My Mother's Best Relationship Advice in Seven Words

My mother imparted her most valuable relationship wisdom in seven words.

Posted Aug 14, 2016

When I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn, I learned a lesson of great value from my mother. If someone said or did something unkind (a nasty person at the supermarket checkout counter, for example) my mother would say, “She must be a very unhappy person.”  

She didn’t say this to make excuses; it was simply a calm observation that I translated into this advice:  “Don’t take things quite so personally; unhappiness or insecurity can make people say stupid things.  When other people act badly, it has to do with them, not with you.”  

My mother’s words helped me to be less reactive, to pass on less intensity than I receive, to see people as more complex than their worst behaviors, to develop empathy, and be curious about why people do what they do.  

It’s a perspective that serves me well in my work as a psychotherapist. Away from my consulting room, however, I do not always operate at this high level of maturity. It remains something to aim for.

My mother's words are so important because we do tend to take things personally.  We also misread people's motives all the time (We think it's snobbery or disinterest when it's shyness).

In the absence of facts, we are left with our fantasies ("I'm boring," or "He doesn't think I'm important enough to say hello to me.")  We engage in mind-reading which, in contrast to intuition, humans have no talent for.

Remember this: Often the other person's bad, insensitive, or hurtful behavior boils down to what my mother would say: "She must be a very unhappy person."