Let’s admit it. We feel great when we commit to doing something good for someone. We give ourselves psychic rewards, the self-congratulatory “Atta girl” that confirms that we are good people. Gold star achieved. What’s interesting is that because we have already received this powerful psychological reward for intending to do good, the obligation to actually do the thing is weakened.
That is, in the moment that you make a commitment to do a good thing your brain is flooded with the same positive self-regard you get when you actually do the thing. Good intentions are their own reward - the road to hell notwithstanding.
Consider your morning affirmation ritual. It used to be that we could only feel good about ourselves by actually doing good. But now we can feel good about ourselves just by saying to ourselves that we are good. The affirmation ritual works – and is a bit beguiling. By saying to yourself that you are already good, you may feel less constrained to actually be good. The result? A self-perception that is miles from the reality.
Yeah, we all know that guy.
Thoughts are not really things
There’s a strong temptation to shortcut the hard work of building relationships and to symbolize rather than demonstrate affection. And it doesn’t help that we live in a time of emotional cyber-gestures and affection decoys.
We are emoji huggers and air kissers and virtual gift givers. I myself am guilty. I’ve sent emoji kisses to people I probably wouldn’t kiss if they were standing right in front of me.
We can get so distracted by the daily grind that we are seduced into living our relationships in our heads, giving ourselves psychological points for intending to demonstrate affection through actions that we never really get around to. But real relationships require real effort; consistent conspicuous effort over time, relevant to the person’s needs.
It’s the thought that counts - NOT
We can become so involved with the business of living that we are lulled into the belief that tender thoughts and feelings alone are enough to satisfy a loved one.
When two people suddenly split on the grounds that one partner feels unloved, the other partner is often totally surprised: “I love you, and I think about you all the time,” he protests, but she never felt the impact of his unexpressed thoughts and neglected intentions.
In order to be real, the good intentions you are having in your head must be (1) communicated and (2) actualized by doing. Thoughts must become actions to be real.
Nevertheless, because we are human beings our intentions will most likely always outrun the performance of them. So what do we do?
Commitment of a different kind
You express your intention to visit your mother every Sunday. This intention pays you huge psychic dividends, but you end up visiting every other Sunday, then maybe once a month resulting in hurt feelings and mamma drama.
Perhaps try this next time, “I’ll have Sunday dinner with you as often as I can” and really mean it. Think before you make a commitment and make sure it is something that you can (and are willing to) actually do.
One reason we don’t follow through with our intentions is our ambivalence about doing the thing in first place. We might tell a friend “I will be there to help for sure!’ while at the same time we’re feeling some resentment about the imposition on our time or the lack of reciprocity from the friend. There is a way out.
Before you give your word, try to be aware of any resistance or reluctance you are feeling, then deal with those feelings before committing yourself. It’s better not to commit than to do so, then renege later when you are needed.
While the mind is a beautiful thing it can be a powerfully fertile source of self-deception. We all want to feel that we are good people but the evidence should be more about what we do rather than what we intend to do. Otherwise, you’ll find there’s a big gap between what you think of yourself and how you’re really showing up.
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