I saw this quote from Maya Angelou recently and it stayed with me.

The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them.

Its a hard lesson to learn. We want to be trusting and forgiving, but end up suffering when we see the signs but refuse to follow them. Most of us have at least one relationship we can look back on and in hindsight we can pinpoint the exact moments when people revealed their true character. Whether out of generosity or naivety, we ignore the signs.

Many years ago I had a regular lunch with a group of older men. One of them was in a position of trust in the community. I knew he wasn’t behaving well; drinking heavily, touching waitresses inappropriately and making bigoted comments. I excused him on account of his age and said it was the alcohol talking. I should have believed him. He was showing me who he was. I later learnt more and saw firsthand the devastation caused by his behavior.

I sometimes wonder how different life would have been if I’d believed him the first time he showed me who he was.

I’ve been schooled in this lesson several times in my life. I’m setting the intention to start believing people when they tell me who they are.

I still want to allow plenty of room for second chances. I’ve needed enough of them myself. But where’s the line between second chances and being naive?

Maybe its in the distinction between making mistakes because we’re confused about who we are, and locking into a habitual way of being that is abusive. We can forgive the former. The latter is a neon sign that says, “Believe me. This is me. Run!”

For people who take pride in being open and trusting, there’s another important distinction. You can have compassion for someone without trusting them. Trust is something that is earned, often lost, and regained, over and over again. Don’t confuse trust with forgiveness. They operate differently. You usually forgive people well before you trust them. You might forgive an apologetic jewel thief, but not leave him alone in a jewelry store. You might forgive people who have hurt you, but not leave them alone with your heart. Work at forgiveness, and let trust grow in time.

It takes both courage and compassion to stand up to bullies.

1. People act like bullies because they are themselves hurting. (compassion)

2. Don’t tolerate being bullied by them. (strength)

This sort of courage changes the whole dynamic. Saying “enough!” to bullies is completely appropriate. Saying “enough!” with compassion changes the whole dynamic.

Scratch the surface of a bully of any age and you find a scared kid, searching for love. But its their karma. You can’t protect them from it. They need to find an appropriate way to find that love without abusing others. The kindest thing we can do for bullies is to stop inhaling their karma and leave them to face themselves.

Believe in yourself and the value of your life too much to ignore the signs. If you are being bullied by a parent, spouse, friend or coworker, they’ve shown you who they are. Believe them. Protect yourself. And move on. I’ve seen my children do it. We all can do it.

Imagine how different life would be if we listened to our gut the first time it told us to stand up for ourselves, step away from a relationship or demand to be treated with respect.

As Stephen Covey said,

I teach people how to treat me by what I will allow.

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  1. Debz says:

    I just love your writings Ian. Period! :)

  2. Kenneth Vogt says:

    I love your statement “stop inhaling their karma”. What a great concept! I have enough of my own karma, thank-ya-very-much, I sure don’t need anybody else’s, especially if they are being something like a bully.

    As you note, compassionate people are the ones who have the hardest time with seeing people as they are, probably because they don’t want to “judge” them. The answer of course is not to give up on compassion but it does require a new tool in their toolbox. Here is that tool:  http://www.veraclaritas.com/judgment-vs-assessment/

  3. ian says:

    thanks Debz, much appreciated.

  4. bertie says:

    People showing you what they really are – but the trouble with that is that we are programmed so much by the media – sometimes  as simple as black hat and white hat – this is not sound.  Our measure of people should be by what they do in the long term. Not when we see them doing something we dont like the look of.  
    As far as people are concerned, inspite of considerable experience, i nurture my naivete and am frightened of the day when i might loose it.

    Bullys hurting may be accurate of some but definatly not all – how do you talk down a person who is not interested in anything you have to say and is entirely intent on hurting you?

    Many years ago i developed the philosophy of zero tolerance to bullying. 
     At school i was subject to gross bullying – the idea was to get me so riled i would retalitate – always a bigger boy or several - So i developed the idea that you have to put the bully down so hard that he cant get up and at you, but first there has to be a purely physical act or action on his part.  One private school was very disturbed by this and called a phsycologist – they were further disturbed when the phsycologist told them my reactions were perfectly natural and that the problem lay with them – i had to leave.

    At work one guy i put in hospital stood up for me when the bosses wanted to prosecute me for putting him there, even requesting friendship, but i was too disgusted - a very big man and his friend wanted to fight me over a very simple mistake i made - he stood in front of the car while his friend came up from behind – not quite the sort of thing that a responsible citizen would do, but having carefully considered the options and the consequences i met him on his terms by running him over.
    Perhaps with bullies its about having the self respect that they lack. Taking back the initiative they are trying to steal.
    Hmm, would it be accurate to say that with action comes dignity?
    Or inaction looses you dignity?  

  5. Fiona says:

    Hi Ian
    I love your site and frequent it,  as always searching for answers, but this post highlighted something that has been on my mind for sometime now…
    Whilst  in search of the truth, and striving to be a better human myself; I have noticed so often, many conflicting things being said, that I find myself questioning what to believe.
    You had a previous post – the quote from Abraham Lincoln “I do not like that man, I must get to know him better”… would you not say that this is a contradiction to saying: The first time someone shows you who they are, believe them?
    Surely the initial dislike of someone comes from that first encounter… and therefore is it not as you say, your first encounter telling you that there is something to dislike…. so you listen to it?
    I took the liberty of using this as an example… as I feel there is so much out there and at times it is very difficult to get clarity when this happens…  have I got this wrong or am I looking at this from the wrong angle?  
     

  6. ian says:

    Its a great question Fiona. I think its a subtle difference- the first one (Lincoln) is your reaction to someone else (dislike). The second one is their character. The way I think you can tell the difference is ego and it takes a lot of self awareness. Dislike is annoyance, which is masking something unresolved within like self loathing. When its more like sadness and you can honestly say that you’re not feeding your ego, you may have seen someone for who they are. As I said, the distinction takes a lot of self awareness. Thanks for asking.

  7. Lucy says:

    A few years ago I heard the statement “teach people how to treat you” – we all need to take responsibility for our own actions.  How we want people to treat us is more our responsibility that we realize.  Along the same lines, I also heard from Brene Brown this quote: “People have to earn the right to hear your story”.    When we balance these two statements with trust and respect, relationships can be very fulfilling.  

  8. Shelley says:

    A whole hearted yes, Ian, speaking from my own experience. 

  9. Lily says:

    This is so tough when it’s a parent. My father is a bully. I see and know his sad, sad history, and how he learned to cope by bullying others. I have plenty of compassion for him.So much that I have allowed him to treat me badly for years. I admit i suffer from guilt every single day because I have finally decided at 48 yrs old. to keep my distance. I keep thinking I should be able to overlook his bad behavior because I know it comes from pain. Any suggestions?

  10. bertie says:

    I have a close relative who doubtless feels guilt at the way she has behaved but for some reason this just makes her behaviour worse.  Recently i tried to get her to talk about it – in fact it was a last attempt – she told me that as far as she was concerned there was no problem as she has” learnt to forgive herself.”Over the years every time ive tried to talk to her about her actions ive forgiven her, but finally i decided that i should let her have what she has worked so hard for. So the advice i give to you Lily is either set your fathers pants on fire – or walk away and never look back.   The worst thing you can do is nothing and hope it gets better – it wont.

  11. Lily says:

    Thanks Bertie. I dont know what you mean by “set your fathers pants on fire” Will you explain?

  12. bertie says:

    In situations like this i have a number of tick boxes – you must give the person who is causing this clear and concise information as to how he or she is causing you grief, then you outline your actions and thats that – you have done everysinglethingyoucan. In 90% of cases i found that simply made it worse(their disrespect was so bad)  but then i followed up with the last named action and that was to walk away.However some kind of action always made me feel better.   With bullies it was some kind of action they could not retaliate against – really just being a few steps ahead was helpful.  At the end of the day this is about you – not about them.So setting you fathers pants on fire was a metaphor – there are many ways to do this without causing injury (hihi) 

  13. Lily says:

    Got it, thanks! I firmly believe if he was capable of  honoring me and be respectful, he wouldnt be a bully in the first place. It’s his blind spot. No amount of sharing my side, needs, etc. does any good.  He behaves for awhil, but it always slips out as soon as I disappoint him in any way.

  14. Mary says:

    Thanks Ian!  Very timely reminder for me.  I am so grateful for the inspirations you share.  They are indeed soulseeds for me.  

  15. Jenny says:

    Dear Ian,I’m going to print this article and share it with my family.  I am astounded at the timing of these thoughts arriving  just after I have walked away from a friendship for the precise reasons you have so eloquently crafted.  The comfort I have just received from your son’s action fills me with gratitude.My friend is an alcoholic.  Divorced. Fighting bravely yet underhandedly for full custody of her three children who behave like bullies to one another.  They do not show kindness and they believe that screaming and violence are the norm.  I allowed my alcoholic, co-dependent friend to manipulate and boss me around for four years because my young son wanted so much to be friends and to play with these rough and tumble kids who were confused and lost.  Last month I bravely walked out on all of them; a painful but necessary bold action.  My values just came into serious conflict with my friend, and I am standing my ground by maintaining a separate life.  I left with kind words and some written advice, which of course was taken as self righteousness.  I still believe that I needed those written words of advice to ensure that my separation would be taken with utmost seriousness.  The pen is effective and lasting.  And probably painful for the reader.But your words today have helped me so much and I thank you!

  16. bertie says:

    Your life – you own it – own up to it.

  17. ian says:

    hi Jenny, be well and I’m glad to hear you’re trusting your instincts. Make it a life habit.

  18. Kim Wilslef says:

    great article – I just stumbled across your site recently and wondered how you have developed all these insights.   I’ve just recently started learning and beginning to be able to distinguish the difference between healthy relationships and people and unhealthy people or unhealthy relationships.  I think what helped me start seeing the difference was focusing on those in my life that where healthy. Thinking about all the examples of healthy people in my life – people that I can talk to and carry on a conversation with adult to adult, gives me the models to compare against those that aren’t. 

  19. Trish says:

    I have dealt with a fair share of childhood and astonishingly enough more adult bullies than I can count. . . the truth is sometimes, especially in the adult world, there is not a whole lot you can do about circumstances involved especially if a job, a raise, a mutual child, or in my most recent circumstance a dog. But just like when you take medication, a reaction to a medication is undesirable. . . a response to medication is good. So take that moment to self empathize and choose to respond not to react. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to say nothing and walk away. Also, the other person does not have to listen to what you have to say and rarely will . . . but the fact that you responded instead of reacted will confuse them and cause them to react even more. . . amusing or frightening depending :)Check out the non-violent and compassionate communication  manual by Marshall Rosenberg. I think the most amusing week of my life was when I practiced it enough to feel I could use it in daily life and that is how I communicated with everyone I came across.

  20. Shivani Roy says:

    Hello beautiful people,Something I needed to hear and share with those in need. Thank you Ian..so true and so simple yet tough job to do..but as is with all tests and trials …this too needs practise and faith in ourselves till finally we get it all right. Thank you. 

  21. Jenna says:

    This came right at the perfect time… it’s a sign. Thank you.

  22. Wow Ian. It seems that this is a topic that’s hitting a nerve for a lot of people. I love what you have to say on the topic. I wrote a recent blog post about how to spot users and break free of them and it was my top ranking post. The problem with those who do take advantage of others, no matter what the reason, is the negative effect it has on our ability to openly be the giving people our hearts want us to be. The idea of believing people when they FIRST show us who they are can save a lot of heartache and necessary healing. It’s taken years to learn this but knowing when to trust allows me to live safely with an open heart. Thanks for sharing your journey. The more people who do, the safer we all are.

  23. Jacqueline says:

    Perfect timing for me, too, Ian.  Since my mother’s funeral in 2002,  my adult ‘children’ (41 and 38 now) have been systematically bullying me ~ first one, then the other and lately both. After 12 years of being open~hearted, sending out love and justifying their words and actions towards myself and my second husband (not their father), I realised yesterday that their treatment of me is outright abuse. They’re acting like hormonal teens and have responded to my attempts to establish ground rules by un~friending me from Facebook (?!) so I can no longer see photos or read about my grandchildren (4 and 3). The moral dilemma of how to handle this has been crippling ~ you ‘re supposed to love your kids unconditionally, right? But what mine have done and the way they are being makes me feel sick inside. If they weren’t related to me, I wouldn’t choose to be acquainted with them. I feel sorry for my grandchildren and miss them but I’ve had to harden my heart, for the sake of my own health and sanity.  Yes, they showed signs of their true natures (my son once beat up my husband for no apparent reason and didn’t speak to us for three years.) We’ve always forgiven and even began to trust, in the belief that all the drama was part of growing up and that, by showing them love and acceptance, they’d understand and reciprocate. In fact that seemed to make them even more vicious ~ I guess they think we’re weak. I’m truly grateful for this article and for all the comments which validate and support our conclusion that the best thing we can do is walk away and put our energy into making our own lives the best that they can be. Thank you :)

  24. Barry Lee Marris says:

    Maya Angelou said in an interview, “trust your first impressions, they are usually right.”   A simple maxim, but looking back, profoundly true.   Let people earn their second chance, why give them a freebie?  We, bleeding hearts, are very vulnerable to the carnies out there who will jump on us and pick our spiritual pockets.   If they look like a jerk, walk like a jerk, and smell like a jerk, they have earned their own title. We have no spiritual obligation to forgive.   We do have a moral obligation to condemn.  Time is in charge of forgiveness, we are in charge of letting people get away with morally repugnant behavior. Barry Lee Marris