Empathy is a profound virtue for our times. I believe we should all aspire to cultivate the ability to both feel and put ourselves in the shoes of another person. In this article, we will take a close look at the use of “If I were you …,” a common expression that could convey deep empathy.
When we are with our friends and family talking about our problems and life challenges, so many people say, “If I were you, what I’d do is…” But, what does that really mean? Oftentimes, it’s just an arrogant way of saying “I think you should do this. It’s easy. Don’t you see how you should handle it?” But, “If I were you …” has the potential to be a statement of deep and profound empathy. One of the most empathic and loving things we could possibly do for another person is to really go into the shoes of the other, as an actor would, and put ourselves in their whole life position. Using “If I were you …” this way means I’d have had your history and all your experiences. I’d in essence, be you.
Two Distinct Ways to Do Empathy
There are two very distinct ways to practice empathy with another. In the first way, you can imagine yourself in the situation they’re in. You are doing empathy with the other and their circumstances, yet remain yourself. In the second way, you can imagine you are them in the circumstances they are in. Here, you are doing empathy through feeling into being them and not being yourself. These two ways are very different. I’ve never heard anyone make this distinction before. Most likely someone has, but it needs to be common knowledge so we better understand empathy.
Empathy: You Imagining Yourself in the Circumstances of the Other
The most common way people do empathy is to imagine themselves in the life circumstances of the other person. Perhaps your friend has lost their mother who died of cancer recently. In this case, you imagine how you would feel and respond as if you were in this life circumstance and had just lost your mother. You may draw on your experience of losing a parent or a dear friend or lover, to help you perceive what they might be going through. Or, you imagine what it would be like for you, if you lost your mother in the very same set of circumstances. This will give you a high degree of empathy, and will be greatly appreciated by the other person in most situations. When you are practicing this form of empathy, while giving someone advice, you would say, “If I were in your situation, this is how I would handle it …”
Empathy: You as the Other
The second way is to imagine you are actually them in their situation. In this second way of practicing empathy, you need to be able to perceive the world through their eyes, and notice how you feel as them, about your mother’s passing. There are certain differences in their grieving process from your grieving process. When you completely put yourself in their shoes, you are entering unknown territory by truly perceiving the world through their eyes. How would I, as the other, experience this loss? What is their relationship with their mother like? How do they relate with feelings and grief?
To truly understand what it is like to be them, using the metaphor of acting can be extremely helpful. If I was to play them as a character in this scene, what would I need to do differently to be them? When you are giving advice from this perspective you would say, “If I were you, I would handle this situation this way.” Notice how this is different than when you were you, in their situation. Now, as them, you are practicing empathy with their being and giving advice for what might be even more true to themselves, as far as dealing with their mother’s death. Your perspective, in empathy as them, can be more helpful , than what they are doing right now. So it’s really a statement of, “If I were you, and slightly more aware than you are being right now, what I’d do is…” This is a profoundly helpful act because we have the gift of a clear observer perspective of the other, that they often aren’t able to see themselves with this kind of clarity.
If I Were You …
In essence, we are taking a very commonly expressed idea that is often misused. ”If I were you …,” can be an advice-giving ego game for many people, when advice is given without any empathy at all. It’s like they are saying, “It’s so obvious what I would do if I were you.” However, when we approach this statement and give advice, or support another, with profound empathy as the backdrop, it changes the whole terrain.
Real empathy is putting ourselves in the heart and soul of another, not just their circumstances. If instead, you are able to simply put yourself in their circumstances, and not feel and be them, this form of empathy is still useful. It’s a failure in our culture to not use empathy in any form. To truly revolutionize humanity, we must be able to feel what it is like to truly be another. Let’s join together and practice empathy throughout all the days of our lives. Empathy can be as common as breathing, so all of humanity is permeated with this profoundly loving ability.
For more articles on empathy and other topics that relate to the heart. For guiding your process and deepening your empathy here is a link to the one on one work. For the books click here. Join us on social media…. We have more articles to read on our website and there are several books and options for individual and group work to bring these principles into your everyday life.
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