I am amazed how wise people who love and want the best for us usually have the capacity to analyze our relationships much better than we do. I can’t tell you how much easier my life would have been had I heeded my mother’s advice on relational issues. I have a counselor who often says, “Wisdom is our ability to live what we tell others.” Oh, I can sit down with most folks for an hour and listen to them talk about their lives and relationships and at the end of that hour, identify most of the emotional dysfunctions and toxic relationships in their lives and even suggest potential solutions. The real question for me has always been why can’t I do the same thing for myself.
One of my favorite stories related to this same issue is about the advice Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Maya Angelou gave Oprah Winfrey during a heart-to-heart about the talk show host’s unhealthy relationship at the time. Oprah opened up about how she felt constantly let down by the man she was dating. Angelou responded, “Why are you blaming the other person? He showed you who he was. . . . Why must you be shown twenty-nine times before you can see who they really are?” These words stuck with Oprah, who, over the years, amended this wise advice to say,
“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time!”
In my new book, The Rewired Brain, I explain how the primitive parts of our brain responsible for unconscious feelings of attraction and loneliness perpetuate this “love is blind” phenomenon. This part of our brain tries to insist on feelings and reactions such as: “he/she can change,” “things will get better,” “maybe I need to try harder,” or ‘I just don’t want to be alone,” especially when we have experienced certain childhood traumas or neglect. A few years back, I had a provoking conversation with a female acquaintance. She told me that after her husband’s third affair, she was so exasperated that she screamed at him, “Who are you?” He looked at her with eyes cold as ice and for the first time told the truth. He answered,
“I am who I’ve always been.”
This was the man he had always shown himself to be, but she was simply unable/ unwilling to see it. Habits are what people do without thinking. When you observe consistent habit patterns in another, it is unlikely they will change unless they have a deep desire to do so. However, we do have the capacity override the unconscious feelings of attraction and loneliness, and actually believe a man the first time he tells you he doesn’t want a serious relationship or believe a woman the first time she treats you like she doesn’t care.
In other, non-intimate relationships, your conscious mind has the capacity to believe the family member, the colleague, or the friend when their actions speak louder than words. You can see the true colors of a sibling who always tries to borrow money without any intention of paying it back. You can see the true colors of a co-worker who constantly tries to pawn off work on you. You can see the true colors of a friend who is always too busy when you need a listening ear.
In my new book, I focus a great deal on how we can enhance our capacity to make these critical evaluations. This ability depends on several factors. First and foremost, it is critical that we feel worthy, precious and loveable, and know that we do not deserve abusive behavior! For me, a critical part of this process is to understand God’s grace and embrace how precious He believes me to be. Addressing childhood traumas is also critical to addressing emotional dysfunctions and our perception of worth.
All of these are critical tools for all of us to recognize the character of people and believe people the first time when they show us who they truly are.
(Cover photo for this blog post is credited to Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN))