“You can only understand people if you feel them in yourself.” ~John Steinbeck
In the early stages of my relationships, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the other person was thinking. Hours of pondering whether they liked me, over-analyzing every text message, and worrying that every fight meant it was over.
Over time, in a good long-term relationship, these challenges settle down. While longevity is not the only marker of a successful relationship, feeling safe and comfortable with someone over a decent stretch of time is undoubtably lovely. All those fear-based worries and insecurities fade, that feeling of being ‘on your toes’ disappears, and you finally feel like you can settle into something.
However, a few years into my current and most serious relationship, there was something that continued to be a struggle. That struggle is mirrored by clients in my work as a counselor and relationship coach today. And it’s probably the most important thing we can address, as a partner and human being.
In order to truly understand and empathize, we need to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
How many times have we heard these words? How many times have we said them?
And yet, is it something we are genuinely capable of?
I know for myself, it’s much harder than it seems. If I’m honest, my desire to be understood can override a desire to understand my partner. Sometimes I’m mystified as to why they don’t see things as I do. Isn’t it obvious that I’d be upset if you don’t want to spend time with people I love? If I get stuck making all the plans for our next holiday? Frustrated when you don’t speak up? While some of this is just a normal part of being in relationships, we can get stuck in misunderstandings that spell the death of connection.
For instance, we might actively avoid understanding the people we are closest to. In the early days when they’re speaking of past hurts, we can listen wholeheartedly because we are not implicated in these situations. But if we are the cause of the hurt, we tend to leap to explanations or even excuses before empathizing and accepting. We want to get past the hurt quickly so we don’t have to feel bad or vulnerable.
I remember once making what I thought was a ‘joke’ comment to my partner, and when they told me how I’d hurt their feelings, I dismissed it because I didn’t perceive it as hurtful. Deep down, though, I knew this wasn’t an isolated incident. I felt ashamed, and for a time this yucky feeling got in the way of me wanting to truly understand.
This shame I felt at hurting my partner ended up becoming a catalyst for change. I was able to reflect and eventually understand how and why my partner felt hurt, and it completely changed my response.
I stopped feeling self-protective and was able to apologize from a meaningful place. More importantly, I went forward from there really considering how my words might affect this person I love. And while I don’t always get it right (no one’s perfect), things got much better and we are happily ensconced nine years later.
I did this by holding an ‘internalized other’ interview with myself.
When I came across the ‘Internalized Other’ exercise, from family therapist Karl Tomm and used in the narrative therapy sessions I do, I realized this practice could be a game-changer in my relationship as well as many other people’s.
Because the reality is that understanding others takes practice. Even if you’re innately empathic, genuinely putting yourself in a particular someone’s shoes can be a challenge when you are directly involved with them.
This is the practice of embodying the full lived experience of an internalized significant other. Internalizing another person for the duration of a deep conversation (with them or with oneself) can make it possible to get out of stuck places, increase empathy, and allow new perspectives to bloom.
More commonly, it’s a powerful tool used in a relationship therapy/coaching conversation with your partner present. It’s undoubtedly easier to do with a third party interviewing you, but you can try it with your partner where both of you embody the other. This is also something you can do on your own with a journal. The main thing you need is a true desire to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
I should mention now, this is not for everyone and every relationship. It’s a challenging process. If you’re in a relationship where you are regularly being undermined or uncared for or things are generally toxic, this isn’t something you should do, and I recommend seeking professional help. But if your mental health and relationship communication is pretty good, then full steam ahead.
The simplest description of an internalized other interview is that you answer a series of questions as if you are this significant person and not yourself. The questions tend to start light and get more personal and deep as you go on.
It sounds easy, but it’s incredibly difficult. Most people slip into themselves fairly quickly, especially if we’re discussing a perceived injustice or a hurt. Stuck places hold us captive, but it’s vital we learn to break free from them.
That’s why it’s important to not just think about the person but try to embody them. If you are doing this in conversation, get up and swap seats. If you’re alone, try sitting in their usual chair or on their side of the bed. Maybe have an item of importance to them in your hands or in your line of sight. You could even put on a favorite T-shirt if that’s not too silly.
Then begin with some questions. Remember to use your partner’s name regularly to keep reminding yourself that you’re them. In this example, Charlie is trying to internalize Alex:
1. The simple questions
What’s your name? When’s your birthday, Alex? Where are you from and what do you like about your hometown? What do you dislike about it? Who’s your favorite musician? Where do you love going out for dinner, Alex? Are you a cat or a dog person and why? What makes you laugh?
You can have a little fun here, before hitting the more serious stuff. If you slip up, slow it all down. It’s not a race to get everything ‘right.’ It’s about the energy you’re putting into the embodiment process. Take your time with step one. Wait until you start feeling a little more natural answering questions as this other person. This is the beginning of ‘internalizing’ the other.
2. The personalized questions (that could stir a touch of conflict)
Why do you keep that top with all the holes in it, Alex? What’s going through your mind when Charlie is cooking dinner? Why did you go out last Friday night even though you were tired?
As you can see, some of the answers are going to be hard to come by. They might be questions you’ve wanted to ask your partner with genuine curiosity, so here’s your chance to try answer them. You aren’t just guessing though; this is still your interpretation of them. So focus less on getting it ‘right’ and more on the feeling you have of this internalized other person.
Assume your partner isn’t motivated by selfishness or hurtfulness and go in with some real consideration and generosity of spirit. You’re spending time in their mind, in their heart, which is a privilege. Go back to step one if you’re really stuck here, and keep moving between step one and two until it feels more comfortable.
3. The relational questions (getting to the heart of the matter)
How do you feel about discussing this stuff today, Alex? What is your relationship to Charlie? How long have you been together? What drives you up the wall? What do you find most challenging about this relationship, Alex? What do you think the cause of these problems is? What happened last Friday? Can you describe it, Alex? How did you feel when this thing happened with Charlie? What did it get you thinking and wishing in regards to Charlie? What makes you feel more closed or more open with Charlie?
As you can see, there’s a mix of questions here, ranging from broader relationship struggles and perspectives to more specific incidents. It’s up to you which direction you take this if you’re doing this on your own in your journal, or doing this as a couple without a therapist.
Diving into something very specific (especially something that happens regularly) can be most helpful though, because these are the places we find ourselves most stuck and can even be the tipping point in whether a relationship continues. Be prepared for lots of emotions to arise here. You may need a hug or a cry, but don’t give up; this is also where the magic happens.
4. More relational questions (with love and positivity, to wrap up)
What do you like about being in a relationship with Charlie? What would you like Charlie to know that you appreciate most about them? What would be important for you to let Charlie know, Alex?
This step is an invitation to bring things down and remember that the other person loves you (even if you’ve just been digging into the ways they’re struggling with the problems). Be kind to yourself. Internalized othering can be just as meaningful when exploring why we are uniquely loved by the other, so don’t stop at the problems.
When I went through this process on my own, I found myself knocked for six. Intellectually I knew I had hurt my partner. But until I truly internalized their experience, I still believed that if they just understood I hadn’t meant anything by my comment, they would get over it. When I allowed myself to feel their feelings it was humbling. Only then was I able to change. As an added bonus, I find myself being curious all over again about this person on a daily basis.
Internalizing another can be truly profound. You can solve a specific issue, you can look at a broader set of issues, and ultimately strengthen the flow of love between you. Even if you just do this process once with full commitment, the increase of empathy and ability to lay down defensiveness and become fascinated by someone you love (again) is nothing short of extraordinary.