist would cry and talk about how much she missed this client. Next, she abruptly decided that she could no longer be this person’s therapist. “Now, she has blocked my number and expects me to respect her demands.”

We can guess that this therapist did the technically right and ethical thing: She set appropriate boundaries, and then when she realized that she was being unethical even in the boundaried sessions, she set another appropriate boundary and stopped seeing the person entirely.

However, although her actions were correct, they certainly were not skillful or compassionate. A skillful and compassionate therapist would have recognized that the client’s issues were about abandonment and trust, which would make the separation process especially delicate. The therapist would have apologized for her behavior in participating in a dual-role relationship and made it clear that this was her big mistake and her responsibility and not the client’s fault. She would then have carefully and personally referred the person to a trustworthy new therapist. It was her responsibility to resolve and repair this misuse of her power. It seems that she thought that setting the right boundaries was all that she was required to do to be ethical.

She seemed to have imagined that because this was a mutual friendship, both she and her client would take equal responsibility for managing their grief and loss. When there is a difference in power, the responsibility is not equal. I call this the 150% principle: Both parties are 100% responsible for the health of the relationship, but the person in the up-power role (the therapist, in this case) is 150% responsible for tracking problems and resolving and repairing them.

When there has been a relationship rupture, there are five things that most people need in order to feel resolved. They may need just one or as many as all five of these things:

  1. Acknowledgment: They want their experience acknowledged, understood, validated, and empathized. They want to be appreciated for their courage.
  2. Understanding: They want to know what happened, or what your intention was.
  3. Regret: They want a genuine apology, or an authentic expression of your sorrow or regret.
  4. Learning: They want reassurance that you’ve learned or understood something about yourself or how to better care for them. (This one was a surprise to me. People are extremely generous when they feel that their pain has served some good or some learning that will prevent future problems.)
  5. Repair: They want to reconnect and participate in repair of the relationship or in gaining clarity and letting go. (This one was also a surprise. It is a rare and amazing thing to hear that the person you are in conflict with actually wants to repair and be reconnected. Often just asking that question is repair.)

We all make mistakes. Had this therapist known about the difference between intention and impact, the 150% principle, and how to link power with heart, her client would not have felt so confused, hurt, and wrong; would not have had another abandonment and trust wound, and would not have written to “Dear Abby.” Doing the right thing without compassion and skill can cause more harm.

Maybe there’s some wisdom for you, too, here. Having a good intention is ALWAYS a good thing, but in human connections, your actual impact is what most needs your attention for the well-being of your relationships.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • susan

    susan

    July 31st, 2013 at 9:02 PM

    couldn’t agree more,cedar!the right intentions do not always mean the right results.your impact may be different and harm the other person.or it could backfire and harm you.have experienced both in the recent past.and it isn’t pretty.we should all probably strive for a holistic view rather than believe things will fall into place with just the right intention.what do you think?

  • natalie

    natalie

    August 1st, 2013 at 4:21 AM

    Too often our intentions get too wrapped up in what is actually good for us and not for others. We don’t think about the real world impact that it may have on other people, and the things that we may think are good, well, that might not be so good for others.

  • viki

    viki

    August 1st, 2013 at 8:11 PM

    never is it sufficient to be good intentioned. how your actions play out-yeah thats whats most important. if I say I wanna do something good and act on it without giving it enough thought thats only gonna lead to negative results. an introspection of whats intentioned and an idea of how it will play out-its all necessary to end up with a positive result. an intention is only the beginning. execution play a much bigger and more prominent role.

  • Matthew

    Matthew

    August 2nd, 2013 at 4:24 AM

    It’s a good time to look at whether you are trying to do it to make someone else feel better, or to make yourself feel better.

    If it is for you, then it is probably best to step away and do nothing at all.

  • yolanda

    yolanda

    August 3rd, 2013 at 8:10 AM

    I have been burned by doing this too many times so now I have just learned to mind my own business. If it isn’t something that directly affects me or impacts me, then I have learened to keep my nose out of it. For most people even when you think that you have their best interests at heart they aren’t going to appreciate what you are trying to do for them anyway, so why even bother? mOst of the time you will just get chewed out so I have even stopped going to all of the trouble for nothing. I figure that if they need help they will ask, and if they don’t then I am better off keeping to myself.

  • lindsay

    lindsay

    August 17th, 2013 at 5:57 PM

    Regardless if someone has good intentions or not, the moment they see it is disrupting someones life and causing pain, the intention may as well have never existed. By this time you know what your doing is hurting and not helping and when you sit there watching someone going through hell because of your so called good intention, don’t be suprised when you have hell to pay yourself. It is sick to bully and harass people into what you want them to be and then pretend you’re some kind of hero when you have left lives in utter ruin and you know it. Perhaps we should all just work on our own faults instead of pointing everyone elses out to feel better like a child.

  • Cedar

    Cedar

    September 7th, 2013 at 4:02 PM

    Hello all, well it surely seems that you all deeply understood the point I was trying to make in the article! Thank you for taking the extra time and energy to respond. I particularly liked what Viki said: intention is only the beginning. execution play a much bigger and more prominent role.

    And yes, let’s try to start well…with a good beginning intention. Blessings for you wise and skillful uses of your power. May the world be a better place because of YOU.

    Cedar

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