Love them or hate them, forming new year’s intentions are part of many people’s ritual in leaving one year behind and making way for a new one. The question is, based on developmental science, is forming intentions a helpful thing to do?
‘Intention’ is defined as something we aim towards and are determined to bring about. Our intentions reveal what we hope to accomplish, how we choose to steer forward, and indicate how we will spend our energy and time.
Intentions, as opposed to ‘resolutions’ are important because they reveal something about us. They speak to our desires, hopes, and values. Most importantly, our intentions reveal what we care about and are a direct line to matters of the heart. Overall they signify that we have a heart that feels and a mind that can put words to inner yearnings.
Intentions are about hope, one of the most vulnerable human emotions of all. Why? Because what we hope for reveals our deepest desires. Hope is the path we create that will take us from where we are and towards fulfillment. In voicing our desires, we face loss as we recognize we’re not where we want to be.
What intentions reveal is the soft heart that lies underneath them. Soft hearts are the place from which all things can be nurtured and grown. Intentions reveal one’s vulnerability as a human being.
Our intentions make us unique and separate from others. It is critical that they emerge from within us and are shaped on the heels of our desires. Intentions cannot be gleaned from someone else’s lists, instructions, scripts, mantras, directions, or suggestions. The very nature of an intention is that they must be formed by us. Intentions are personal and reveal the person within.
As we steer towards our intentions we will likely feel conflict and experience the impediments that lay in our path. Mixed emotions may rise to meet us – from desire to frustration, from alarm to caring, from sadness to hope. These emotions will create inner conflict and turmoil, a state we often try to run from instead of make room for. What we fail to realize is that our intentions are meant to steer us to this place of tension, where we must grab the steering wheel in our own life and find a way to emerge, perhaps with tears as part of the process.
What developmental science tells us is that the self is born through intentions. What we aim for serves to define us. When we ask our kids, “Can I count on you to use your words next time you are frustrated?” we are inviting them to get their hands on the steering wheel of their own emotions.
What intentions reveal is a self that is sophisticated enough that it can assume responsibility for one’s life and can aim in a direction of one’s choosing. When we can form our own intentions’, we are never lost because our inner voice is there to guide us forward.
Intentions are not about outcomes — they are a celebration of human vibrancy and vitality. Having our own intentions is how we can avoid getting caught up or worried about how we measure up or compare to others. Intentions are a celebration of our uniqueness and separateness – the antidote in a world full of copycats, and being among those who lack integrity and authenticity.
If we want our children to be internally motivated and to become their own separate person we must start with their intentions. We must court their meanings, motives, purpose, desires, and yearnings. We must encourage them to take the steering wheel in their own life and to chart a course forward, despite apprehension or fear, and by being fuelled by their desire and caring. While parents must give children a relational base to grow from, kids must also come to know their own worth through their hands, tears, and desires.
Intentions must also be tempered with the knowledge of life’s futility. Our desires often exceed our human capability and we can see much farther than we often achieve. Pursuits must be tempered with knowing that things don’t always work out and that we don’t always control everything. But the good news is that it is not the outcome that defines us most of all but the striving and willingness to pursue something that has meaning to us. Without movement, we are inert, stuck – we are not fully alive.
While intentions are highly personalized, there are a few strategies that can help harness the developmental power they create.
- Protect against and resist the urge to adopt someone else’s mantras, instructions, and motives. Invite your children to tell you about their meanings and desires and listen to the ones that exist inside of you.
- Make room for the expression of intentions whether that is through quiet time, artistic expression, music, to movement. Do whatever it is that allows you to listen in to yourself and create spaces for your children to hear themself, which is often achieved through play.
- Consider how your intentions are reflection of your desires and what you are attached to. As you put words to your yearnings consider what they say about you and reflect about your own meanings and motives.
- Listen for the emotions that will be stirred up in the wake of aiming towards your intentions and make room for them. Remember that intentions are meant to drive you to this place, do not run from it but sit in the middle of the tension between where you are and what you desire.
- Make intentions part of an ongoing ritual of your own choosing. Some people meditate in the morning while others find different spaces and places to listen in and reflect on their intentions. It is only important that we find space for reflection, and not that it take a certain form or expression.
We must yearn in the direction of our choosing to give birth to internal motivation and striving. Intentions are the expressions of the self in its creation. If someone asks us at the end of the day – “did you live well?” – I hope we can answer from that place inside of us where our intentions are born and say, “yes I did – and I did it my way.”
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is the author of Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), is on faculty at the Neufeld Institute, and Director of Kid’s Best Bet, a counselling and family resource center. For more information please see www.macnamara.wpengine.com and www.neufeldinstitute.org.