How to Walk in Someone Else’s Shoes

Contemplative psychologist Karen Kissel Wegela teaches a practice to help us see difficult people — and ourselves — more clearly.

Karen Kissel Wegela
22 July 2021
Empty shoes.
Photo by Peter Hershey.

We have all had the experience of dealing with people we find difficult, and none of us wants to be a difficult person ourselves. “Through the Empty Mirror” is a contemplation that can help us bring compassion toward those we have a hard time with. It can also soften us so that we are less difficult for others.

Many traditions encourage us to walk in another’s shoes or to treat others as we would like to be treated. The “Empty Mirror” gives us a way to practice doing that. In dramatic or subtle ways, the contemplation may touch and open your heart where it has become fixed or frozen. Sometimes it is life changing for people, as it was for one man who had broken off communication with his twin brother. After doing this contemplation, he contacted his brother and the two reconnected deeply after more than a decade.

Begin by finding a quiet place and sitting down. It’s helpful to follow your breath for a few minutes as a way to calm the mind a bit.

Become the difficult person. Take your time settling into this new body.

Then, think of the person you find difficult. Think of what you know about this person: their appearance, how they spend their time, what they care about, what is difficult about them for you. Then, imagine that they are sitting opposite you at eye level. Place them at whatever distance feels right. Don’t worry about getting a clear image. It’s enough to just have a sense they are there.

Notice whatever arises in you as you imagine the difficult person opposite you. What sensations, emotions, and thoughts come up? Allow whatever comes to be there. Take some time with this.

Next, in your imagination, change places with them; become the difficult person. Take your time settling into this new body. What’s it like to be this person? What do you notice in your body? In your emotions? In your thoughts? Again, take your time.

Now, as you look at the person sitting opposite you (i.e., the original you), notice what you feel toward that person. What history do you have? Notice any sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise. Now, specifically think about what you, now the difficult person, want from the original you.

If it’s okay with you and not harmful, imagine that, as the difficult person, you receive what you want. Notice how it feels to receive it. This step of the contemplation is optional.

Now, trade places again, and go back to being your original self. Once again, look at or sense the person opposite you. What arises for you now as you imagine them? If you gave them what they wanted, how would that feel for you now?

When you feel ready, let the whole contemplation go and rest once again with your breathing for a few minutes.

Having done the contemplation, just notice what you are experiencing, especially when you think of the other person. Notice what, if anything, has shifted. Many people find that what the person wanted was something they could readily offer. Others find that it is out of the question.

This contemplation can help us let go of our fixed ideas about the other person. It can enable us to see them in a more rounded way and let go of any labels or stereotypes we have been holding about them. This may allow us be more open-hearted and less difficult ourselves.

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela

Karen Kissel Wegela, PhD, is a psychologist in private practice and a professor in Naropa University’s MA Contemplative Psychotherapy and Buddhist Psychology department. Her most recent book is Contemplative Psychotherapy Essentials: Enriching Your Practice with Buddhist Psychology.