When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.
Dr. Maya Angelou
I hate to disagree with Mother Maya. About anything. She is one of my heroines, and basically a goddess.
But I have to, here. Kind of.
The first time I heard her say it was on Oprah, and I got chills. You know when someone says something true, and you feel that shift- it changes the way you think about things, or look at the world? It was one of those moments.
The only thing about that, as a philosophy, is that it doesn’t leave much room for extending grace. It doesn’t allow for mistakes. The first time is where I get a little stuck. It requires us to be judged on our worst day, potentially, and we, none of us, would want other people’s minds made up about us based solely on our least proud moment.
What resonates with me profoundly, is her use of the word show. She could have said, when people tell you who they are- but she didn’t. People tell us things about themselves that aren’t true all the time, but I think people SHOW us who they really are, over and over again. People do show you who they are, eventually, whether they want to or not.
I’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Special Ed classrooms, both as an art teacher, and a para-professional. I had more fun than should be legal, and learned way more than I ever taught. It was one of the great joys of my life.
I learned from my amazing students, my little warriors, who I carry in my heart every single day. I also learned from the phenomenal teachers I was blessed to work alongside. I learned from the speech therapists, the PT/OT staff… I learned major life lessons on a regular basis.
If you ever want to see grace in action, and love as a verb, spend some time in Special Ed.
When I was acting as an Art Docent, I worked with two classes, both of which were led by incredible teachers. One of those teachers, when a student was behaving inappropriately, would simply tilt her head and say, “Huh. That’s unexpected behavior!”
I can’t begin to tell you how much I love that.
It acknowledges that the behavior is not in line with expectations, while completely setting aside judgment. There were still consequences- natural consequences are the way we ALL learn, I think- but dealing with it that way leaves shame entirely out of the equation.
I must confess, I use this all the time. With adults, mostly. I find that when I can stand back and examine what someone is saying or doing to me that is inappropriate, and tilt my head and say (usually internally,) Huh. Unexpected! it helps me re-frame it. It helps me to set aside the anger and frustration I am feeling.
That works really well with something else I learned during the time I was working as a para-professional. We all needed to get certified in ways to handle adverse behavior in the classroom. There was a course we took that covered many areas- from de-escalation of adverse or aggressive behavior, to ways to keep yourself and your student safe if things became aggressive. I actually learned a LOT- but the one thing that really stuck with me, that inveigled its way in and has stayed in the forefront of my mind is this:
All behavior is communication.
Now, in the classroom, the biggest way that framework helped me was in dealing with our non-verbal kiddos- particularly when they were aggressive. Looking at the things they were doing through that lens helped me to understand that it largely had nothing to do with me. That, more often than not, their actions were born of frustration. They were being misunderstood, or they were in sensory overload, or needed sensory input, and lacked the verbal ability to convey that.
When you can get outside it, when you can set aside the fact that, no, it is not super fun to be hit or have something thrown at you, you can examine and try to decode the behavior without judgment. That helps you to stay calm, because you aren’t personalizing it.
And I have news for you friend, frequently- almost always, I think- other people’s behavior has precious little to do with us.
I am so grateful to have learned that lesson.
And friends, it is applicable EVERYWHERE, with EVERYONE.
When people behave a certain way, that behavior, that conduct, is meeting a need.
Think about that.
What if you could try and suspend judgment and ask yourself, what’s the need being met? Now, that is not always possible in the moment, and it isn’t an excuse for less than honorable conduct. If someone is being unsafe, toward you or toward themselves, sometimes you just need to shut the behavior down immediately- but even when that happened in the classroom, we would spend countless hours in team meetings talking about it, countless hours at home thinking about it.
I apply this in my life all the time now.
The idea of looking at behavior as information really changed something for me. The ability to not personalize every little slight, or wound has allowed me to forgive some things I would never have thought possible- in others and in myself. That’s been a gift and a blessing in my life.
I think most people mostly are really doing the very best that they can. It’s not always good enough, and their behavior isn’t always something we can or should live with, but it is always great information.