Can We Really See Through Another's Eyes?

Can We Really See Through Each Other's Eyes?

Why is it so easy for us to get lost in our own way of seeing things? When I look back at my interactions with Hugh the year after his traumatic brain injury, at our moments of irritation that preceded an argument, I see that many of them stemmed from a complete lack of understanding — and sometimes, from our refusal to acknowledge — that his injury impacted us in completely different ways.

I know I’ve heard of “perspective taking” many times, but learning about it and properly executing it are two entirely different things. Before a traumatic brain injury, two people might interact one way, but after a TBI, interactions are often different in ways we can’t explain. Could it be that we don’t understand what the other has been through? Maybe if we could learn to truly see through each other’s eyes, we could better understand one another, and that understanding would spark meaningful discussions without the kind of judgments that lead to criticism and disagreement.

Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, says, “Perspective taking calls on many of the executive functions of the brain. It requires inhibitory control, or inhibiting our own thoughts and feelings to consider the perspectives of others; cognitive flexibility to see a situation in different ways; and reflection, or the ability to consider someone else’s thinking alongside our own.”

Her book is meant to help adults teach children seven skills, one of which is perspective taking, which will instill a love of lifelong learning and assist with goal attainment. I was struck by the three-part nature of perspective taking in this short description. She’s not only talking about trying to see something as our loved one might see it, but inhibiting our own perspective, using cognitive flexibility, and reflecting on what we discover. I had always thought of perspective taking as simply, “walking in another’s shoes.” It’s more complex than that.

In her article “Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Importance of Perspective Taking,” Maria Konnikova discusses how we often approach perspective taking from our own egocentric place. We start with our own feelings and move ever so slightly in the direction of the other, rather than going to the place where the other person lives, breathes, sees, and experiences the world. She illustrates her point by showing how Sherlock Holmes would go to the scene of the crime to think. Here he would look, listen, and feel the place to get into the mind of the person who committed the crime. Immersing himself in this identical environment involved all of his senses and crystallized his understanding.

When we think we are taking the perspective of our loved one, are we really? Did I ever really understand what it was like to live in the hospital for thirty-three days, injured and befuddled as my husband was? Did I ever really spend a day in rehab trying to make my mind and body perform simple tasks that once came naturally to me? Did I truly understand Hugh’s frustrations, his confusion, his jumble of post-injury thoughts?

Once in a while, I would ask Hugh, “What does it feel like to be you?” When I took the time to listen intently, I instantly felt more connected to him. His answer would be so shockingly surreal that it cemented what I already knew in some small corner of my mind: I don’t know you nearly as well as I thought I did. Asking pointed questions reminded me to stop making assumptions about how and what he was feeling, which in turn helped our relationship. Wrong assumptions often lead to misunderstandings.

And while all this might help, here’s a snag for some TBI caregivers: recent research has found that “low self-awareness of individuals with severe traumatic brain injury can lead to reduced ability to take another person's perspective.” This explains why many family members feel a void when interacting with their loved one after a TBI. In cases where this has resulted, it is up to the caregiver or family member to be a one-sided “perspective taker” … at least for a while. In many cases, self-awareness grows as the injured person heals, but sometimes it does not. In cases where the caregiver understands this, enrolling his or her loved one in a group therapy designed to increase self-awareness may be the answer.

Throughout our lives, much of our happiness depends on feeling heard and understood. Perspective taking is a good place to start if you’re wondering why there are so many problems in your relationship after TBI, and it’s so much more than imagining or guessing how your loved one feels. A little investigative work might yield impressive rewards.

Comments (7)

Please remember, we are not able to give medical or legal advice. If you have medical concerns, please consult your doctor. All posted comments are the views and opinions of the poster only.

i see this article is illustrated to explain if a survivor has an "elevator that goes to the top" a family member might invest energy to understand. If self awareness is not evident then there is little effort. Resiliency is the determining factor how a survivor will overcome their challenges to believe there is rehab, therefore, invest in a plan
I have had TBI for 2 years now and this article really helped validate me, and my process. sometimes don't know who I am, and how am I really feeling. Thank you for the insite.
it is difficult for me because my moods can be bouncing around vigorously or at a stand still so it would be more difficult for my wife to see it my way. Time seems to go that way as well. A stand still or zips by and doesn't seem to be that long. The constant high pitch frequency in the ears as well she wouldn't be able to see or the constant pain and non feeling at times. I can't even see it my way I do know that she has gone through very much, watching me pull the tubes out of my neck, one side of my body jerking around, in and out of coma in the hospital bed. I have tried to cut her out of the treatment and relieve her some of my condition. It is not easy
Great article, Rosemary! From the "other side of the coin.," as a brain injury survivor, it helps when I try to look at life through my wife Sarah's eyes. Where my memory of the first years is mostly gone, she doesn't have that luxury. She recalls it all in exquisite detail. There have been many times I have had to step a bit back and try as best I can to look through her eyes. Thanks for another great article. You help so many! ~ David A. Grant
No, a person cannot see 100% through another's eyes (my view). A few persons may have a rare gift for seeing about 90% (my view) but 100% is impossible. Regarding brain concussions, inattentive ADHD, complex partials, auditory processing, prosopagnosia (face blindness), etc., one is better off to look at those who have it vs those who claim to speak with 100% accuracy about it who do not have it (my view). Too often - 2013 - political bodies/business trade guilds tend to speak for others often secretly motivated by profits and claims like they have the right medicine/treatment (for a fee); some of these forces (politics/trade groups) try to control the conversation about many neurological challenges including brain concussions, sports concussions, repeated sports concussions, etc. Their values often can be largely explained by the old slogan: Follow the money. There is a need for more, regular input from those who live with puzzling neurological challenges (my view). Can we really see through another's eyes? is a very good question. Thanks for asking it.
I really want to thank the author for digging deeper to what it really means to have or care for a person with TBI. Having TBI myself, going on 2 1/2 years is by no means something that one gets over in a day or two as if it is a common cold or something! It is so frustrating for me just being only thirty four and having some in my life assume that I do or say the things I do to be mean or spiteful!!! Which is the furthest thing from the truth! I am just trying to relearn my whole life, accept that things that use to come so simple to me no longer do without a tremendous amount of effort on my part!! I do have some who unconditionally love and support me now!! The man I love most who is just as loving and accommodating as he was before my car accident an has to be even more now!! It is not just about walking in another's shoes it is also respecting them for still trying with the only agenda being to survive and thrive again!
With a spouse who (it is becoming clear, even as he resumes treatment years after the injury) will never be able to take another's perspective again, I feel like the loneliest person on earth. He's either mildly offensive or inoffensive in conversation with others, so they tell me they see him as just odd. No one understands how lonely this is, the one-way street of constantly trying to see how things are for him with no real ability for him to do this in return, and only a very few attempts. The street is blocked at this point. I need more, I am human and suffering too, and I can't do this for him anymore.