I truly enjoy my job. I work with Physicians in a Healthcare organization. I am privileged to facilitate and deliver workshops that onboard new physicians but also equip physicians to be effective in leadership roles, provide communication skills coaching and, most importantly, continue culture change within the organization and physician group. In my group, we talk a lot about empathy.
Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
In high school, I had a funny experience. I was a cheerleader and my squad was outside ‘practicing’ for an upcoming something. For some reason, a friend of mine, who I remember vividly as a funny, gregarious, and outgoing individual, did not have tennis shoes to wear during practice. Now I don’t remember if I had two pairs or I took mine off for her, but that’s not the point. She ended up in my shoes. As soon as she laced up the sneakers, she curled her feet outward and giggled. She joked about how my shoes had molded with a curve to the outside of the foot, so much so, that it caused her to roll her own feet to the outside in an attempt to adapt to how my shoes felt on her feet. It was entertaining and enlightening all at the same time and I have reflected on that experience many times throughout my life.
Often times, in an attempt to support someone, demonstrate concern, or express empathy, we address the situation with the words, “I understand”. In the example above, my friend could understand how it felt to be in my shoes but only from her own experience in my shoes, which was not my experience in my shoes. My shoes felt straight to me, comfortable and ‘normal’. To her, my shoes felt quite different because they forced her into a stance that was not comfortable for her.
You can never put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
We can never fully understand what another person is experiencing regardless of how much we think we can because we are not that person. We did not grow up in their house, we did not experience the same family dynamics, we don’t know their full story, nor can we possibly understand it. And this holds true even if we share an experience together. Each of us will react, behave and be affected by life in a manner that suits us, not others.
If we consciously move through life with this understanding, then our support and conversations look and sound more like, “that must have been hard for you,”, “I cannot imagine that”, or “how is that affecting you?”. My mom and I were different people. We didn’t fight a lot, however, we moved through life at a different pace. She was a strong Christian woman with strong beliefs that drove her every decision and action. Once I left the house, I really protected my pace of life, even kept things from her, and she was often baffled by my decisions and actions. Which, by the way, was quite warranted in some situations. In my 20s, however, I had the wonderful fortune to see my mom demonstrate empathy and support in a manner I had not experienced with her before that time. When I was engaged and planning our wedding, I lived 500 miles from my mom, so planning was basically done by me, not surprising to those who know me, and I would just update my mother as decisions were made. I remember at one moment, however, we were on the phone and I asked her opinion about some portion of the wedding planning and her response touched me, empowered me, and wrapped her arms around me through the phone line. She simply said, “When I got married, Stacie, I was younger, and it was a different time. We had a champagne reception and cake for a small group of people. I do not know how to answer your question because I am not you, but I know that you will make the decision that is right for you.” MIND BLOWN!
My mom passed away at the age of 52, one year after I was married and one year before my daughter was born. When she died I remember feeling as if no one understood and I did not feel like I could express myself authentically, and basically, the air felt thick. However, no one could have understood what I was feeling, thinking and going through, because they were not in my sideways shoes. There’s some forgiveness for others in that knowledge that came later in life for me.
Understand that you cannot understand. This will enable you to be one of the most empathic individuals, because, you will respond with words and actions that express compassion, caring, concern, and will be void of judgment and solutions. Let people feel and experience and sometimes you have to let them do it right in front of you, no matter how hard that may seem at the time. Imagine all that God hears from us on a daily basis. And yet, He loves. And He demonstrated true empathy and commands us to show the same.
‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29 (emphasis mine)
I encourage you to wear your own shoes. Live in them authentically and honestly and allow others to do that same. Be a forgiver when your shoes are challenged, they don’t know what they don’t know. And give yourself a break. We are all wearing our shoes to the best of our abilities.
By His Grace