What Maya Angelou Teaches Me

Anne Lindyberg
9 min readMay 19, 2023

I couldn’t bring myself to title this article “What Maya Angelou Taught Me” because I can’t think of her in the past tense. Some people are simply too great, too powerful, larger than life. Dr. Angelou’s work and essence continue to invite me to deepen my connection with the Source of All, and all Its mysteries. Besides, artists are immortal through their work.

As a psychotherapist, many people come into my office in order to complain–confidentially of course, and that is a great draw! — about the perceived shortcomings of significant people in their lives. I have compassion for this. I’m human too. I get disappointed with my fellow humans, so I certainly won’t criticize others for that.

The particular Dr. Angelou quote upon which this essay is based is so very compelling, and rings with the deep truth of a poet’s words–”When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

It’s a statement that resonates with such deep truth that upon hearing it, I think we are sure that the full experience of hearing it will transform our lives.

And yet, we go back to being exactly as we were. Making the same choices. Every person is disappointing to others sometimes, and of course we all disappoint. Every person will live their personal frailty, and that cannot be avoided. Of course we go back to who we were a minute ago.

So what did Dr. Angelou really mean?

Let me start by saying that I have never met her, and she is no longer around to ask. Also, I have not done research by interviewing those who knew her and learned from her directly–although I could see feeling excited to do that one day, perhaps.

So this writing is purely the result of my own sitting and contemplation. The impact of Dr. Angelou’s quote on my Self: as a therapist, as a friend, as a family member, as a community member… as a human.

What are people showing us of themselves? And how?

Let’s start with the how.

I think most people in western civilizations agree that people show us themselves through their behavior. At least they show some of themselves through their behavior. Many would agree that unscripted, spontaneous behavior is more telling than something planned.

It’s one of the best reasons to go to a restaurant on a date. Experiencing how one’s date interacts with the service staff can be very… informative. A person who has internalized a deep respect for self and others, will demonstrate that to ALL others, particularly the most vulnerable–which service workers are.

Does being curt with a service worker mean an individual is a bad person? I don’t particularly like the question because I don’t believe in bad people (which is another whole discussion)… so let’s make the question a little more specific.

Does being short with a service worker mean an individual is a bad romantic fit for you?

It might. And it might not.

I’m not going to revisit all the fine things other writers have said, which can be distilled into: how a person treats the vulnerable will ultimately be how they treat you when you are vulnerable and they are overwrought. They’ll get no argument from me.

Rather, I want to relate it directly to Dr. Angelou’s statement that starts “When someone shows you who they are…”

When someone is rude or impatient with a service person, is that who they are?

Personally, I don’t think so. At our core, I believe we are all divine. We are pieces of the All That Is experiencing Themself. We are God’s fingers.

What is the person showing us with their behavior then, if they aren’t “bad”?

They are showing us how they cope. How they manage in a situation where they are feeling some sort of personal (and generally unknowable to anyone outside themselves) challenge.

And that is real. It’s real in the moment, and it’s certainly real to them. I want to be clear about that, that I respect all parties in the interaction (date, server, observer).

Things can–and often do–go in many different directions in these circumstances. Sometimes the short tempered date takes responsibility and apologizes. Sometimes they are under enormous, unknown pressure–such as the recent loss of a loved one, loss of a job, cancer diagnosis, fear of losing their home–the list goes on and on of course.

These challenges are not confined to any particular group. We all are vulnerable to loss and death.

I believe it is critical to acknowledge that the following groups of individuals:

  • Those with less access to money or supportive resources, for whatever reason;
  • Membership in a population challenged by regular–yes, systemic, that’s what systemic means–marginalization, such as (in no particular order, basically as I thought of them, so there’s my bias): BIPOC, Women, LGBTQ+; and any being who is following a path that is generally nonconforming–which is a valid, personal choice that may need to be responded to, but that we judge as wrong at our peril.

Individuals in these groups experience pressure to hide their internal challenges — their feelings and experience — from others. Sometimes enormous pressure that feels, and can even be, life threatening. These pressures cannot be known by those who do not experience them.

To make matters even more complex, we cannot truly know who and what a person is dealing with by looking at their outsides.

It is tempting to rail against white men and decry their privilege, telling them “you are the problem!” Even insisting. Particularly when their actions disappoint, annoy, anger and even scare us. And of course, many things must be confronted. And yet, even people who look like white men often are not what we think. They could be both more, and less. They might be a member of one or more of the above groups, whether it seems so or not. This is such a challenge for all of us.

“Othering” anyone–which is what insisting “You are the problem!” is–is guaranteed to backfire. It perpetuates something the often well-meaning, typically reasonably aggrieved, accuser hopes to avoid: more invalidation and violence, whether physical or emotional. And those things hurt everyone: the perpetrator, the victim, the witnesses.

My life explorations and experiences have taught me to modify Dr. Angelou’s phrase ever so slightly, for my own practical purposes:

“When someone shows you the themes they are exploring, believe them.”

And what should we do when they do show us?

There is no simple and prescribed thing or things do. Life is a co-creative dance, and each of us is a full Creator.

If our intention is to improve connection with our fellow humans, we must first improve connection with ourselves. To know another without knowing oneself is impossible.

When we experience the challenging behavior of another, sometimes it is not of great significance. Perhaps we are unlikely to see them again. We are wise to register our feelings about it within ourselves, but in my experience, there is usually no need to share them.

If it’s someone we’re spending time with socially, with the possibility of developing a longer friendship, or even something more intimate–now that is different.

What I see and have experienced in the dating world, is sometimes people express their behavioral preferences to each other, and wind up spending much of their getting-to-know-each-other time explaining themselves, attempting to clarify statements that they believe have been misunderstood.

People who will ultimately find themselves in a harmonious partnership will not do this–or will not do it for long.

They won’t announce themselves as they leave an early relationship either. They will simply make a different choice within the framework of the relationship as it has begun to unfold. This increases the likelihood of safety for everyone, ideally. Of course, some folks do not experience these rhythms as smooth and natural.

I typically suggest deferring physical intimacy until you have experienced your potential partner having their own experience of disappointment. Perhaps several, and at least one unexpected one. Who is your partner when they are disappointed? How do they cope? Do they learn and grow from their challenging experiences?

For that matter, how are YOU when you are disappointed? Do you expect others to take care of you when you are disappointed, to modify themselves to placate you?

Adults don’t do this. They acknowledge that having disappointment is part of our human experience, and they take care of themselves in a way that does not infringe upon others–even the one disappointing them–during it. Or they do their best. And when they fall short, they take responsibility by apologizing and making amends when appropriate.

One who does this–with genuine self-connection–will improve. One who is fragmented into parts will always save a piece of themselves for the time they are sure is coming when slash-and-burn behavior is justified. Sometimes intimate partner violence occurs without obvious warning, but it never occurs without the feeling of fear.

I do not believe any humans are evil. The closest thing I can approximate to “evil” is the exploration of themes of disconnection–from Self and others. Fragmentation that characterizes the shadow self: the darkness that must exist in order to inform the development of our preferences. This is an important part of being human: to acknowledge that each of us contains this darkness as a necessary part of our humanness.

All that said, here is the closest thing to advice I dispense as regards choosing a mate:

When someone shows you the themes they are exploring through their behavior: believe them. And respect them. Disconnected themes, darker themes–they have validity too. Don’t bring them closer by criticizing. Just know what you prefer, and choose it. Your choices form the foundation of the reality you create.

Could you use some support in being present with your own disappointment? Here’s an idea I came up with. Give this a try, and I’ll enjoy hearing how it was for you. Try them in order, for best results.

An Exercise for Maintaining our Presence When Disappointed in Others:

  1. Register how your experience (with the other person) causes you to feel.

2. Value your feelings. Take time to do this. Feel them fully.

3. After you’ve valued your feelings, explore the experience’s impact on your perceptions, your beliefs, your personal values.

4. Ask yourself the following:

  • What did I expect of this individual in the situation?
  • What did they expect of me? Am I okay with that expectation?
  • What did I expect of myself in the situation as it was? Is that different from what I would have expected of myself if the situation had gone differently, perhaps more as I wished?
  • Were there significant others who were impacted? What did they expect? What did they have the right to expect? How do I feel about that?

5. What action is most appealing to you in light of this experience? If nothing is appealing–truly attractive, exciting–give yourself time. You live by no one’s timetable except your own, unless you agree to it.

6. Check in with your personal alignment–your connection to the energy that flows through you and causes you to feel the way you want to feel. Be sure to use your body to do this, and not just your thoughts.

When you feel a hit of excitement around taking action–which might include being with the individual again, and sharing the impact of their behavior on you–do so.

If you do remain troubled by the situation, there are choices you can make as regards action to take. One choice is to put your attention elsewhere, on something more satisfying. There is nothing wrong with this. It will involve loosening your connection with them, and that is fine. There are plenty of fish in the sea, as the old saying goes (and it is true. We cannot conceptualize the vastness of humanity).

I have observed that people sometimes directly criticize the other person and state their expectations quite clearly. They share that they do not want to be with one who behaves as they did, inviting the other to change their behavior. Do this if you believe you must. Be aware that choosing to do this makes the whole of the interaction a theme that you have chosen to explore. If you choose this route, allow yourself a full exploration. When experiences cause you to have feelings, be sure to go back and follow numbers 1–6 above. It may help!

And lastly, if you believe you “must” do something–for whatever reason–please seek support. You deserve it. There are very few “musts” in this world. The only ones I can think of (aside from death and taxes) is for adults to take responsibility for themselves, and for the minor children they bring into the world or agree to care for. And that expires when those children come of age.

If you feel burdened–you need not be. You have allowed yourself to be tricked into taking responsibility for some energy that wasn’t yours. Or you’ve chosen it deliberately (as a theme of exploration), who am I to say? And I certainly won’t judge. Taking on burdens is one aspect of humaning. Each of us is permitted our choices of themes to explore, and I respect that. And each of us may choose a new theme, declaring our prior explorations finished, in any moment.

I will end by expressing my heartfelt belief that help will always be available to those who ask and have hope. This is the world and experience I desire to co-create. Scholars and health professionals have taken issue with this belief, and I will not argue with them. They make valid points, writing from their perspectives. Yet I have a perspective to contribute, and I’m doing so, with intentions for the good of all.

For myself, I am becoming better at choosing the themes I wish to explore more consciously, informed by my deepening relationship with my body and Self. In sharing my journey with my clients and everyone in my life, I feel privileged to engage in the co-creation of becoming more fully human.

With deepest appreciation to my teacher, Dr. Maya Angelou.

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Anne Lindyberg

Anne is a licensed counselor and consultant using Satir Transformational Systems in the midwestern US. https://annelindyberg.medium.com/membership