Her mother let her go to school with roaches in her book bag when she was seven. Their home was entirely dysfunctional, people floating in and out, lots of weed and other drugs. The water and power were often turned off. There were no regular meals, and food was left lying around.
Which is how the seven-year-old ended up at school, opening her backpack and having roaches spill out into her second grade classroom.
The above story is true. The little girl with the roach-infested backpack is now a forty-year-old professional. She has an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a Masters in systems engineering. She has a full time job, three children, and a husband. Her kids may have seen a roach, but they’ve never had them crawling out of their backpacks.
How did she make it through?
On the one hand, she’s a social service success story. After she and her siblings were taken away from her mother, they bounced around between well-intentioned foster families. When her mother’s rights were terminated, she was adopted by a professional couple who had already raised two successful children.
With the support of caring adoptive parents, and counseling to help her deal with the challenges, she left the roach-infested house behind and created a successful happy life for herself.
When asked, “Why did you do so well?” Her answer is surprising. She said, “I always knew my mother loved me.” She elaborates, “She was dysfunctional, she was selfish, she made excuses for everything. It was always somebody else’s fault. But I always knew she loved me.”
There in lies the paradox.
As humans we have a template for what being ‘good’ looks like. We quickly connect the dots between intent and actions. We look at an outward action (or inaction) and draw a direct line to internal motivation.
If our boss cared about us, he would do this. If our neighbors wanted to be friends, they would stop that.
But it doesn’t work that way. Action does not always reveal true intent. Intent is the feeling someone has about you. Actions, and inactions, are the result of their own dysfunctions and circumstances.
The dichotomy between intent and action can be startling.
Your boss may care about you, and be a terrible communicator. Your neighbors may want to be friends yet they come from a culture with completely different behaviors.
As humans, we like things in easy to understand packages. People who care act this way; people who don’t care act that way.
But human condition is more complex than that. It’s not without coincidence that the girl with the roach-infested backpack studied psychology. Through her studies, and courageous personal work, she was able to make sense of the dichotomy. Her mother loved her and she was also an excuse-maker who didn’t take responsibility for her children.
Knowing that someone has good intentions doesn’t mean you have to put up with their craziness. In fact, a clear-eyed view of the difference between their intent and their actions may be the very thing that gives you the courage to walk away.
When you know that someone cares about you, you can walk away with your heart intact. It becomes less personal. It’s not about how they feel; it’s about the way they act.