Tiny Wisdom: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

“Actions speak louder than words, but not nearly as often.” ~Mark Twain

A while back I wrote a blog post about giving people the benefit the doubt and suggested, as I often do, that people rarely intend to be hurtful.

Someone wrote in the comments that I’ve obviously never encountered a sociopath.

This got me thinking about the many times I’ve heard women refer to men they’ve dated as sociopaths and narcissists. It occurred to me that many of those men likely treated them horribly but may not have had mental disorders.

There are sociopaths out there, but more often than not when people hurt us, it’s not because of psychiatric diagnoses. It’s because they’re hauling around pain from their pasts and crashing it into everyone they meet.

When someone knowingly manipulates or uses others, or deliberately tries to control or intimidate them and they aren’t mentally ill, it’s rarely a happy, well-adjusted person who simply decided to be heartless and cruel.

In understanding this, we can be compassionate, but that doesn’t mean we need to willingly accept mistreatment.

The question then becomes: how do we know when to give someone the benefit of the doubt and when to withhold it?

Last week a reader shared an insightful Maya Angelou quote that read, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

While I don’t believe any one action defines who someone is, I think there’s something to this. Actions speak louder than words. And repeated actions are what shape our character and reputation.

If someone says they want to spend time together but repeatedly fails to show up, they are communicating that they aren’t willing to follow through on their promises.

If someone says they’re trustworthy but repeatedly lies, they are communicating that their word can’t be trusted.

If someone says they want to change but repeatedly fails to make an effort, they are communicating that they aren’t willing to do things differently.

Acknowledging this isn’t forming judgments. It’s recognizing the facts so that we can make a wise choice based on how things are—not how we want them to be.

We may recognize we’re being mistreated and choose to set and enforce a boundary. We all deserve second chances, and sometimes a third or fourth.

But other times we need to open our eyes so that we know when enough is enough.

It’s never our fault when someone else hurts us, but it’s within our power to stop allowing it.

Photo by specialoperations

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha’s Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • This reminds me of a quote that I love: “A person isn’t who they are during the last conversation you had with them– they’re who they’ve been throughout your whole relationship.” – Ranier Maria Rilke

  • Rudrasundari

    Thanks for this post….rightly said action speaks louder than words….Rgds sundari

  • RoyaleD11

    Well said…

  • Sarah

    Another beautiful post!!!  This is something I learned along the road of life, we are only hurt when we allow that!  It is true, however sometimes hard to swallow 😀 …

    There are sociopaths in life.  Those are the ones who through subtle manipulation over time, break us down to the point where it is difficult to recognize that we are being hurt … as soon as we recognize this it is time to walk away.  Many times I have heard women say … “he is so hurtful.  After some conversation I have suggested it is time to move on.  To that I have all too often heard, “but I love him”.  That is not love … to put up with constant abuse is not self -love and the behavior of the person hurting them is certainly not loving.  When these things happen very subtly, over a period of time … it is harder to recognize that you have been manipulated.  Only when you stop and look carefully can you recognize that, HEY … enough is enough!

    Thank you for this beautiful reminder to all of us that, we can only be hurt if we allow that!

    Love to you ~ Sarah

  • It is said that hurt people hurt people. If that applies to any of us we must break the cycle. As you’ve said, “It’s never our fault when someone else hurts us, but it’s within our power to stop allowing it.” There are limits, of course, and that’s where setting boundaries enters the picture. The adage is “Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.” It may be good to go beyond that count, maybe not. As with anything in life, one size fits one.

    ~ Mark

  • I agree with this piece, and I think people are too quick to use words that should be reserved for people with actual diagnoses (bipolar is another one that everyone seems to casually use).  It is also a personal peeve when people call others “crazy”.  I think we need to be careful of the words we use.

  • Conned

    Some people are bad. They really are. Sociopaths exist because nice people make excuses for them. If you don’t understand that, you’re going to get conned. It’s your choice to think that people don’t want to hurt you on purpose, but don’t act surprised when you get taken advantage of. 

  • Andy8892

    That is so correct… It is the consistency of that person’s character in the long term. Thank you for this quote

  • Kammie

    Great Post! I totally agree that a single action does not define someone, but how they are with their words and action throughout time. 

  • greenlife13

    I have myself thrown about labels. It makes it easier to do so than to account for my own actions in a relationship. Maintaining boundaries and knowing when to cut the cord – those are the actions I partake in

  • Christy Woodward

    I wish I would’ve learned this lesson long ago…I would’ve saved myself a lot of heartache… if they are not going to be there…they just aren’t… no matter what I do or say… On the flip side…it is something that I also need to take to heart. I have to back up what I say instead of making excuses…I’m either there or I am not. Thank you! Great post!

  • Very true. Viewing another person clearly as they are (rather than what we wish or hope or expect) based on their actions, yet refraining from judgment has been an extremely powerful practice in my life.

  • Pmrin1

    What u have said us so true Sarah. I was in an abusive relationship for years & I thought I ‘loved’ him. But I don’t think that’s the reason I held on to him. I felt alone when every time I left him & that’s y I went back. But like u saI’d enoughs enough & I left him for good & working on myself now 🙂

  • Connie

    This is the truth and yes, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” I love that quote and have used it often and use it to navigate in life. Actions speak louder than words have saved me many a heartache!

    I also believe there are sociopaths living amongst us, whether they are hurting or plain old nasty indivduals. My eyes have been opened wide to them. Having worked with too many in my previous job has given me much wisdom. I now know who has a front row seat in my life and who is outside the car lol. Life is really a big classroom.

  • Jonathan

    I particularly like this part…when people hurt us it’s because they are hauling around the pain from their past, and crashing it into very one they meet. If I can remember that in that moment, it makes it far less personal and wounding. Thanks Lori.

  • Hi Lori,

    I like what you said about everyone deserving chances. If we judge everyone on the basis that one mistake means the end, then we have to live by that standard ourselves. And that is a world where we all live in fear of that mistake. Not a good place.

    It is really about boundaries. There has to be a time when enough is enough. But there has to also be a place for all of us to be able to make a genuine effort to atone for errors.

  • Beautifuldread

    Be impeccable with your words so that your actions will match

  • You’re most welcome!

  • I love that first quote you offered. I think it’s so insightful! And along the lines of the second, I read once that we teach people how to treat us. I know in the past, I taught a lot of people that it was okay to treat me poorly by allowing it. It’s empowering to realize we have a choice–we don’t have to stay in relationships that aren’t loving and respectful.

  • I couldn’t agree more! I remember a lot of people called me crazy when I was younger–and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder as a teen, which I’ve since learned I don’t actually have. It’s so much easier to label someone than it is to understand them–and it’s definitely more profitable for the psychiatric/pharmaceutical industry! 

    There was a time when a former friend hurt me really badly, and for a while, I thought of her as a narcissist. It was comforting for me to imagine she had an actual condition, because then I could put all the blame on her. Over time I realized I played a role, and she was no more a narcissist than I was bipolar. We were just two hurt people who unintentionally hurt each other.

  • My intention with this post was to communicate that there *are* sociopaths out there, but oftentimes it’s not so black and white. Regardless, we need to take care ourselves and not allow ourselves to be continually hurt. Whether someone hurts on intentionally or unintentionally, we’re the only ones who can choose to put an end to it. It took me a long time to learn this lesson! It’s always so much easier to stay than it is to walk away.

  • Thanks Kammie!

  • I’ve done it before as well, and for the same reasons. Like you, I try to set clear boundaries these days, and my relationships are much healthier as a result! 

  • You’re most welcome Christy. I’m glad this was helpful to you!

  • It’s been powerful for me as well! I think it’s also an act of kindness to respond to people as they are. I remember when I was going through a destructive phase. There were people who enabled me (with good intentions) and others who set boundaries so they wouldn’t get hurt. When people cut me out of their life or changed how they responded to me, I had a compelling reason to make a serious change, which was ultimately the best thing for me.

  • I love what you wrote about life being a big classroom. I read somewhere once that relationships are containers for growth, and it’s so true. With every relationship, we learn a little more about how to communicate, set clear boundaries, and take care of ourselves (and each other).

  • You’re most welcome Jonathan. =)

  • I know I wouldn’t want to be judged by one mistake! But like you said, it’s all about boundaries and balance–knowing when to stay and when to walk away.

  • I love that! What a powerful insight.

  • You’re most welcome Sarah! I’ve seen a lot of friends stay in unhealthy relationships, and I’ve been in them myself. It can be so hard to realize what’s going on when you’re on the inside. It helps to have friends who aren’t afraid to communicate what they see, like you’ve done for your friends.

    Love back to you =)

  • Caroldekkers

    When someone says they love you for years and then you read the book “Emotional Abuse” and realize that every one of the symptoms are exhibited by his actions, it becomes blatantly clear that actions speak louder than the three little words! 

    As for the clinically diagnosed behavioral disorders – sometimes you just never know.  It took me 25 years (and fortunately a divorce) before a psychiatrist who knew my ex remarked that he was a “narcissist”.  I had to go home and look up the word…

    Recovery is slow, but there is hope.  Trust your instincts and intuition – they will give you the words that make (his) actions so clear!

  • Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.

  • red

    How do I deal with someone who is using people I care about against me? He used to be a close friend but due to him constantly putting me down I decided its best not to be friends. Now he’s dating a best friend and my best friend is completely brain washed. He doesn’t talk to me anymore. Also he’s using another friend of mine that I have wronged in the past but I want to make that right. However, I can’t because this guy has filled her head with lies about me. I don’t understand why he’s doing this. Why is this guy intentionally using people I care about to hurt me? I tried talking to him but he has a big ego and its upsetting. What’s the best way to handle the situation?

  • Hi Red,

    I’m sorry to hear about what’s been going on. I can understand why this has been upsetting! I know these may be obvious questions, but: Have you talked to him about this? Have you talked to your friends about it? And if not, why?


  • Laneyo

    i do believe that “terms” about people are thrown about losely– there are evil people in this world & there are those that are mentally ill. May you never encounter either.

  • Astha

    Hi Lori,
    Nice we say tolerating injustice is a greater sin than doing injustice to someone….so its good to be nice to everyone but only when the person is right…if you stand with the when they are wrong you are doing bad to both of you…

  • Thanks Astha! Adding onto what you wrote, when we stand by and do/say nothing when someone does something wrong, we reinforce that we’re comfortable being treated that way. I know all about doing that–I did it for a long time in former relationships!

  • Debra

    Thanks for your awareness.I work n mental
    health & am so aware of the stigma associated with psych diagnosis.So glad to see other people speak up!

  • David

    Hi Ms Deschene,
    I enjoyed your post and have made a link to it. I see the link to personal relationships clearly, I also see it as a worthwhile and highly underutilized guide in business relationships too.

    In the non profit world, I believe donors should be able to trust the charities they support and develop trust over time to avoid throwing their money away and to find and support truly worthy causes. I am trying to do that with my website It Matters to This One ( Please surf over and check us out. If you like what you see please tell a friend if not please let me know directly and please recommend us to your favorite charities!
    Happy New Year

  • I use the world impeccable (4 Agreements) as a ruler and a guide for how i live my life. By any chance, are you referring to the Toltec teachings when you use this word? Thanks and Happy 2013!

  • Cleveland Muse

    You are so naive if you believe that you can, or anyone else, set limits/boundaries with a sociopath. Compassion is my life, but after years of being manipulated, abused and used…take note. Unless you are a therapist to these people, or live with one…don’t comment. It makes you look ignorant.

  • Hi there,

    Thanks for taking the time to write. I think perhaps you misinterpreted what I wrote:

    “When someone knowingly manipulates or uses others, or deliberately tries to control or intimidate them and they aren’t mentally ill, it’s rarely a happy, well-adjusted person who simply decided to be heartless and cruel.”

    I am not suggesting that sociopaths don’t exist, or that we should set limits or boundaries with them. I am talking about people who aren’t sociopaths.

    I’m suggesting that when someone hurts us and doesn’t hold one of these mental illnesses, they are likely acting in response to their own pain.

    But even then, we don’t need sit by idly and accept mistreatment. Instead, we can recognize that actions speak louder than words, and either try to set a boundary, or walk away.

    I hope this clarifies that I am not giving advice as to how to deal with a sociopath, but rather suggesting that we don’t deserve to mistreated, and we can do what’s best for us, even if we have compassion for someone else’s pain.

    (I saw your email, as well, but figured I would just respond here.)


  • Rob

    Here is something different than a lot of these posts that I am seeing. I saw something interesting here that seems to fly right in the face of the entire site. There is a comment here surrounding mental illness. Why would the comment be made on a site that seems to talk of insight about life and then talks negatively about a certain group of people who through no choosing if their own have a very simple problem. In reality from what I have seen in my job in the mental health community. Most of the problem surrounding mental illness seems to center around trauma. The very thing that this site is trying to “fix”. So why then is a generalization made about mental illness and those who suffer?

  • Hi Rob,

    I’m not sure what you’re saying. What generalization are you referring to?


  • Rob

    This is the statement to which I speak.

    When someone knowingly manipulates or uses others, or deliberately tries to control or intimidate them and they aren’t mentally ill, it’s rarely a happy, well-adjusted person who simply decided to be heartless and cruel.

    The notion that some who is mentally Ill will manipulate or use you is incorrect. That’s is the generalization. It says everyone does this because of that. The other statement is this illusion of well-adjusted and health. Who is that?! Sounds to me to be more a dream or fantasy in someone’s own that they choose to believe than a real state of being. I think of the statement. I think therefore I am. If you think your sane despite what you do. You are. There for this reason can be people who are insane can also be normal.

  • Hi Rob,

    I think perhaps I phrased that poorly. I was not trying to imply that *all* mentally ill people manipulate or use others. I was trying to suggest that sometimes people manipulate and use other people and it’s not because of sociopathy or narcissism (two conditions which often lead to these kinds of behaviors). In some cases, it’s because they’re acting out in pain.

    Does that make more sense?


  • Rob

    Gotcha. Pain though I also a natural part of life. Without pain you do not grow as a person. With trial you learn nothing what so ever. An easy existence teach you nothing in life. Instead of think of this as a negative experience think of it as a learning experience. I think too much emphasis is putting on being happy all the time. If you are happy all the time this is also not normal. Instead think of a balance between the two worlds of both. This can also be said. Whether people want to accept this or not we live in a negative world. Here in the west we are lucky. We have our basic needs met even without employment. In some countries they don’t even have enough food to eat one meal a day. In this world we seem to focus on being happy all to much. It seems to be the driving force to our existence always. Many people should consider themselves lucky to even think of this. Also over here we tend to buy things to make ourselves happy and spend too much time doing it. Everything has to be pleasing to our eye. We seem to miss some sort of point all together. That’s why I wonder quite a bit about whether we have strayed from the point of our being here all together. The very thing that is making us have these problems is the society in which we live. Just what I think.

  • Chin Chilla

    i disagree with this, there are some cases where a person wants to but just can’t due to circumstances. It’s not that that person doesn’t want to do it. I have a friend who is in a long distance relationship. She says she wants to visit him more often but can’t due to the distance. They both live across united states from each other. They visit each other maybe once per month.

  • Chin Chilla

    I totally agree with you. I hate being judge just because I made a mistake. No one is perfect. I am always trying to atone for my errors.

  • jeet

    like the bad boy thing I learnt it from my friends the way girls seem to warm up to you when she sees your not boring or trying to chase her. google

  • Esther Ang

    I totally agree and can empathise with that statement Lori! I have travelled that path and believed with all my heart that with a compassion heart the other person would realised his potential, alas, my good intentions was taken with anger and resentment against me. There’s a difference between being compassionate or forgiving and drawing boundaries.. i didn’t realise at that time I had ‘taught’ him to treat me poorly by allowing it. The power of realising and accepting that we have a choice in everything we do or being in a situation gives one the utlimate freedom and power to change. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  • Esther Ang

    Agree with you, Sarah! Yes, very often we dont realised it as it happen very subtly over a period of time… that’s why at times, it is essential for one to withdraw and create the space from all the ‘dramas’ so as to allow one’s inner voice to surface. We need to shut the chatter in our mind too, open up our inner ears to listen to our inner guidance on a regular basis.. whether it is a walk in the park, a few days travel on our own, a quiet hour or so by the beach, or just simply sit with our selves at the comfort of our home… it is a path of self-love.

  • Yes, indeed it does! It’s such a tough lesson to learn, but everything changes when we do. You’re most welcome. =)

  • Pinkstarrz

    Thats a very quote, even though when someone is saying hurtful things to you intentionally just to hurt you it says a lot about them and their character as a person. None the less, Still hurtful.

  • Jeanne Foguth

    “Actions speak louder than words” is the main way I differentiate the villains from my good guys in my books. (This is true, even when I am writing the Sea Purrtector Series, which is from the POV of a Siamese cat.) If a character knowingly manipulates, lies or cheats, they fall into the bad guy category. The trick is figuring out if their actions match their words and I believe the same is true of real life. 😉

  • Ah, that’s a great way to flesh out your characters!

  • IBikeNYC

    “We may recognize we’re being mistreated and choose to set and enforce a boundary. We all deserve second chances, and sometimes a third or fourth.

    But other times we need to open our eyes so that we know when enough is enough.”

    Thank you for this eloquent expression of exactly what I’m working on right now!

  • You’re most welcome!

  • Hi Pavitra ~ It sounds like a pretty healthy addiction to have! Of course, quotes can be interpreted in different ways – and we all struggle with applying wisdom at times – but I don’t think this can harm you. 🙂

  • Pavitra Waffy

    Thank you so much 🙂 Quotes really make me think a lot and most of the time, when I try to follow it, they say I’m just overthinking and reading too much of quotes is the main cause. I am trying to be a better person everyday and reading wisdom quotes and articles really boost my energy 🙂 Anyway, have a good day <3

  • You’re most welcome, Pavitra! If they boost your energy and help you be a better person, then I say keep doing what you’re doing. =)