A Reflection on Dr. Maya Angelou's Timeless Wisdom, "When people show you who they are believe them."

                                              Dr. Maya Angelou in 1993, Wikipedia

Dr. Maya Angelou (April 4, 1928-May 28, 2014) was an American memoirist, poet and civil rights activist. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) tells of her life up until the age of 17 and earned her international acclaim. She wrote seven autobiographies and several books of poetry.  Dr. Angelou also earned several honorary degrees. She recited her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning" (1993) at the first inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Her wisdom is highly respected, and her poems are frequently recited at poetry readings and graduations. Her quote, "When people show you who they are believe them" is very popular and one of my favorite quotes. Why? Let's discuss....

                         Dr. Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey discuss this timeless wisdom.


To understand this quote, let's work backwards. How would Dr. Angelou form this theory?  More than likely, she witnessed, personally or indirectly, that not believing what people show us may lead to suffering.


Even though human beings are complex, they are at the same time quite predictable. In the book, The 48 Laws of Power, discussed in a previous blog, people rarely do an act once. For an example, if a person lies to you once, there is a high chance that they will lie to you again.  If you personally witness a person exhibit a certain behavior, there was a reason why they showed that behavior to you. Their behavior is an indication of where they are developmentally in their life and how they feel about their relationship with you. 

We Are How We Behave

Can people change? Yes, I believe people can change. You can express your likes and dislikes to a person, and they may adjust their actions to please you. However, the true essence of who they are rarely changes very much. For an example, introverts can try being loquacious and go out more, but they are still introverted at heart. Likewise, extroverts can try being reticent and spend more time alone, but they are still extroverted at heart.  Patterns rarely change for the long-term.

Being your true self is natural, but acting like a character is unnatural. This is why some companies have a probationary period when they hire people to make sure that they are a good fit for their company. This is because a person may look good on paper on their resume, but their 'actions' are what determine their relationship skills and likeability. In our social relationships, it is wise to have a probationary period with people before you give them your heart and trust. 

When We Know Better, Then We Can Do Better

Dr. Maya Angelou's wise quote warns us to believe what we see. Trust our intuition.  When people show us characteristics that we do not find attractive, it does not mean that we must always cut them out of our life. Humans are not perfect. What it does mean is we adjust our expectations of how we interact with them.  Just as job promotions are only awarded after certain skills are acquired, we should only promote people to the higher levels of intimacy in our life after they have proven that they are worthy of trust.  It is not wise to give people access to our intimate personal life until they have proven that they are worthy. Learn the differences between friends, colleagues and associates. 

We Keep Experiencing the Same Lessons Until We Learn What We Need to Learn

Just like Oprah Winfrey, it is common for this lesson to be repeated in our life over and over again until it is finally understood because we hope that:
  • a second chance will make the relationship right
  • the person/people will change or finally start acting right
  • our love alone can make them right for us 
  • talking to the person will make a difference
  • if we hold on long enough then the dream will come true
  • the person we love and trusted is who we thought they were, or
  • the person will see the error of their ways and change for the better.

In reality, most people change only when they:
  • realize staying the same makes them suffer
  • want to, but not when you want them to
  • fear losing what they have
  • can no longer get away with their behavior due to age/illness, etc
  • make strong and consistent efforts to change after counseling, etc, or
  • are threatened with losing their freedom or lose their freedom.
As we live and learn these types of lessons in life, we know there are always exceptions to the rule. However, if you decide to give a person a second chance after they have betrayed your trust, be careful. Forgiveness does not always mean getting back together. Yes, treat all people with respect and coexist, but it is unwise to give them a key to your life after they have shown you untrustworthiness.  

A Favorite Quote

Learning to trust what people show me, instead of what they tell me, preserves my peace. Rarely am I surprised by people's behavior. 


We can learn how to be better people.  However, there are consequences to our behavior. After trust is broken, it is difficult to be rebuilt, but not always impossible.  You decide and set the parameters for re-engagement.