8 February 2024

Our capacity for ‘Perspective Shifting’

In childhood, we have to learn that other people see the world differently from us – literally visually. That is why peek-a-boo used to be so much fun – when we were toddlers and we covered our eyes, we did believe that the other person could not see us anymore, just like we could not see them. While we learn in later childhood that other people have a different visual perspective on things from us, it is much later that we learn that their perspective also differs due to their individual emotions, beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. It takes time and experience to realise this. An important step is to understand that we all actively construct our perception of the world – our perception is influenced by our beliefs, assumptions, and expectations, which in turn are formed by our individual life experience.

You might know the experience, during or after an argument, where each party explains what they perceived or what happened from their point of view - and you will be aware that these stories might differ hugely. There is so much going on in every single situation and all of the ‘action’ is subject to interpretation. When we genuinely try to put ourselves ‘in someone else's shoes’ we can gain an understanding of their perspective. However, Perspective Shifting does not only concern the skill of taking someone else’s perspective, it is also about knowing your own perspective, taking a neutral perspective, and inquiring into these different perspectives. It is about gaining awareness of all the perspectives you can take, as well as learning to consciously shift your perspective. This might seem like a lot, so let’s look at the different perspectives one-by-one.

1st Person Perspective

Our 1st person perspective is the sum total of our thoughts and feelings, our knowledge, and our wants and needs. It is all about knowing our own position. It shows up in toddlerhood, when we are very concerned with our own wants and needs. As an adult it is still very important to be able to hold our 1st person perspective – to know what we desire, think and feel in a given situation. Whether we ACT upon that is a different thing – in toddlerhood our 1st person perspective is driving us unconsciously, we are completely absorbed by our perspective. In adulthood this perspective is still always with us, but we might be more or less conscious of it at different moments and we are (hopefully) more choiceful about how we act on it.

For example, in situations where I feel under pressure or on the spot, I have a hard time recognising my own needs and my 1st person perspective on things. On the other hand, I might be too absorbed by my own perspective when I am in an argument. If our 1st person perspective is not strong enough, we might find it difficult to work out our own position or understand what we really want and value. If our 1st person perspective is TOO strong, we might be stuck in our own perspective, always prioritise our own beliefs and values and fail to acknowledge other perspectives. What we strive for is a good balance of the perspectives – being aware of our 1st person perspective, while also being able to put it down at moments to take another perspective.

2nd Person Perspective

Taking 2nd person perspective is what happens when we ask ourselves the question ‘What is it like to be you?’ – we genuinely try to ‘put ourselves into someone else’s shoes’. 2nd person perspective concerns another person’s wants, needs, beliefs and the way they see the world. Taking this perspective is an incredibly valuable skill, as it helps us ‘Mummy is tired, I should give her a teddy and my blanket’, illogical understand why someone has done something that might seem think is not taking a proper 2nd person perspective. The child is imposing her from our viewpoint. It allows for empathy. 2nd person perspective own wants and needs onto the mother. A proper 2nd person perspective would be ‘Mummy is tired, I should leave her alone so she can rest’.

This might sound cute, funny, or obvious, but in adulthood, when we think that we are taking 2nd person perspective, we’re actually often doing something similar – we impose our ideas upon the other person. We can easily slip into a pattern of ‘I give you what I would want in the situation’ instead of ‘I give you what you want in this situation’. Another pitfall concerning 2nd person perspective is being overly concerned with it and forgetting to take our own perspective into account. What we strive for is having a balanced 2nd person perspective that we can easily access. If we don’t have enough 2nd person perspective, we fail to take the other person’s views and needs into account and if our 2nd person perspective is too strong, we might be over-concerned with other people’s judgments and find ourselves unable to stand our own ground. how aware are you of your own perspective and the other person’s contexts you

frequently find yourselves in or people you surround yourselves

perspective? Do you have a preference of perspective? – Are you usually more focused on your 1st person perspective or on the 2nd person perspective? Or does this vary in different contexts?

When I asked myself this question, I realised that for me, my dominant perspective depends very much on the context. If I don’t know people very well, I am more dominant in 2nd person perspective, while when I know people well, I don’t spend so much mental energy on wondering about them, so that I am much more clear on my own perspective, sometimes maybe too much. This awareness can help me by reminding myself to shift perspective in the given context, so that I get a clearer understanding of what is going on in a situation.

3rd Person Perspective

3rd person perspective is our ability to centre ourselves outside of our own or someone else’s perspective and try to look at the situation more ‘objectively’. We try to see the situation from the viewpoint of a neutral outsider or ‘Observer’. This is an act of imagination – in our minds, we stand outside the situation and watch ourselves and others interact. We often take this perspective when we want an objective or neutral perspective, in concerns of fairness, for example, or if we take a step back from an argument and try to figure out what is going on in the situation. This 3rd person level is where rational debate happens and it builds the grounds for philosophy, science, and common law. While the idea of taking 3rd person perspective might be very clear intellectually, it can be quite hard to act upon it in the moment where we are caught in our own view of things. We all have times when it is really difficult to find this more detached point of view. Which contexts are you able to take an Observer view in and where do you struggle more to ‘detach’?

4th Person Perspective

Now it gets a bit more complicated, 4th person perspective is our ability to take a perspective on our perspectives. It is basically a meta-perspective that inquires into the other perspectives that we are taking – are they really accurate or distorted by my own perceptions, ideas and experiences, by the way I make sense of the world? From our 4th person point of view we can find recurring patterns in our 1st, 2nd and 3rd perspective or even across them.

If we are in the 25% of adults who develop their Perspective Shifting capacity to its fuller extent, we can take 4th person perspective on any of the previous perspectives to reflect on them. As you might have guessed by now, this is quite a cognitively challenging process. But it is worthwhile, as insights from our 4th person perspective can be quite revealing. 4th person perspective allows us to:

  • take 4th on 1st: notice and reflect on our own thinking and feeling (‘Is what I am experiencing here really accurate or I am I being biased – by my previous experience, my expectations or my subconscious motivations?’ – eg ‘I notice I keep getting into friendships where I feel the other person takes advantage of me. Is that really the case or is it something I am ‘making up’ – is it something that I am doing which makes the relationship feel unbalanced?’)
  • take 4th on 2nd: reflect on the way we are imagining the other am boring or am I just scared of people thinking that of me?’) person’s
  • perspective (‘Is this really what she is thinking or is that just my
  • take 4th on 3rd: pay attention to the ‘objectivity’ and characteristics of your 3rd person perspective (‘Is this really a neutral perspective or am I still imposing my idea on the situation, just pretending it’s more detached?’ – eg ‘Is my objective description of the argument really objective or am I still highlighting what went wrong from my point of view?’)

A well-developed 4th person perspective allows us to consciously examine all of the other perspectives to help us figure out what is going on with as much data as possible – so we don’t just take 1st, or just 2nd or just 3rd, but we implement them together into a whole. This process allows us to gain meta-cognitive awareness.

4th person perspective can get a bit confusing, as if we were in a hall of mirrors and don’t know which reflection is really ours. I can easily find myself questioning my own perspective and my objectivity, wondering whether my objectivity is really objective and how I can ever be truly objective as everything I perceive is always biased by my own experience. If this sounds familiar at all – you are not alone. There is a related quote by R.D. Laing I like to refer to in this context:

‘The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice, there is little we can do to change; until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.’

While Laing’s comment might sound confusing at first, it wisely points out that recognising our subjectivity is the best we can do – a good 4th person perspective will help us do that in the most flexible and subtle way.

Bringing it all together

If we are willing to work through the confusions to build our capacity for Perspective Shifting, it can be hugely beneficial. Perspective Shifting supports our ability to recognise and shift our thoughts and feelings, improving our contact with ourselves, others, and reality and making us more tolerant of the inner lives of other people. Recognising and valuing our own subjectivity helps us realise that our inner worlds, values and ideas are unique to each of us, products of our cultures, experience and our upbringing – and no single perspective can have the ‘best’ answers. It is when we take multiple perspectives that we can move toward answers that are most congruent with reality.