Of my Seven Personal Commandments, Assume Positive Intent might be the most challenging for me. I’m not proud to admit it, but I tend to go to a “they’re all out to get me” place when things aren’t going the way I want them to. I look around for someone to blame. And frequently the person I spot is my husband. As the only adults in our household, he and I are the only ones responsible for getting everything done sunup to sundown (and several hours beyond on either end). If I have too much to do, that automatically means he’s not doing as much as he ought to. I know this isn’t (necessarily) true, but that’s the first place I go when I’m feeling overwhelmed, which is way more of the time than I’d like. (But then, how much of the time would I like to feel overwhelmed?)
“Assume Positive Intent” is a phrase that I got from my compulsive reading of parenting books. I think the first place I read it might have been Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis and Janis Keyser (I might be wrong about this, though. I can’t check it because I loaned the book to another mom). This was the text for the Parent Education portion of the Parent-Participation Preschool that my daughter and I attended when we lived in California. The idea is basically that our children aren’t trying to drive us crazy; that’s just a side effect of them trying in whatever way they can think of to connect with us or to understand or whatever it is they’re trying to do. Assuming positive intent helps us to avoid the power struggles and negative feelings associated with thinking our kids are acting maliciously. I’ve since read similar sentiments in other books. In Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline series, she explains that everything children do, including the “inappropriate” behaviors, are for the purpose of meeting an unmet need. It’s our job as parents to identify the needs our children are trying to meet and help them learn to meet these needs in a more acceptable fashion.
I think assuming positive intent can be extended to all people regardless of age. Each of us is trying to make things work for us in the only ways we know how. These ways may be woefully misguided at times, but that doesn’t make the need we’re trying to meet any less valid. Of course, the extent to which we become involved in helping other adults to meet their needs is a lot more a matter of choice for us than the extent to which we’re involved in helping our children meet their needs.
I really want to assume positive intent. But I find that it takes a lot of effort. A lot of effort. In the course of writing these 3.2 paragraphs, my daughter has come out of her bedroom three times giving me reasons why she can’t fall asleep, and my husband has walked through twice making off-hand comments to me that don’t require a response but that break my concentration. I feel very annoyed when I’m interrupted while trying to think something through, and it takes a great deal of effort just to get my train of thought back on track, much less avoid thinking that my family are deliberately trying to sabotage my sanity (which thought generally leads to me acting insane).
Upon further reflection, I fear it may have been a fit of delusional optimism that led me to include Assume Positive Intent in my list of Personal Commandments. Although it’s possible that it was a fit of delusional optimism that led me to embark on a Happiness Project in the first place. The thought that I can bring more joy to my life by adding more things to my already packed schedule is a little bit out there. I’m still going to do it, though. I’m a believer in the idea that any improvement one seeks to realize requires more work in the beginning. I’m hopeful that if I put in this extra work now, I’ll feel more joy and ease as the months progress. With any luck, I’ll succeed at being ambitious but realistic in practicing my resolutions.
And there’s my daughter for the fourth time, trying to meet an unmet need an hour and a half after bedtime.