Monday, November 24, 2014

Putting myself in your shoes - staying open

A friend the other day asked me, "What does it mean to put yourself in someone else's shoes, and what does that have to do with empathy? Does it help to put yourself inside someone else's head; and how could you really do that, since you don't know their thoughts?"

We went back and forth, trading ideas and trying to understand each other. In the end, we concluded that by "putting myself in someone else's shoes" I meant that I try to imagine what someone else's life is like. I do this for a specific reason, to leave myself open to building connections with people.


I (and I think most of us) categorize people automatically. I hear a voice and I think "Oh, that person is black" even if I've never met them.. I see someone dressed in a certain way and I think "Oh, that person is poor" even though I know nothing about them, their life or their situation. I believe that these thoughts are unstoppable; I have them because of experiences I've had, my life, the conversations I've heard and the things I've been taught. I call these "closed" thoughts - if I already know who you are and I already know you are different from me; what else is there for me to know? Why would I be curious about your life? Why would I bother to ask what makes you happy and sad? I already know everything about you from these labels and categories. You are fat. You are sick. You are (insert race/gender/class here).

Being "open" is about knowing I'm going to have these thoughts, but to not let these thoughts stick in my brain. Without them I have the space to make better choices. Sometimes being open is about letting these thoughts go. It's about being calm and relaxed, by using meditation or prayer. When I don't have time for that (which, in a house with kids and a fairly busy life happens more often than I'd like) then I try another way - distraction. Just like waving a shiny toy in front of a crying baby stops the tears; I look at you and imagine as many other possibilities for your life as I can to stop my mind's assumption train in it's tracks.

My point here (and yes, I have one) is that if I'm not closed, I'm open. If I can build a desire in myself to learn about you, I am open to building a connection with you. I'm opening myself up to find out who you really are.


Today, like some days, I'm watching the people around me and making up little stories about them.

I see two white ladies in their thirties both wearing blue sweaters, ordering their drinks at the local coffee bar. They are talking and seem to know each other. One has very baggy pants and clothing, with short hair and a slightly larger than average jowl line. The other is wearing a more revealing outfit, from this angle I can see the curve of her buttocks as they fill out her jeans. I think "Oh, they are friends, and one of them is the 'neat' one in the relationship, and the other one is the 'sloppy' one."

I hear myself, I catch myself having these thoughts and I try to use distraction to stop it. I start to imagine; maybe, maybe they are sisters on their way to a family event. Or, maybe they didn't come here together, but instead just ran into each other on their way to enjoy a spicy steamed milk and coffee drink, Maybe like me this is an ordinary day of an ordinary week for them, and this is just one step on their morning path.

I'm getting into a groove now, and I push my envelope just a little further outside of what I would consider 'normal'. I pretend something really good; maybe one of them just won the lottery! In that case, they are meeting because this is her lawyer, and she wants to talk about how to spend her winnings. Or, I pretend something sad; maybe one of them is here to tell the other about her mother, who just told them she has cancer. Maybe maybe maybe.

The point behind my exercise is I try to come up with several stories, each one a little more unexpected than the next. Each one a little further away from my first assumption about who they are and what they are doing.

By putting myself in someone else's shoes I'm imagining that their lives could be similar to my own, or I'm imagining that they could be vastly different. It's a way of letting go of categories. It's a way of allowing myself to see all the possibilities in life, and to grow my own curiosity about other people.



SL said...

On the crowded pedestrian highways of the city, I have a fraction of a second to decide how to move to avoid being run over by the next person I see; if I have time, I can look long enough to decide if the person I see is dangerous or not.

Surreptitious studying of people other than that is fun. Overt starring is a good way to get a knife in your gut.

In meetings, you get more information to evaluate persons based on how they talk and move.

Janet said...

Thanks SL! It sounds to me that the society in the city is not giving you the space to leave yourself open at all. Would you agree?

SL said...

It depends where in the city I am, at what time. My neighborhood is relatively peaceful, and there are outdoor cafes for people watching.

Earthshine said...

"Being "open" is about knowing I'm going to have these thoughts, but to not let these thoughts stick in my brain."

This is the part i really identify with. I think that it's very important that we remember that, while they can be trained over time, we will always have reactions to things based on associations, strong past impressions, etc. It's what we decide to do with these things that matter. This becomes particularly important when we discuss the discriminatory "isms", for example. ... but linking the idea to empathy is a new thought for me. Very cool!

Janet said...

Thanks Earthshine!

If I'm open to the possibilities of connecting with others, I'm open to the *chance* for building empathy. I'm a math person, it's all about increasing probabilities.