I mentor a 10 year old girl through a volunteer program here in town during the school year, and I realized today that school will be starting up soon enough. So, naturally, I was thinking about the age-old wisdom I plan to bestow upon this soon-to-be 5th grader in the upcoming year. Now, my mentee is a beautiful girl, but she considerably bigger than the other kids her age. She was 5’2 on her 10th birthday last November, and I can only assume she has shot up over this summer as well. Needless to say, many of our discussions are centered around the fact that she’s got a reputation for being a bit of a bully–but when pressed for the reasons why she lashes out, the answer is always that the other kids were mean to her first. My response is, obviously, to drop some after-school-special-level knowledge on this poor girl, like “kill them with kindness!” and “only you can control how others make you feel,” but of course I don’t know what it’s like. It’s been a very long time since I was a 5th grade girl, and as an adult it’s so easy to say, “Oh, you honestly probably won’t even remember that ____ was mean to you that one time in the 4th grade.” But it’s a big deal to her because it’s every day, right now.
I realized today that by telling her how to feel or what she should do, I’m not really addressing the problem. Sure, I’m addressing part of it, because the world will act how it acts and she will have to decide how to respond, but I’m not giving her any sort of super power. I’m saying, “Hey, don’t be mean to them even though they’re mean to you because it’s WRONG.” But how can it be when it feels so good to get revenge? What I should be teaching her is the appropriate way to handle these situations and properly confront those kids that pick on her.
This leads to me to today’s thoughts on intentions. It’s actually more of a lesson in communication, and the goal is to hopefully start a conversation. I invite you to voice your opinions, because this is the kind of stuff that matters.
So intentions. I used to be the kind of person who fought mean. I would say hurtful things when I was upset because it felt good to win and it felt good to cut deep. Then, at some point in college, I realized that what I was doing wasn’t fair to anyone and actually really hurt my relationships, so I started really thinking about the situation. What are your intentions? was the first thing that crossed my mind. Why would I say something so hurtful? Because I want the other person to hurt like I hurt.
This opened the door to a number of new, difficult, and painful questions, like why do I hurt?
It takes a lot of self-analysis to figure out why you’re hurting. Maybe you’re bitter at this person because they lied, cheated, left, or simply aren’t giving you enough emotional attention. Maybe you’re bitter at the world because of some heavy sh*t you’ve been though. Maybe your parents sucked at being parents. But isn’t that what you should be addressing here, rather than whatever mean thing you wanted to say? Being hurtful with your words only begets relationships filled with hurt. It sounds obvious, but it makes a huge difference in how you live and how you treat other people.
Once you start looking at what drives you, other people become much more clear. You start to see why someone would behave a certain way and you feel so much more compassion. But it isn’t just about your growth, because spending years as the person who “understands” when someone fights mean is really just giving them permission to continue being that way. If you go your whole life without ever putting that person in check, their rash behavior can affect your relationship with them, their relationships with their friends, their family, their children even.
So this is the proactive lesson in maturity I hope I can pass on to my lovely soon-to-be 5th grader: sometimes people hurt you on purpose, and most of the time they don’t even know why. So don’t start a fight, don’t say something worse back–simply ask them what their intentions are. Or, in 5th grade language, “Are you trying to hurt my feelings?”
Because this is something that works for everyone, even into adulthood.
I will throw my poor husband under the bus here, because this is a good learning point for the rest of the world. First I will say that he is hands down the most patient, understanding, and even kind fighter, so this example is not one of him fighting mean. Instead, occasionally he just gets bored and decides that being annoying sounds fun, so he will go out of his way to annoy me. Then, when I finally lose it and get pissed off, he used to say things like, “you’re no fun,” or “you’re being too sensitive.” So one day, I looked him straight in the face and asked him what his intentions were. After thinking about it, he said that he thinks it’s fun to annoy me. Why? Because you’re cute when you’re mad. So I told him, “If your intention is to make me mad, then you shouldn’t be surprised when I get mad.”
This works similarly when someone is saying something cruel to you. A lot of times, people don’t even realize what they’re doing will cause long-term damage, and they really need to be called out. What was your intention when you said ___ about me? is a great way to start. Is the intention to hurt me? quickly calls the question of Why?
Once someone becomes aware of why they’re acting in a mean way, the doors for mutual understanding open wide. Not only did I find that I started checking myself before saying mean things, i.e. “Wait, Kaleigh, why would you want to say that? Is your intention to hurt them?” usually leads to me deciding not to say what I was going to because, let’s be honest, saying sorry doesn’t erase it. Rather, evaluating my intentions helps me to address the real issue–why do you want to hurt them? So, when we were in college, the conversation between Daniel and I went from [insert whatever mean name or harsh, snarky thing I was going to say under my breath] to “I feel a lot of bitterness toward you. I feel like you put me on the backburner to other things in your life, and that makes me feel insecure and not important so I want to lash out at you so you feel unimportant, too. But really I don’t ever want you to feel that way because I love you and that’s not what love looks like.” And from there, we were able to remedy the actual problem rather than letting the bitterness build up until we resented one another.
So yes, you have to change yourself. You have to look at yourself with understanding and realize what your intentions are so that you can have compassion towards others. But it’s also your responsibility to help the people in your life that you care about realize if they’re hurting you, too, because they can’t heal or change or grow if everyone turns a blind eye. The cycle is only ever broken when one party straight looks the other in the eye and calls them to start some hard self-evaluation.
tl;dr understanding intentions leads to healing (and other related hippie-talk).