Putting Ourselves in Other Person's Shoes

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.  Therefore, good folk-wisdom advises us to put ourselves  in the other person's shoes, so we can find out where exactly the shoe pinches. Even though a person is a total stranger to us, we can have a pretty good idea how a problem is affecting him or her and what he or she must be feeling and thinking being in that situation,.  We human beings have this ability to mentally put ourselves in the "shoes" of the other person while staying physically in our own shoes.   In fact, we do more than just stepping into the shoes of the other person; we "get inside the skin" of the other person, that is, feeling things through the skin of that person, hearing things from the ears of that person, and seeing things from the eyes of that person.  In other words, momentarily, we become that person in the psychological sense.  An actor who plays the role of a particular character, is "embodied" into that person, in a sense, enters inside the "body" of that character, and as that actor does so, he or she develops rare insights into the character being played.  Perhaps the ability to excel as a character actor is related to the ability to put oneself into the mind of the character one plays.      

Psychologists call it "empathy, derived from the two root words, "Em" meaning inside and "pathos" meaning, feelings.  Empathy is that ability by  which we can feel the inside feelings of another human being as if we are inside that person.   This ability to feel for another human being sets us apart from other animals.  Empathy is different from helping behavior or the "altruistic behavior."   Many animals help other animals and sometimes endanger their own life in doing so.   Chimpanzees, gorillas, and dolphins are frequently observed to take care of the small, old, and the sick.  They tend to help one another.  But empathy is the ability to put oneself emotionally in another person's situation and to feel what that person must be feeling.  It involves imagining and feeling the pain, the pleasure, the conflicts, and an entire range of very complex feelings as entertained by another human being.   This is why empathy is called the unique human quality.  .     

Empathy is different from sympathy.  You see somebody drowning and in a sympathetic reflex, you quickly jump into the water to rescue that person.  In another example, somebody is crying or hurting and you cry or hurt too out of sympathy.   Sympathy, unlike empathy, does not require much emotional reasoning or conscious thinking, nor does it involve getting into the other person's skin.  Sympathy is more like an instinctual response built in us for the purpose of helping each other to survive as a species.  As conscious thinking and reasoning is involved in empathy,  empathy is the basis for much of the moral and emotional reasoning in our society.  

Empathy can be learned from an early age.  Toddlers can learn it.  Parents can easily teach their children to empathize with others by repeatedly asking them the following question:   "How would you feel (or what would you think, say, do, etc.) if you were in the place of...."   Parents should ask this question time and time again and encourage your child to project himself or herself into other people in order to identify with and understand them better.  Your child will begin to ask the same question silently in his or her head when dealing with others.  Empathetic children are less self-centered and relate equally well to children and adults.  This is a wonderful gift you can give to your child.  

Dr. Mirja Kallapuska of Finland who studied four thousand 14 to 20-year olds found that the young people who were high in empathy were also more confident, sensitive, and assertive individuals.  There are several studies that have indicated that people who are high in empathy also enjoy better physical and mental health.  Empathy is specially prized in occupations, such as those of teaching, nursing, counseling, medicine, human relations, team leading, etc..  If you are good at empathizing, people will admire your ability to understand them and you quite likely are on your way to success, if not there already.  

True leaders are not manipulators of people, they are great empathizers.  People who are callous in their heart or abuse other people either never learned to empathize, or had to kill it in order to be callous and abusers.  By empathy we can represent to ourselves what goes on in the minds of other people and thus grow into sensitive and compassionate beings.   We taught both our children to empathize from an early age.  We asked them the same question that I mentioned in this article.  They took it a step further, much to my chagrin.  They started asking the same question in case of all animals and plants, wherever life is because "the same life breathes in all of us."  So now if we find an insect in the house, we have to secure it on a paper and wave it goodby outside the house. 


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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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