What does it mean to “walk in another person’s shoes”?
One of my favorite children’s books was “The Really Real Family” by Helen Grigsby Doss.
Set in Hawaii, it’s the story of two young girls, orphans of multi-cultural background, living with a foster-mother while they waited to be adopted by a “really real family.”
After the girls quarreled, their foster mom suggested they could best understand the other girl’s true feelings if they actually walked in each other’s shoes. So they switched shoes, walked in them for a while, and came to see the other child’s point of view. And thus the quarrel was patched up.
Not sure why this book has resonated with me for so long – was it because as a kid growing up in Connecticut, Hawaii seemed like a far-off foreign land where people ate odd things like “poi?” Or because I was intrigued by kids who lacked a family? Or fascinated by the idea of actually switching shoes to find out how another person really thinks?
Last week I had a chance to understand what it means to see things from inside another person’s mind, if not their shoes.
On Thursday and Friday I was invited to participate as one of 14 mental health “experts” in a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) advisory group on “Engagement.” Our group was composed of doctors, psychologists, social workers, advocates, family members – with diverse mental health perspectives from around the U.S.
And what, you may ask, is the concept of “Engagement” and why does it matter? Let me explain in non-jargonese.
One of the hats I wear (Except I don’t wear actual hats. Ever. I look terrible in hats.) but figuratively one of the hats I wear is as an advisor/advocate/writer on young adult and college-related mental health.
In mental health lingo, “Engagement” traditionally has meant methods of reaching out to people who have mental illness, at whatever stage of their experience, so they will enter into treatment and hopefully, comply with it.
Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? And in many small discussion forums, the participants accept, without question, the written agenda set by the sponsoring organization.
But (thankfully) not this group!
Right from the start, even as our group’s facilitator was hand-writing the standard definition of “Engagement” up on the flip chart in the front of the conference room – hands shot up in the air to challenge it.
The conventional definition doesn’t work, most participants contended. We need to start thinking of “Engagement” not just as a one-way-street (doctor engages patient), but as an active, two-way process where the person receiving the treatment has an opportunity to express his goals, then a plan for reaching those goals is mutually designed and both the provider and the patient work together to get there.
I started to listen more closely – fascinated as the older model of “Engagement” was tossed aside and a new one evolved from lived experience.
As the Mom of a teen and then young adult with mental health challenges, I had always subscribed, without giving it much thought, frankly, to the conventional “Engagement” model of health care – the provider as the knowledgeable giver of a remedy and the person with the illness as the quietly docile recipient.
Does this sound familiar to you? Person develops symptoms, sees a doctor and the doctor says ” You are ill, you are broken. I can fix you! Here take this pill and come back in one week.”
As a parent my perspective was always a narrow one: “Did you take your medicine? Did you go to therapy? Are you doing what the doctor says you should do?”
I rarely, if ever, thought about how mental health care must feel from the perspective of my child.
How my child must have felt about the experience of being on the receiving end of a scary sounding diagnosis, of being thought of as a broken object to be fixed – so focused was I on wanting my child to get better – and as soon as possible, please.
What I should have done, I’ve realized, is somewhere along the way – figuratively or literally – was to switch shoes (sneakers in this case) with my child so I could walk in another person’s shoes to see how it felt to be him.
During last week’s meeting two participants in our group made this concept come vividly alive for me.
Two amazing young adult women, both in the early years of their professional careers, both living with mental illness. They spoke eloquently about what it was like to leave college, how it felt to be hospitalized, to feel socially rejected by some peers, to experience discrimination in educational and professional settings and to deal with a mental health system that was all about “fixing them” – and not about understanding them.
You will no doubt be glad to know that during last week’s meeting I did not actually take off my own shoes and try to exchange them with any other participant.
But just listening to the other participants gave me an “ahah” moment. For real understanding to happen I needed to see the situation from the other person’s perspective. The other person who has actually lived the experience, beyond having my opinions shaped from where I sit as the knowledgeable-yet-worried parent figure.
Likely this concept translates to the parenting of children with all sorts of challenges, big and small. And to other kinds of broken systems, not just the mental health care system.
For we won’t know what needs be changed – and how to make those changes – until we really listen to the people on the receiving end – or we get a chance to walk in their shoes, literally or figuratively.