The Gap Between Intention and Action

Clinical Hypnotherapist, Life Coach and TED talk speaker Sonia Samtani explores the gap between intentions and actions, and the consequences of what can happen when the two don’t align.
10 Aug 2022
Words by: Sonia Samtani

Have you ever said “I didn’t mean to do that”, or “that was not my intention”?

Most of us would have said or felt this at some point, usually when things turn out differently from the way we intended them to be. The truth is, that sometimes we get the outcomes we aim for and sometimes we won’t – that’s just the way life is. It may sound obvious, yet most of us don’t know how to respond with wisdom when our actions don’t yield the consequences we intend. We live with the hidden expectation that the results of our actions should be aligned to what we intended, and that intention is enough; we don’t know how to accept or take responsibility when the consequences of our actions are unexpected, which can end up hurting us and the people around us too.

I have seen so many couples stuck in perpetual arguments where one party says “I didn’t mean to hurt you” or “I didn’t intend to lose our savings”, while the other one says “but you still did it!” Intentions are important, yet they don’t absolve us from taking responsibility for the consequence of our actions. Unavoidably, we sometimes hurt others with our actions even if we didn’t mean to, and it’s important to know how to address the situation and restore trust in our relationships so we can move forward.

Photograph by Vittorio Ciccarelli
Photograph by Vittorio Ciccarelli
“Fundamentally, we need to understand that our intentions and actions are fully under our control, and that we are responsible for them. And while the results of our intentions are not under our control, we can still learn from them.”

The law of ‘unintended consequences’ is often quoted by economists who study the actions of the government and their unanticipated or unintended effects on society. We have all been impacted by unexpected consequences, so it would be good to anticipate and expect them to occur, especially when embarking on something new. Whenever we’re doing something for the first time, we don’t have any past references, and it’s natural for there to be unforeseen consequences; be they beneficial, neutral, or damaging. And though we can reduce the chances of the damaging ones through careful planning, presence of mind, and detailed execution, we still cannot guarantee results. But if we can start by accepting that unintended consequences exist, we can be more open to learning from them, rather than being attached to our intentions.

The quality of our intentions are influenced by our mindset and level of awareness, and will evolve as we grow. Sometimes our intentions themselves can be sabotaging; like if we intend to please someone to fill our need for validation and ignore our own needs, or intend to hurt another because we are in pain. When our intentions come from fear or of lack, the impact is generally harmful.

Fundamentally, we need to understand that our intentions and actions are fully under our control, and that we are responsible for them. And while the results of our intentions are not under our control, we can still learn from them. If we are able to recognise this, we can save ourselves from a lot of disappointment and be more grounded in reality.

With this understanding, we can expect to experience 4 types of situations as we go through life:

  1. When our intentions, our actions, and our results are all aligned.

  2. When our actions don’t produce the results that we intended.

  3. When we take action without setting any conscious intentions at all.

  4. When we have intentions but don’t take any action at all.

Here are some simple guidelines on how to respond in each scenario:

1. When our intentions, our actions, and our results are all aligned

This is a comfortable situation that feels good. We had a clear intention, took action, and got what we wanted. A great way to deal with this is to acknowledge the results, know what worked, and how to repeat it for next time.

Healthy response:
The risk is when we take for granted that the results can be consistently duplicated without understanding what it took from us; and don’t account for variances of the environment. The only advice here would be to be present to what worked, and be open for things to change if any variable is different.

2. When our actions don’t give us intended results

This may be a harsh reality to face, depending on the severity of the consequence. It is common to be in denial and avoid dealing with the results of your actions when they’ve been harmful. People can get defensive, ignore the situation, or deny that it happened at all. The main thing people itch to avoid is the judgment of being labelled ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, which usually makes them feel unaccepted or like ‘a failure’. The other extreme is those who have faced the result, internalized the judgment, and are wallowing in self-blame. The guilt and shame of being wrong becomes a self-punishment, and can prevent people from discovering anything from the situation that they can do differently next time.

Healthy response:
Have the courage to face reality. Know that this is not associated with your self-worth, and keep an open mind in order to learn and grow. Learn how to disassociate your behaviours from your self-worth, and understand that even if you did something damaging it doesn’t mean you are worthless or broken. It’s from this space that you can acknowledge your intentions, accept the result that was different from your intentions, and recognize what there is to learn in order to express it to all those involved. Once you’ve done this, you can truly move forward.

Photo by Erik Östensson, from photobook “Untitled”,  man leaning and gazing into a bowl of water with his reflection
Photograph by Erik Östensson
Photo by Erik Östensson, from photobook “Untitled”,  man leaning and gazing into a bowl of water with his reflection
Photograph by Erik Östensson

3. When we take action without thinking of intentions

Actions without intentions are often taken with little awareness. These actions are taken when we are on autopilot mode, and not fully present to what we are doing. The byproduct of unintentional action is that we don’t feel fully present, purposeful; nor do we actualize our potential. Even when we do something that could be beneficial, such as saying affirmations or expressing love, if we are not present and connected to why we are doing it, the results will be less fruitful.

Healthy response:
Intention is a powerful tool which gives us clarity and channels our energies in the direction we desire. If you know why you are doing something, it makes you more mindful, so when things don’t go your way, you are able to tap into your inner resources and respond to the situation in the best way.

4. When we have intentions, but don’t take any action at all

When we have lots of ideas and great intentions, yet still don’t take action, we need to be responsible for that too! Both action and inaction are choices, and every choice we make is under our control – we are responsible for them. People who have a lot of ideas and don’t implement them are not necessarily lazy; their lack of action is usually driven by fear or self-doubt. They may be scared of failing, or feel incompetent, or scared of being judged for the results of their actions, and thus feel safer not to take action at all.

Healthy response: To move through this, I encourage people to self-reflect and identify their own block, and work on being able to face the worst-case scenario that they are fearing; and start to understand that they have the tools to move past it. If you can face the worst, and trust that you can move through it, then you don’t need to fear it. Instead, think of the result you do want, and visualize yourself taking action towards it. The lesson here is about surrendering to the fact that you cannot have 100% control over the environment or result, and to take action anyway.

Photo by Ron Jude, from “Lago” series, Boy Floating in Water
Photograph by Ron Jude

Ultimately, it’s okay if your intentions are not aligned with your actions. It happens to the best of us, and we have the tools to move forward and restore our alignment. When we seek to understand why there is a gap between intentions and action, we would find that a lot of our intentions are not fully thought through or grounded in reality. Sometimes we can be idealistic, and other times pessimistic. So, instead of oscillating between the glass being half full or half empty, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the glass is both half full and empty, and we understand that we have a choice over how we feel, and what we do about it!

I would end by saying that intention, action, and responsibility are all equally important. The more we operate from awareness, the more we can act from a place of wisdom where we are mindful enough to set an intention, driven enough to take action, and grounded enough to take responsibility for the consequences.