Tip #126: Imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes.
The why: One of the most amazing things about human beings, is their ability to empathize with complete strangers. Empathy is the process of almost literally feeling what another person or animal is feeling. It is the reaction that makes us feel sad or angry when we see injustice or another person in pain.
It also allows us to come up with beautiful phrases such as ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’, which means that we can literally imagine what it is like to be another person in a situation. When we practice empathy, we can get a grasp on how another individual is feeling, what motivates them, what they’re thinking, and how they may respond to a situation.
It’s a highly powerful and important tool, one that developed over millennia to ensure that humans are kind to one other in order to keep our species alive. For instance, imagine for a moment our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Say Frank is out looking for some wild boar to take home to his family (literally bringing home the bacon), and suddenly hears the pained cry of another human.
Without empathy, Frank would simply ignore the pained cry and carry on hunting for food. With empathy, Frank makes the decision to go and help out his neighbor, Greg. Him and Greg both survive and carry on reproducing. This allowed human societies to flourish, as if we can feel what happens to our neighbors, our fellow countrymen, our fellow humans, as though it is happening to us, then we are likely to help them out. We feel a bond to others that allows us to co-operate and trust.
A selfish and untrusting society will not last very long.
But that’s enough bio-history for today. I can hear you asking, dear reader, what this has to do with anxiety.
Well, quite a lot actually. Bear with me here.
I’m sure we’ve all had one of those moments. You know the ones. Where you’re in a group situation and you make a joke and nobody laughs, or when you say something incorrect in a lecture or at work, or when you are on a first date and they show you a picture of a cat and you say “Is that some kind of gremlin?” and then it turns out it’s their cat (not that this has ever happened to me before).
Humans are prone to making mistakes, because everyone has a different way of being, therefore you are likely to offend, annoy or misstep with at least a few people in your life.
For most humans who do not have anxiety, this isn’t a problem. They’ll tell their friends, laugh about it, and carry on with their lives.
But for those of us who do have anxiety, moments like this can feel as if the world has literally just ended.
We obsess over the things we’ve done, or said, looking for anything that could have been perceived wrongly, looking for anything to confirm that we’re in fact a terrible person who doesn’t deserve to engage with polite society.
I can still remember thinking that a ‘magnum opus’ was a kind of ice cream, much to the delight of my classmates and my professor. I can still remember thinking ‘I’m going to hate myself forever for this one’. That was two years ago, I still do.
However, using the tool of empathy, we can silence these anxieties.
Next time you say something wrong, or cringy, or just downright confusing, picture yourself in the other person’s shoes.
Imagine how you would feel if someone said something a little bit silly, or if someone accidentally called you the wrong name, or if someone did something a little bit embarrassing.
In truth, you’d probably forget about it after a few days.
This is because humans are so busy wrapped up in the drama of themselves, that people actually think about us a lot less than we believe them too. The thought of our embarrassing moment may pop up occasionally in conversation, or in the witnesses mind when prompted by something related, but really, it’s probably always buried under all the other things that
The thought of our embarrassing moment may pop up occasionally in conversation, or in the witnesses mind when prompted by something related, but really, it’s probably always buried under all the other things that have happened to them.
Imagine the scenario from their perspective, how would you react? Would you think less of that person for one mistake? No, of course not. So, you can be assured that they probably share that sentiment, and don’t think you’re a totally strange person.
So, you can be assured that they probably share that sentiment, and don’t think you’re a totally strange person with no social decorum.
For instance, say you are out for a drink with a friend and you say “Gosh, the name Toby really sucks” and they reply “the person I’m seeing right now is called Toby”. They laugh slightly, and you die inside slowly.
This thought plagues the rest of your evening, and the next day, and the next. So, you decide to do something about it.
Imagine yourself in your friend’s shoes, a bit like Freaky Friday. You’re at the bar and your friend says “Gosh, the name Toby really sucks” and you reply “the person I’m seeing right now is called Toby.” You laugh and see them get very embarrassed.
You might think for a fleeting moment that they’re a bit of a fool, and shouldn’t be so judgemental about people’s names (blame the parents if anything), but mainly find it quite amusing, accept their twelve apologies, and immediately forget about it as soon as the conversation moves on. You have a lovely evening and go home thinking how nice it was to see them.
See, that wasn’t hard was it?
So, next time you’re about to have a freakout or beat yourself up about something you said that you think was bad, just take a walk in their shoes (unless their heels), and know that in the grand scheme of things, it’s probably not that bad.