Author Psychotherapist Pamela Milam shares inspirational thoughts on viewing others from a place of greater emotional generosity.
I know someone who had a series of different jobs: clerk, cook, waitress, courier, even construction worker. She told me that she once had a stint as a roofer. She worked every day with the same guy, a blue-collar philosopher who used to take breaks sitting on the roof eating his sandwich and telling her stories: “People think they’re alone, that no one can see them, but up here I can’t help but see people living their lives—in their living rooms, bedrooms, backyards. The world’s a different place to me because of that.”
He felt a warmth and grace toward the people living in those houses, cooking barbecue, pushing swings for children, vacuuming rugs, fighting with spouses, clicking away on laptops, cooking spaghetti, or reading books by windows. He saw them in private moments and tried his best to honor that privacy. I might see, for instance, a client who is a tough businesswoman, but in fact is anxiety-ridden and worried about her young son’s autism diagnosis.
It struck me later that, as a therapist, my view can be similar. We are the roofers of the soul, seeing into hearts and minds and getting a look into the private lives and relationships of people who otherwise might seem like just “the guy in the next cubicle” or “that jogger I see every Saturday on the trail” or “the unassuming neighbor down the block.”
I might see, for instance, a client who is a tough businesswoman, but in fact is anxiety-ridden and worried about her young son’s autism diagnosis. Many of her colleagues write her off as being brusque and cold, but that’s nowhere near the truth. Or I meet the olive-skinned young model who radiates a golden beauty, but discover that he is wracked with self-doubt. I encounter the narcissist who admits that he feels empty in spite of his résumé of accomplishments, or the pregnant teen who pretends to look forward to motherhood but confesses that she’s terrified.
It’s helpful to get a different view, looking into their lives and seeing them, really seeing them live life: struggling, failing, succeeding, and managing to get through it all somehow.
Getting a new perspective—simply paying attention—helps me break free from assumptions or stale beliefs about neighbors, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.There’s a freedom that comes from getting an alternate view. The more you really notice other people, the less likely you are to write them off or pigeonhole them. Getting a new perspective—simply paying attention—helps me break free from assumptions or stale beliefs about neighbors, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
For me, it’s important not to get locked into a mindset, one of judgment or negativity or willful oblivion. The key to unlocking my mind is the very same key to building good relationships: noticing people, taking my time, imagining how they might feel, making an effort to do no harm, and trying to do good when I can.
If I find myself taking a knee-jerk attitude toward a person or summing someone up based on one or two obvious traits, it’s a sure bet that I’m missing something that I might understand more clearly from a place of greater emotional generosity. I try to remember that I’m always free to take a fresh look. I’m the roofer casting a graceful look into their hidden lives.
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