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.