Saturday, May 10, 2014

Tiger Stripes.

“When people show you who they are, believe them the first time."
~Maya Angelou

This is a hard one for many of us. It is certainly difficult for me, mostly because I genuinely want to believe the best in everyone. I think people are mostly good. I will play devil's advocate on nearly anyone's behalf, and I'll rationalize all kinds of behavior in the interest of the 'benefit of the doubt'. Conversely, I know people who immediately assume the worst about others, who consistently leap to the negative conclusion, who take no time to consider alternate explanations for the behavior they dislike. 

Neither is ideal. It's not ideal to allow someone to be disrespectful or rude and explain it away or let them off the hook over and over again. Neither is it ideal to vilify every action or inaction that displeases us. What is the best approach to interpersonal relationships is to make every effort to see others as they are. That sounds simple, but it is actually hard to do if we are being honest with ourselves. Have you heard the Anais Nin quote, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are"? I think that is quite accurate, as much as I hate to admit it. As human beings, we are constantly filtering our perception of other people through our entire lifetime of experiences and biases and insecurities. We bring ourselves to every interaction, which despite our best efforts, makes it difficult to simply see the other person objectively. We unconsciously project all kinds of things onto others that have nothing to do with them. It's neither good nor bad, it's just how people tend to be, and requires effort to interrupt. Becoming aware of these projections and making an effort to tether ourselves to the current reality is a challenge worth undertaking. 

So the point is: when someone shows you who they are, believe them. Give the benefit of the doubt when appropriate, because there are any number of legitimate reasons why good people might act poorly or the converse. And it is entirely reasonable to hope that in time, relationships will grow and people will live into their "potential". Ultimately, however, people can only be who they are. Obviously, since I'm a counselor, I truly believe, in my bones, that people can make some pretty radical changes in how they interact with the world and the people in their lives. But while we can change our behaviors or gain insight via therapy or meditation or self-help books, I do think that the fundamental core of who we are is relatively fixed. Here's another nugget for you: "A tiger cannot change its stripes." 

It would behoove all of us to stop expecting a person to change when we have already seen their stripes over and over again. Either accept them as they are, or don't, but believe that what they are showing you right now is who they are likely to continue to be. No matter how much you care about, like, or even love someone and want things to work out, be realistic. Do your best not to invent them. Let them wear their stripes in front of you. See each person clearly and accurately based on what they demonstrate with their actions, words, behaviors. Of course, everyone is complex and there are layers to each of us. I'm not saying leap to a conclusion when you first meet a person. What I am saying is: if you get a bad vibe from a person, it's probably for a reason. If they demonstrate a lack of integrity right off the bat, you can't be surprised later on when they continue to not act with integrity. If someone lies to you, or cheats on you, or treats you poorly, trust that. Forgive if you can, but understand that sometimes that person is merely being who they are. She is showing her stripes. You can go ahead and insist on waiting it out- as I have been known to do- and saying, "Oh, but s/he is really a good person…" or "He will change if I love him enough." But understand that you are (i am) equally responsible for how it turns out if the person has been consistently showing you their negative aspects and you continue to ignore all that and hope for the best. Perhaps he or she is a good person. I believe most people are decent at their core. But if he has shown himself to be unable to act like one, then continuing to ignore the clear indications he is giving you is to remain willfully ignorant of who this person is right now. 

We do this at work, in friendships, and even in our own families. We fail to see people accurately for any number of reasons. Usually the reasons are lofty. We want to preserve the relationship, or maintain a positive view of a person we respect, love, or admire. And we are particularly inclined to do this in Romantic Relationships. How often do we meet someone and are drawn to them for some reason or another, and despite all indications that it's not a good idea, despite clearly seeing their stripes, go ahead and pursue a relationship with them? I am certainly guilty of this. I have been known to ignore some glaring red flags, so please trust that I'm not throwing any stones from this glass house I'm living in. I'm working on this too and per usual, I'm just sharing what I learn as I go. I learn from my clients and the other people in my life every day. 

I'll wrap up by saying: at the end of the day, we are all of us doing the best we can. Connecting with other humans is what we are here to do, and I for one am grateful for any tools I can use to enhance the authenticity of those connections. I think if we can begin to take Ms. Angelou's advice, and begin to really see people as they are, rather than as we are, or how we want them to be, we might find ourselves in deeper, richer, more satisfying unions with one another. Fitter. Happier. 


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