Intentions Don’t Matter: On Making Amends

I’ve been thinking a lot about intentions and amends lately, for a variety of reasons. I’m now firmly in my early 40’s and I’m able to look back on some of the patterns of my life. I’ve also had several conversations lately with different people about the processes of apology, amends, and reconciliation. And the topic has come up in reference to some recent online controversies and the ensuing discussions about responsibility, whether people can actually change, and how we can assess that.

Apologies Are Important

As I’ve said before, I think that the ability to give and receive genuine apologies is one of the most important tools to maintaining healthy relationships and helping them thrive. I think that it’s also important to remember that although one’s intentions are relevant and might be a mitigating factor, they don’t absolve us of our responsibility to make amends when we do something that causes someone harm.

Most of us have had the experience of either saying or hearing someone else say “I didn’t mean to do it,” as if that’s supposed to fix the situation, remove any responsibility, or make an apology irrelevant. And while I do think that inadvertent harm requires a different response than deliberate harm, that doesn’t mean that the harm didn’t happen.

If you have a cup of coffee on the edge of your desk and I accidentally knock it onto the floor, I’ll clean it up and get you a new one. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t do it on purpose- I did it and I should fix it. So why do we sometimes forget that when we hurt the people in our lives? Why do we sometimes say “I didn’t mean to hurt you” and then expect them to immediately let go of their anger and forgive us?

I think that there are a lot of possible reasons and frankly, I don’t think it matters. Or more accurately, I think it’s an important question for us to each ask ourselves when we engage in this pattern, but the answers will vary a lot and unless you’re part of my life, your motivations for it aren’t my business. Go figure it out. You’ll be a much better person for it.

But my point is that our intentions don’t absolve us of our responsibility to fix things as much as we can. That might mean cleaning things up. That might mean taking the time to hear the anger that another person feels in response to our actions, to not avoid or flinch from it. It might mean offering an apology, or it might mean expressing regret without apologizing. It might mean asking what we can do to resolve things. And as part of that, it can certainly include saying that it was an accident (assuming it was), as long as that’s not an attempt to dodge responsibility for making amends.

I get a lot of practice at offering and receiving apologies. Many years ago, my partner and I agreed that if either of us felt hurt or anger, we would talk about it instead of letting it fester. We realized that the only way that would work would be if we learned how to apologize to each other, so with the help of a kick-ass therapist, we figured out how to do it. We apologize for the many small things that happen, as well as the fewer big ones. We know that it’s an essential ingredient to keeping things from causing resentment, which will destroy a relationship faster than you might realize.

Fortunately, we’ve both learned how to be more graceful in our interactions with each other because we’ve learned to not try to dodge responsibility when we’re clumsy. In some ways, being told that I’ve made a mistake is a gift because it helps me make things better. One thing I’ve discovered is that no matter how much work it might take to process things and get to a place of genuine apology, it’s always less than the amount of time and energy that goes into resentment. Plus, when we do feel anger over something that has happened, the many times we’ve practiced apologizing and making amends makes it much easier to trust that we’ll be able to do it again.

Another thing I’ve learned is to thank other people when they tell me that I’ve done something that hurt them. Whatever the situation, it takes a certain amount of trust and a willingness to have difficult conversations to bring it up. I try to appreciate that, especially when I’m also having my own defensive reactions or difficult moments. Even if the root cause was a misunderstanding and I have no responsibility for the situation, I still thank people for bringing it up.

I also think that it’s important to find ways to make amends, if it would help the injured person or support the relationship. Amends are how we demonstrate our willingness to make things right, as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be a complex process, though it does need to be something that’s relevant to the recipient. It doesn’t count if it’s not what they need. That requires us to listen to them, even if we want to hide from our mistake, get defensive, or feel shame.

Intentions Don’t Guarantee Action

But as I think back on the many people who have passed through my life, I realize that it’s inevitable that I hurt some of them. I never did it out of malice, but I’m quite sure that I did it out of cluelessness, selfishness, being impolite, emotional reactivity, inexperience, or even just having a moment of tunnel vision and not being able to see anything beyond what I wanted. It’s easy to do something that hurts another person and sometimes, we don’t even know that it happened. That’s not an easy thing for me to acknowledge. And yet, I think it’s also simply part of being human. I want to offer myself the same fierce compassion that I would give a friend who shared this with me. If I get stuck in a shame spiral over it, I won’t be able to stand from a place of personal power and do what I think is right.

The difficulty, of course, is that I don’t know what harms I’ve caused. So I’ve decided to do two things about it. First, I’m going to ask some of the people in my life if there’s anything that I did that caused them to feel hurt or anger, and ask them if they’d like to talk about it. Second, I’m writing this post and inviting anyone from my current or past relationships, friendships, and communities who comes across it to let me know if there’s anything they would like to clear up with me. If I have done something that hurt you, I invite you to get in touch so we can talk about it and I can make amends to you. You can contact me through this form, either with your name and email or anonymously, as you prefer. (Obviously, if you do it anonymously, that will limit what response I can offer, but that’s up to you.)

I’ll admit that I feel a good sized chunk of fear about this. And I’m familiar enough with this particular fear to know that this is one that I need to lean into. I once heard someone say, “That scares me. So of course, I have to do it.” That’s very much what this feels like to me. I’m not willing to coddle my fear or submit to it. I would much rather live my life with integrity and that means being willing to make amends, whether it was my fault that I hurt someone or not.

As I step out into this rather vulnerable place, it occurs to me to ask you- what do you do when you discover you’ve hurt someone? Are you able to set aside your “I didn’t mean to” and listen to them? Are you willing to take their pain in and bear witness to it? Can you express regret or apologies, as fits the situation? And what do you do to make amends? Those are some scary questions to answer, and I invite you to join me on this path.