And no, it’s not because they’re a kids size 4.
Think about the first time you were told to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You were probably no more than 5. At the time, such a concept likely made no sense, but as you got older, you probably had an eventual “aha” moment when you realized what it actually meant. But you know what? 5 year old you was right. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes really does make no sense- it’s impossible.
When we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, all we can do is imagine how we think they feel. We don’t really know, and we never will. Think of it this way: we’ve all had a rock get stuck under our foot, but it wasn’t the exact same rock in the exact same spot for the exact amount of time. So yes, we may think we know what it means when someone says “ow, I have a rock in my shoe!” but we only know how we felt in a similar situation. We don’t know how they feel because we quite literally can’t.
Telling people to put themselves in others’ shoes is a flawed approach to teaching empathy because it lacks the most important part: showing that you care. If we go about our day imagining what other people feel like when we actually have no way of knowing, the way we treat them isn’t necessarily more helpful. If you know someone is sick and you “put yourself in their shoes,” you might think about how you’ve felt when you’ve been sick yourself and acted in a way that would make you feel better. And then, just like that, the whole situation has turned from being about that person to being about you. They’re left wondering why you acted that way, not realizing that you were trying to empathize.
This isn’t to say that we can’t ever put ourselves in other people’s shoes- the point of my rambling is that we have to remember that those shoes will never fit, so trying them on can only tell us so much. Instead of assuming, we can ask questions and actually communicate with the person we’re trying to understand. Not only does that make our response to them more helpful, but it lets them know that we want to support them.
If you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that I’m a big proponent of asking before doing. They both take effort, but asking takes thoughtfulness. When we ask someone how we can be a good friend before doing what we think is right, we keep that person as the focus. After all, it’s their shoes that we’re concerned about.
When I started this blog, my intention was to make it easier for people to understand me and my life with a chronic illness. But as I’ve continued that journey, I’ve realized more and more that no one is ever going to know how I feel, and that isn’t a bad thing. No one is going to fit into my shoes because they’re mine, and I’m the only me. You’re the only you. But that doesn’t mean we have to be alone.
You don’t have to wear someone’s shoes to listen to them. You don’t have to know how they feel to be present in their life. I know my shoes won’t fit you and yours won’t fit mine, and that’s okay, because we don’t need to stand in each others shoes to show that we care.