What is it Like to Walk in Another Person’s Shoes?

My stepfather Joe’s toxic and racist rants were one of the reasons I left home as soon as I turned 18. Although as a child I knew his malignant views were wrong, I was more focused on defending myself—and hating him—for the disparaging ways he talked to me. After going away to college and having friends from many different cultures, I recognized how truly horrible and caustic the things were that he said through his harshly bigoted perspective.

I never really knew what had happened to him earlier in his life that had made him so hateful towards so many groups of people. However, I do know that his narrow mindset was not unique, as evidenced by the rise of hate crimes, and even the acerbic political divide, in recent years.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to speak about this important topic with Dr. Daniel Emina, a board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist at Amen Clinics in Costa Mesa.

Separateness Starts in the Brain

During our talk, Dr. Emina described some of the underlying causes of separateness that people of different groups experience, parts of which are actually built into brain development during infancy. I found this information really interesting and helpful in understanding how things can go awry.

Dr. Emina explained that at around 5 months of age, infants start to distinguish themselves as separate from their mother, so they need to be able to identify who and where she is. At this same time, babies can also identify people who are “other”—those who don’t look like mom. And this is where bias starts, but it isn’t out of hate, it is out of safety because infants are otherwise helpless on their own.

In other words, the capacity to discern “us” from “them” is built into the human brain and is foundational to what is called unconscious or implicit bias, which is an immediate and reflexive bias that your brain turns on. Unfortunately, it also becomes the scaffolding for building out social categorization by adding stereotypes, prejudice, and racial bias to it. So even though it all starts from a baby’s primitive sense to feel protected, it leads to many challenges, such as the ones we are facing today.

Regardless of your upbringing and experiences, if you are harboring certain prejudices or biases against others, it is still possible to work through them. Click To Tweet

Are You Struggling with Biases Against People Who are Different?

It’s helpful to know that regardless of your upbringing and experiences, if you are harboring certain prejudices or biases against others, it is still possible to work through them. Talking to people about their struggles and increasing your knowledge about how their experiences are different from yours can open your mind to the reality that many minorities and marginalized people have to live with every day. This can help you have a better understanding and greater compassion about the ways in which discrimination, racial biases, poverty, trauma, inadequate health care, and other social issues can adversely contribute additional layers to mental and physical health problems.

I encourage all of you to take some time to imagine what it is like to walk in the shoes of someone who is different from you. If ever there was a time we need more empathy in the world, it is now.

For more inspiration, order my newest book, The Relentless Courage of a Scared Child: How Persistence, Grit, and Faith Created a Reluctant Healer.

 If you’re struggling and need professional help, Amen Clinics is here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

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