The Best Relationship Advice: “When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them”

The golden rule for relationships – any type of relationships – is encapsulated in 9 words: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”

Such are the words of wisdom shared by Dr. Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah added onto what Dr. Angelou said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Don’t wait until the 29th time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you.

Here is a great story to illustrate this Golden Rule for Relationships. In the memoir Educated, Tara Westover shared her struggles living with her abusive brother Shawn. A brother who called her a whore. Broke her toe. Dragged her on the floor. Pushed her head into the toilet.

Tara recalled the day when she was assaulted again by Shawn:

That night, with a heavily wrapped wrist (hurt by Shawn), I scratch out a journal entry. I ask myself questions. Why didn’t he stop when I begged him? It was like getting beaten by a zombie…like he couldn’t hear me.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Tara struggled to find an explanation for Shawn’s abusive behavior:

I began to reason with myself…I decide that if I had asked (him to stop hurting me) differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Such is the paradox of fabricating an excuse to explain why someone mistreated us: on one hand, excuses serve as a painkiller – by telling lying to ourselves that he/she is neither crazy nor hurting us on purpose, by telling pretending to ourselves that he/she still cares about us, we numb the pain with a false sense of control. We feel as if we could not control what happened to us in the past, we could at least control how we feel about it at present – even at the cost of ignoring the discrepancies between reality and our perception of it.

On the other hand, the excuses we fabricate are the deadliest poison that kills our self-esteem, the tightest chains that defines our slavery. The excuses are the reasons we stay, even though we would like to be treated better. Because somehow we tricked ourselves into believing the pain of staying & withering a little every day is better than the pain of leaving & tearing apart. We think we are hiding in a safe haven by staying, but in reality we are digging our own graves by not leaving.

As Tara continued to reflect and replay the assault scene in her head, she had a sudden revelation:

His expression is unforgettable: not anger or rage. There is no fury in it. Only pleasure, unperturbed. Then a part of me understands, even as I begin to argue against it, that my humiliation was the cause of that pleasure. It was not an accident or side effect. It was the objective.

This half-knowledge works in me like a kind of possession, and for a few minutes I’m taken over by it. I rise from my bed, retrieve my journal, and do something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestion. I write what I remember.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

And here comes my favorite part of Tara’s reflection. She wrote in her journal: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you...He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.” The illusion of empowerment brought by our excuses always dies down. In its place, at its core, is the erosive power that feeds on our self-esteem.

It is not easy. It is damn hard to walk away from the people you love and care about. But to get the relationships we deserve, we must abide by the 9-word rule: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” Believe that they are not who you think they are (or would want them to be). Believe that they are not meant for you, nor compatible with your identity. Believe that leaving is an easier & better option than you imagine it to be.

It is the truth – truth of the world, truth with ourselves – that always sets us free.

I end with this quote by Dr. Maya Angelou:

When a person says to you that “I’m mean” or “I’m selfish” or “I’m unkind” or “I’m crazy” – believe them. They know themselves better than you do.

Dr. Maya Angelou

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