Personal Empowerment: Judge Actions, Not Intentions

I know so many people who got into destructive relationships in the first place because even though they saw the warning signs of problem behaviors, they spent too much mental time and energy guessing about the person’s motives.

Mounds of scientific research attest to the fact that the single best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. That’s right. The best indication of whether someone will do something again is if they’ve done it before. A person’s pattern of behavior over time tells us a lot about their level of character development and what we can expect from them in any dealings or relationship we might have.

When I first started gathering information for my first book, In Sheep’s Clothing, I was impressed by how many times folks had sought my counseling to help better “understand” the chronically dysfunctional behavior of someone with whom they were involved. Priding themselves as fairly aware individuals who were familiar with the principles of traditional psychology, they naturally assumed that there must be “underlying” issues making their partners, co-workers, bosses, etc. behave in troublesome ways. So, they told themselves if they could just understand the underlying reasons for the behavior, they could deal with it better. They also frequently expressed the belief that the other party probably “didn’t mean” to hurt them with their behavior, but must have done so inadvertently out of a misguided attempt to get some personal need met. Such notions were reinforced whenever they confronted the person on problem behavior only to have that person claim that their intentions were misjudged.

While it may sometimes be true that dysfunctional behavior has its roots in unresolved emotional issues and unmet needs, it’s the responsibility of the person who has those issues to address and resolve them. It’s never the responsibility of others to strive so hard to “understand” that they ignore, tolerate, or enable the dysfunctional behavior.

Universally, one-time “victims” of abusive relationships I counseled began to report an increased sense of personal power and validation once they stopped trying to second-guess why the person mistreating them was doing what they were doing and started holding them accountable for the behavior itself. To do so, they had to stop musing about whether the other person did or did not truly intend to hurt them. In the process, they also became aware of how naturally hesitant they were to ascribe malevolent intentions to others and to seek other more palatable explanations for behavior.

An unfortunate outgrowth of traditional psychology is the popular tendency to look for underlying causes and issues and to second-guess intentions. The presumption is, of course, that most people aren’t really aware of all the “issues” prompting their behavior. Another common presumption is that people wouldn’t act in hurtful ways if they weren’t dealing with some unmet need, fear, or insecurity underneath. It quickly became a mantra in my work with one-time victims to firmly advocate the principle to “judge actions, not intentions.” Actions speak so much louder than words. It doesn’t really matter how loudly a misbehaving person protests that they really didn’t mean any harm or that they’re being unfairly judged. What matters is that their behavior be allowed to speak for itself. And if it’s harmful or destructive behavior, it needs to be confronted, and the person exhibiting it needs to be held accountable for correcting it. Most importantly, rather that taking on an unwarranted burden to both second-guess the other person’s intentions and then try to attend to some presumed underlying need, it’s imperative to assess the maturity and integrity of their character by judging their pattern of behavior.

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I know so many people who got into destructive relationships in the first place because even though they saw the warning signs of problem behaviors, they spent too much mental time and energy guessing about the person’s motives, often presuming that some insecurity, underlying pain, or fear was behind it and it would disappear with enough love and understanding on their part. By the time they’d begun to question this perspective, they were generally already enmeshed in a bad situation. Adopting the principle of judging actions and not intentions empowers a person to enter relationships in a position of equal advantage, where each person is accountable for their own behavior and their patterns of behavior stand as a testament to their level of character development.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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