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Why Are People Mean? Don't Take It Personally!
Reason 3: Misdirected Intentions
by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist

Read the following to:
  • Understand how people may be mean in spite of good intentions.
  • Learn to identify the difference between helpful intentions, consequential intentions, and principled intentions.
Related articles by Dr. Frank:

Previous: Reason 2: Miscommunication/Misunderstanding

Next: Reason 4: Self-Protection

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

To help you determine why a person might be mean:
Reasons for Meanness Inventory

REASON 3: Misdirected Intentions

Sometimes people have good intentions but the way they implement those intentions may be hurtful. They may not always consider how their behavior impacts others negatively believing their intentions outweigh other factors. This may be true at times. Other times they may believe their actions whether or not they may be hurtful are more important than whatever pain they cause.

Helpful intentions. Frequently we may perceive someone as being hurtful when they are actually trying to be helpful. This can occur, for example, when a parent is being over-protective or when a boss is reviewing someone's work excessively.

It is easy to misinterpret these attempts to help as offensive or insulting. However, in these cases the individual is not intentionally hurtful and frequently the situation can be resolved by discussing the problem.

My husband is a person who wants to help others by giving advice and warning them about pitfalls in what they are attempting to do. Sometimes this can be quite annoying because it feels as if he is saying “I don't think you are capable” or “I don't trust you to consider this thoroughly” when he is actually intending to be helpful and to protect others from making mistakes and suffering the consequences. This used to cause a great deal of conflict for us until I realized that he has the good intentions of helping me and protecting me. In fact, he used to say “Listen to my intentions. Not my words.” Once I learned to do that much conflict was resolved.

Consequential intentions. Sometimes people may believe that they have to act a certain way in order to achieve the outcome they want. In particular, they may implement consequences to shape or impact behavior.

For example, a boss may believe that he/she needs to be harsh and threatening for people to do their work. An old movie that shows this in action is “An Officer and a Gentleman” in which the Sargent believed that he had to break the recruit down so as to reshape him and help him.

In some situations consequences may be necessary. In other situations, the intention may be good, but the process may be unnecessary as there may be other, less harsh, ways of obtaining the same outcome. Many of these situations can be resolved by discussing the problem.

Principled intentions. Some people have certain beliefs that have good intentions but may appear to be mean to others. One such belief is the desire to be completely honest and genuine in all interactions with others. This may sound nice on the surface but in actual practice it may appear to be mean. For example, “I think that dress makes you look fat” may be honest but it is likely to cause hurt feelings.

Many people who have this type of thinking don't realize they are making a choice in their manner of being honest. They think that being genuine is stating whatever thought occurs to them because otherwise they are pretending and false. However, this is not necessarily true because we have all sorts of thoughts that we may discard because they are not accurate or not worth saying out loud.

In addition, it is possible to be truthful without hurting other people's feelings. For instance, “I think this other dress is so much more attractive on you” can be honest as well but not hurtful.

Next: Reason 4: Self-protection

Kindle Books by
Dr. Monica Frank

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