I’ve mentioned a couple of times now that I have a dissociative disorder. A derealization disorder, in fact. Which means that when my dissociative disorder is triggered, nothing around me seems real. Sometimes things literally look like movie sets and sound stages to me. I can’t even watch movies when it’s bad because when everything already looks fake, bad acting takes on a whole new meaning. When it comes to dealing with people, it’s like being locked inside a glass bubble where sounds can get through, but they’re muffled and removed from much of their meaning somehow. I read an article about it once which described disrealization as the loneliness disease. Obviously you can’t connect with anyone when you have a hard time even seeing them as real.
Because my dissociative disorder started by the time I was 17 months old, I grew up with no conscious experience of being able to consistently see other people as real. I just assumed that this was what it was like to be human. It certainly explained the way people treated each other; if the people around you feel like objects, then you’re going to treat them like objects, right? But I knew that other people actually are real, even when they don’t feel real. And I knew what it was like to be treated like objects. I didn’t want other people to feel like that, so I decided that part of growing up and being fully alive must include learning to see other people as real rather than as actors in my environment.
Probably around age 11 I started just watching people, trying to imagine what it must be like to be them. I would watch the way they reacted to things and think, “why did they have that reaction and not a different one?” After I became a committed Christian in early adolescence, I became more intentional about it. I’d pick out people who seemed the least real, the most scary or the least appealing and think about what it might be like to be them. I’d look for things to love about them. In the process, I learned to see people as real. And to this day, whenever I notice that they don’t seem real to me anymore, I make myself really look and think about and try to imagine loving them.
Of course, I wasn’t diagnosed with the dissociative disorder until the summer of 2014, so I didn’t know that the rest of y’all didn’t need to spend nearly so much time thinking about other people in order to remember that they are real. Apparently it’s happens instinctively and unconsciously for some people. Who knew? Thankfully, I was motivated by the teaching to love our enemies and the least to really work at dealing with the problem. And then some, because I am an American after all. If a little is good, more must be better.
Anyways, while most people aren’t dealing with the extremity of not being able to see any human as real, people who study these things have tell us that once the average human gets out past their own clan or broad group, the ability to see people are real starts to fade. Brain scans have found that when people were shown pictures of homeless people, for example, their brains processed them using the same circuitry it uses when looking at objects. The results have been replicated using other examples of human beings who the test subjects would see as far removed from themselves. They’ve further found that most people only see the 20 or so people closest to them as fully formed human beings.
This is often viewed as a moral issue, and it is. But it’s also just a quirk of our brain. Back when we were living in small clans and being able to see the full humanity of 20 or so people was sufficient. Humans are much more complicated than objects so it takes much more energy to think of humans than to think of objects. And our brain works to conserve energy, so in a setting where you spent 99% of your time with the same 20 people, defaulting to thinking of most people as objects worked just fine. Today, many of us deal with hundreds of people everyday. Almost every one of us in the west lives in a way which affects millions of people directly. 20 people is not sufficient. Given how interconnected we are, we really need to be able to see every single human as real.
Thankfully, our brains are quite trainable. As I can attest to. (I’m planning, at some point, to dive into how our neurology works, the effect of trauma on our neurology, how it expresses itself in mental health disorders and how to overcome and move past the worst of its effects. It’s all very important stuff to know in as members of a species which has a rather traumatic background.) But for now, I want to share a simple exercise that I use all the time to help train my brain to see people as real. Some people are already good at this, but nearly all of us need to expand our brain’s ability to process every human as real and important enough to care about.
So, all I do is go go shopping at Walmart. Walmart is where the aren’t-putting-on-a-show-of-having-their-fancy-shit-together people shop. So I go to Walmart, walk through the store with my cart, getting what I need. And I consciously work to see the people around me as real. I imagine the woman with at male pattern baldness sitting and laughing with her kids over food at a family gathering involving lots of yummy processed white carbs and cheese. And I think about how her kids feel about her. Because they love her. They don’t care how she looks or that she’s wearing pajama bottoms at Walmart. They wear pajama bottoms at Walmart too! Or maybe she’s lonely and her kids are embarrassed by her and mean. Or she’s struggling with depression and had to force herself to go out in public. So on and so forth. Repeat
Now, you don’t need to get as involved with it as me. The little vignettes and stories aren’t strictly necessary. But the point is that you need to really look at people you normally either avoid or condescend towards and think about what it’s like to be them. Train your brain to look for the people underneath whatever their veneer tells your brain about them. And you need to be intentional about it. You need pay attention to how you’re thinking about other people. We all have programming running under the surface that we don’t really want or agree with that we need to be made aware of.
And that’s it. That’s all it takes to start changing the way your brain sees people outside your natural affinity group. By doing it consciously, you are taking control of the way your brain is working and directing it to do something different. That’s how you lay a new neural pathway. Then you practice using it. The more it’s used and the more intense it’s use it, the stronger that neural pathway will be. The old pathway which processes people like object will still be there. But you’ll start catching yourself and directing your thoughts down the new, intentionally laid neural pathway and using the new pathway will become your default.
Now, if you are someone who avoids Walmart (or whatever your version of Walmart might be), I am not even kidding, you need to go shopping at Walmart and look at people. Find a spot to park and watch for a bit. Really, really see the people there. Eavesdrop a bit. Pay attention to how they treat the people around them. Don’t fixate on the idiots. Find the people you wouldn’t normally notice.
And if you are someone who feels quite comfortable at Walmart, just pay attention to people and what you think about them as you’re going through. Be really intentional about seeing the people who are not like you in some way. Different races, different styles (I refuse to use the word asthetics anymore. Thanks, millenials!), different ways of talking or moving, different levels of attractiveness, different abilities than your own. Just make yourself see them in detail and imagine what they look like to someone who loves them. Maybe keep a tissue handy the first couple times through.
If you actually do this, it will be much easier to catch and correct those times when your brain wants to process a human being – one who, according to my religion – carries the very image of God on their being, as an object. We really can’t afford to be seeing people as objects anymore. This isn’t a game we’re playing. All of us are real. And we need all of us to see each other as real. So let’s get to practicing.
BTW, if you are someone who is dealing in some way with trauma, mental illness, addictions, persistent relationship problems, etc (who did I miss?), my book The Upside Down World’s Guide to Enjoying the Hard Life is written for you. It’s a collection of many of my little habits of mind which I’ve relied on to keep myself steady and pull myself out of the hole when I fell in. I wrote it so it’s super easy to read, even if you’re having a hard time concentrating. And there’s an index in the back where you can look up essays according to what it is you’re struggling with (such as shame, anxiety, confidence, relationships). It’s only $6, so you can probably afford it. If not, let me know and I can probably send you the pdf file. Just go to the contact page (under “About”.)