WALKING A MILE IN SOMEONE ELSE’s SHOES
It’s a saying that is bandied around, probably without giving much consideration to the implications of just how difficult a task this could be. Whilst we can look and hear to find out what is happening, we rarely know the paddling that goes on under someone else’s water.We need this in order to form a complete picture.
It is a saying felt to date back to a poem entitled ‘Walk a Mile in His Moccasins’, written by Mary T Lathrap in 1895. I actually prefer its original title of ‘Judge Softly’ as for me, this equates more deeply with walking in someone else’s shoes. Probably the counsellor in me!
The poem begins with the lines -
‘Pray, don't find fault with the man that limps
Or stumbles along the road.
Unless you have worn the moccasins he wears,
Or stumbled beneath the same load.’
I feel that over the years, there has been a focus on the shoes and walking with consideration of the load being set aside. An example of a selective quoting of words maybe?
I feel that I could imagine walking in the shoes of others if these were such as Louboutin’s, struggling to teeter in high heels that I no longer tend to wear, ( and here, I am referring to heel height not brand!) I presume that they belong to someone from a privileged background if able to afford such shoes. I guess the televisionprogammesincluding such lifestyles make it easier for me to take that step and consider cars, homes, boats, lifestyles way beyond mine and what I would even want.
BUT - having made that last statement, therein lies a problem with my walking in their shoes. How would I stop myself from considering their lifestyle to be over the top, maybe greedy, having far too many expensive ‘things’? Shutting out our biases once we begin to focus in on another person isn’t easy, unless they live lives that are very similar to our own. We judge – and we criticise, usually without knowing all of the facts – just as I did with the Louboutin wearer.
NOW, imagine walking in the shoes of the person in the picture. Having initially considered the case of the Louboutin’s easy then arguing myself out of that, how well would I consider that I would be able to walk in those shoes? For me, a whole different matter as even further removed from my life experiences. I am sure that even my most extreme imaginings would probably fall well short of reality. I would have to allow myself to cue in to what all of my senses would tell me if I was imagining walking in those shoes. What of the smells, the sights, the sounds that I might prefer to close my eyes to? Would I be aware of the situation as a whole? I, who have a comfortable and safe life, supported by modern technology and convenience, I am sure would find their reality a difficult place to imagine.
I remember my son describing a remote village in India that he visited when travelling, where a ramshackle hut provided shelter, a hard mud floor the beds, collected twigs and sticks the heating and cooking facilities, rice the food with very little to accompany it. However, even though they had so little, he said that they were happy, and happy to share both shelter and food with him and would accept no payment. The children played happily amongst the trees and loved playing football – their ball? – a bundle of tied up rags which presumably had reached the stage of being unable to be handed down, or handed on, any further. OK, I have seen programmes involving such villages too, so why do I find it so difficult to actually imagine walking in the shoes of such people?
In both cases, I would have to consider the paddling going on under each person’s particular stretch of water. What hides behind the smile, the frown, the laughter, the tears? Use all of my senses to soak in andfeel the imagined clip clopping of the heels along a smooth path against the struggle to maintain a sole beneath the feet along a rugged path. The smell of expensive perfume against the smell of toil and worn, dirty clothes. All make up part of our ability to walk in those shoes without taking the person at face value and making judgements and assumptions. As both extremes are probably so very far removed from our own reality, we have little that our minds can actually cue in to, apart from our second hand experiences via the television, to allow us to place ourselves out of our own zones of comfort. Bear in mind the bias of the television programme watched, with so much material ending up on the editor’s cutting room floor. They have their point to make, their particular spin to put on.
It can be very difficult to completely put aside our personal thoughts and feelings in order to take that walk, even using only baby steps. Yet therapists are called upon to do just that, with one of the core conditions of a therapeutic relationship being empathy, and empathy being equated by many to walking in the shoes of another.
WHAT ABOUT EMPATHY THEN?
A therapist sets aside his/her own reactions, feelings to similar events, to the feelings being talked about in order to support the client in reaching their own decisions about ways forward.
In order to understand how that person felt and thought, many therapists feel that it is essential to completely set aside personal reflections,especially if you have been through similar, have personal experience, of what is being spoken of.Depending on chosen therapeutic leanings, others could well talk this through with clients in carefully considered disclosure. Whichever, we have to be aware and have boundaries in place in support of the therapeutic relationship and the maintenance of this.
I certainly find empathy easier if what a client has experienced and is talking of is something that I have not had direct experience of, so that my mind doesn’t seek to compare. I am aware of the possibility of this occurring, and have strategies to set aside any feelings of my own that attempt to get in on the act and allow personal biases to surface. In this way, I am able to work with my client only on things that s/he has brought out, not allowing anything of mine to influence either them or myself. I sincerely hope that I am empathic – if not, I guess I shouldn’t be doing what I do!
There are times when we don’t find this easy, especially if we have been through similar circumstances with similar or what we feel were worse conditions and are sure that we coped better than the person telling of their problems! This is where the differences between talking things through with a friend and therapy really show themselves. A friend is happy to say what they did, and probably go on to say that you should do the same, as it worked for them. A therapist does not venture down this road.
RESEARCH ON OUR BIASES
A study by researchers, published in ‘The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’ measured the compassion show towards people who had had similar problems, similar difficulties, through a series of experiments. Those who had experienced similar in their past – including bullying, relationship breakdown, lack of promotion at work, showed less compassion for those who had met with similar problems. They found it harder to walk in the shoes of fellow sufferers than did those who had not experienced similar.
It was felt that they didn’t judge softly. Rather, they compared how others had coped, had handled the situation with how they had handled theirs and found others to be wanting. This was especially so if they were perceived not to have handled the situation well – ie their way! They appeared not to take into account differences of circumstances, background etc, simply focusing on similarities. They made a judgement without being party to that sub-aqua bit.
The reasons given for this happening were that with time, we tend to forget just how difficult it was to cope with a situation. With time, the intensity of feelings, the angst, pain and anger that may have been around are forgotten. It’s rather like driving a car – once you have learnt to do this and are a competent driver, you forget about the crunching of gears, the slow progress with other drivers tailing you and longing for a place to pass and the embarrassment such things cause. Probably a positive as far as self-preservation, self-esteem is concerned but not as far as showing empathy. This was a distinct negative. They had been there, done that and didn’t bother buying the tee shirt. Others SHOULD be able to do likewise too.
Add to the scenario that what happened to you was way worse than what happened to whoever is telling of their problems, and you coped way better than they are doing ……. It becomes …. empathy, what empathy; compassion, what compassion. Get on with walking in your shoes – I walked further, over worse terrain in far more grotty shoes!
No wonder trying to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes is so often easier said than done. We find it hard to switch off our self and our opinion.
BACK TO THE POEM
As I said, the original title was ‘Judge Softly’. Maybe, just maybe, this is a better approach to take rather than attempting to imagine ourselves in a situation that is completely alien to us or one we have experienced and feel that we coped with well. Rather, try to be sensitive to just what might be going on under the other person’s water – simply endeavour to imagine how they feel rather than how we would feel in their situation.
By focusing on how we perceive someone else instead of attempting to put ourselves into their shoes and take that walk, we may come to a clearer, more accurate idea of how they feel about their lot in life, the things they have to cope with. In order to do this, we need to hone our senses to include what we see, hear, can touch but especially feel, working with our hearts as well as our minds.
Surely a skill that would serve mankind well in these days of so many rushing to judge others harshly.
ENDING WITH A SPIN
There can be a slightly different spin put on the saying too – You have to do what is right for yourself as nobody else is walking in your shoes. True.
As I tell many clients, you have to think of yourself. This isn’t selfish, rather knowing and acknowledging just what your personal load is and how best to cope with it and get on with your life. A matter of being honest with yourself, being realistic and being kind to yourself too. Only you know the full you. Well, nearly the full you as there will be bits that you hide even from yourself. Yes, there will be those who know a lot about you – husband, wife, parents, siblings - but only you have the complete story. A story that will have been added to by others, but you have the leading role, the star. So, make sure the shoes are a comfy fit for the road you have to take!
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I offer therapy and treatments for a range of issues. I work with individuals and couples for counselling.View Treatments