Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and watch yourself from their eyes. “Becoming the other” could be the best tool you have for increasing understanding and compassion for yourself.
You may be thinking this perspective-taking practice is all about developing empathy for someone else. Certainly, walking a mile in someone’s shoes is about legitimizing their experience, not our own. It implores us to understand another point of view before making assumptions or judging.
However, in this version of “becoming the other”, the ultimate insight you can gain is not about another person; it’s about yourself.
The Value of Seeing Yourself From The Outside
When you practice seeing your own behavior through the eyes of someone else, you gain an entirely different appreciation for the ways you (or don’t) show up in the world. You may notice that “normal” in your mind is “strange” in another. What makes perfectly good sense to you doesn’t always appear that way from an outside perspective. In fact, what computes in your mind can be downright harmful in another’s.
“Becoming the other” practice allows you to better evaluate all those little things you do unconsciously: things that might seem benign but actually be really frustrating, annoying, selfish, or rude.
- “I was just coming over to show you how it’s done.”
- Intent: To be helpful.
- Impact: Controlling or micromanaging.
- “I was so excited I just had to jump in and say something.”
- Intent: Share that I feel the same way too.
- Impact: Disrespectful or condescending.
- “Hold on one more minute, I just needed to send another message.”
- Intent: Taking care of work responsibilities.
- Impact: Uncaring or dismissive.
We’ve all been victims and perpetrators of misaligned intent and impact. The trickiest part is that so often we miss subtle hints that our intent did not come through. This is where the “becoming the other” practice can help us better evaluate how we make people feel.
The goal of “becoming the other” is not to undermine your confidence or have you second guess everything you do. Nor is it to assume responsibility to make others feel a particular way about you (that would be impossible and manipulative.) The goal is to provoke insight into your own behavior and better understand how you show up in the world. It is to help you see yourself more clearly so you can disrupt unhelpful patterns that repeat themselves.
“Becoming The Other” Meditation
This practice is best used with people and situations where you have a longstanding relationship and ongoing dialogue. The ability to check-in with this person and verify your self-perceptions can be incredibly helpful (and therapeutic if you’re willing to receive the feedback).
If you have an existing meditation practice, follow your normal setup. If you’re relatively new to meditation or visualization, consider developing a personal practice first — here’s a great place to start. There are certain psychological and emotional skills required to do this well (more on that below). If you’re already exhausted, resource depleted, and at wits-end, I suggest waiting until you’re replenished to give this a try.
Step-by-Step Guided “Becoming The Other” Practice
Using the abridged words of Bruce Lee: Take what is useful. Make it your own. Discard the rest.
- Make at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted time in your day to do this practice. Choose a space and place that feels safe, comfortable, and relatively free from distractions.
- Assume a meditation posture. Seated, spine long, eyes gently closed.
- Take a few conscious breaths. Allow your mind to settle back into your body. Long exhales while feeling the ground underneath you tend to help settle your bodymind.
- Imagine a blank screen in front of you. Then pull up a video clip of a recent memory that includes you and the person you would like to become. Recalling a particular pattern of behavior is a good place to start.
- As you draw upon a specific memory, replay the scene as if you were the director watching both of you together act it out — a third-person view.
- Become the other: Shift to seeing the experience through their eyes. Move from a third-person perspective into a first-person perspective. Become them.
- Imagine how it would feel being them in this moment. What are they noticing? How are they moving? What are they saying? What are they experiencing, physically and emotionally?
- Now watch yourself. How do you appear through their eyes? What do you notice? How does this make you feel? Do you see anything new about yourself? Stay as objective as possible.
- Keep the scene rolling in your mind. Try your best to stay in it as them. Note how they’re realting to you and whether that brings satisfaction or struggle. Appreciate the internal logic of their experience — how their actions and behaviors all make sense from this point of view — and that your actions may seem illogical from this perspective.
- Feel free to play out different situations and possibilities. You can recall different memories. You can imagine different future interactions. There’s no one way to do this visualization meditation. Everything can lead to insight if you’re willing to be honest.
- Whenever you feel complete or your imagination has run dry, come back into your body. Take a few more deep, conscious breaths. Offer thanks to this person. Offer thanks for yourself. Offer thanks for the opportunity to practice becoming the other.
- Collect your insights. Commit to letting your experience impact who and how you are, especially in relation to this person.
Caveats: The Challenge of Leaving Our Reality Bubble
We will never truly be able to experience the world through another’s bodymind (although sophisticated virtual reality may take us close). Any attempts like this visualization are merely projections that may or may not be accurate. Nonetheless, visualizations can be extremely helpful tools for our personal development.
The point isn’t to simulate exactly what it’s like to become another person. The point is to provoke a new perspective that cuts through self-delusion and helps you understand the way you impact others.
This meditation requires a number of pieces to be in place for it to go well. Below I describe at least five components that serve as prerequisites for the practice. This is more a theoretical overview, but helpful nonetheless for understanding the challenge of stepping outside ourselves.
- Cognitive Capacity: You need the cognitive capacity for perspective-taking (something that is notably lacking from children before the age of 6 and those with autism). This capacity can be trained and increased through meditation and visualizations.
- Resources: You need the energy and inner resources necessary to engage in potentially jarring self-observation. You also need external resources in the form of time and space to carry out this practice. If you’re in a fragile place with limited social support, I would not recommend this exercise.
- Motivation: You need to be convinced this self-labor matters; This work is important enough to warrant the effort. Moreover, you need to assume the risk of decentering your own perspective, which presents an existential (“What if I don’t like myself? What if see something I don’t want to see?”) and a practical threat (“What if I’m physically harmed while engaging in this practice?”)
- Concentration: You need the concentration to sit and focus on playing out different scenes in your mind without getting lost or distracted. The ability to sustain such attention for more than a few seconds is a skill that takes time to develop. (A skill that is notably not supported in our fast-paced, ADHD, Twitterized culture).
- Emotional Intelligence: You need the social and emotional capacity to realize that you can have emotions but are not beholden to them. Feelings are data, not directives. You can choose to respond to what you’re seeing and feeling without crashing into shame or blame.
Becoming The Other To Become Better
Adopting another person’s worldview is nothing new. It’s been a staple of human ethics for ages, and the specific phrase “become the other, go from there” was written about by Ginny Whitelaw in her great book Resonate: Zen and the Way of Making a Difference.
Despite its challenges and complexities, it’s also one of the most worthwhile things we can spend our mental energy on. Knowing how we’ve shown up and impacted others gives us more choice in how we show up today. Becoming the other and seeing ourselves more clearly moves us through our habitual patterns so we’re not stuck in one way of reacting to the world.
If we want to act differently, we need to first see what is possible. Then we need to If we can erode the self-delusion that keeps us trapped in old patterns. When we tear down the illusion that other people see the world as we do, we dismantle the isolated self and rekindle the web of shared humanity we’re all apart. True freedom is recognizing our fundamental interconnectedness and becoming the other is one way to let that insight move back into the forefront of our lives.