People often use phrases such as, “You can’t understand until you have walked a mile in their shoes” and “Before you judge, step into her shoes.” These sayings were likely derived from the phrase “step into someone’s shoes,” which means to take on a particular role that someone else has been doing.
In this case, it means to live the other person’s life or to connect with them in a way that you truly understand what has been going on in their life. The idea is to be empathetic to the person. This is never as easy as one might make it out to be because no two people’s experience is the same.
Two people that have lost a partner may react differently to that loss. One person may have died suddenly, while another died after years of illness. These two situations are very different. The partner will grieve in both cases, but in the case of the person who dies after a long illness, much of the grieving may have occurred before the actual death.
Even two people that are going through very similar losses will grieve differently. One person may grieve over a couple of months while another one may grieve for a year. Additionally, people’s grieving may take different forms. One person may need to surround themselves with friends and family. They may talk a lot about the person that has passed. The other person may grieve very privately needing space and alone time.
Thus, when we put ourselves in their shoes, it is not good enough to have general empathy for the person. It is important to take it a step further. We must listen and try to understand what that person specifically is going through. Additionally, we must be extremely careful not to put our experiences or beliefs on others.
For example, if a person has had a loss and grieved deeply and inwardly for months, they shouldn’t believe that they are showing empathy for someone else if they encourage them to be alone and out of the social network. If they do and the other person is the type of person that needs to be out with friends to heal, they are not showing empathy at all despite their good intentions.
Truly In The Person’s Shoes
This example can be extrapolated to infinite scenarios. It is important to allow people to speak for themselves and express what they are going through. Then, people can support them in their situation. People should not, however, assume they understand what any specific individual or group is going through.
This is why it is important to give individuals and groups a voice rather than speaking for them. Even when people try to advocate for others with the absolute best of intentions, they are bound to get it wrong. They are advocating a story that they have created rather than the real story. Sometimes those stories overlap considerably; sometimes they don’t.
It is only by listening to others and their personal journey that we can have true empathy for them. Attempts at empathy are better than none, but does not stand up to true empathy, which is gained only by connecting to the person and their story.