What is it like to be you?

Posted on January 30, 2014


“It was the first time anybody asked what it was like to be me.”  Aibilene Clark

One of the great things (or perhaps dangerous things) about doing a blog, is that if you don’t want to make the effort to check your quotes, you don’t have to.  This is one of those that you are getting the way I remember it.  The Help was a novel and then a movie set in the American south in 1962.  It is the story of the writing of a book relating the view of the African American maids toward their white employers and the resultant fallout.  I have not read the book, but I saw the film once a couple of years ago.  One line that I thought was particularly profound (and I think I am pretty close on the quote) was near the end of the film when Aibilene (one of the maids) observed that “It was the first time anybody asked what it was like to be me.”

I frequently write about the power of empathy in couple relationships.  There is a certain skill to expressing empathy and it is good to have that skill.  On a deeper level, empathy is not really a skill.  It is a connection with what is like to be the other person.  It is finding something in the experience of another person that we can understand, with which we can identify.

Human beings are made for connection.  We do very poorly in isolation.  Studies of suffering have found that individuals can cope with much more suffering if at least one other person knows they are suffering.  A study by Coan, Schaefer, & Davidson (2006) found that having someone with you when going through a painful procedure actually reduced one’s experience of pain.  It was better to have anyone there than to be alone, but the effect was even greater when it was a partner (see my post on Marriage Relationships: Secure Attachment Relieves Pain, https://scottwoodtherapy.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/marriage-relationships-secure-attachment-relieves-pain/).  The bottom line is that it is tremendously powerful to have someone know what it is like to be me.  It is healing; it is stress reducing; it even takes away our physical pain.

In marriages, distressed couples become stuck in negative cycles of interaction.  The negative cycles are usually failed attempts to get one’s needs met.  When the negative cycles have taken over, each partner knows their own experience well.  However, at such times it is easy and natural to lose track of your partner’s experience.  In most cases, your partner is not your enemy.  Your partner is wanting you to see what it is like to be him or her.  What do you suppose life feels like to your partner?  My experience is that people are not irrational.  If someone seems that way, there is a part of their view that I don’t yet understand.  In therapy, one of the therapist’s missions early in the process is to understand what it is like to be you.

Couples often come to therapy citing communication as the problem with which they want help.  When I talk with them, I often find that both partners are excellent communicators.  What is really going on here?  “It feels like we are not communicating because when I say something you get angry with me and we fight.  I feel misunderstood; not heard.”  The bottom line is “I can’t get you to understand what it is like to be me.  Having you not understand is really painful.”  If you want to exit the negative cycle, try understanding, “What’s it like to be you?”  There is great power in having your partner feel understood.  There is great power in having your partner feel that you get what it is like to be him or her (particularly if it feels like it matters to you).  That’s the empathy and compassion piece.