I had an upset this morning that crystallized something— or many somethings— for me. The upset centered around my feeling not understood by someone. “Not feeling understood” is in the same genre as misunderstood, but it is not quite the same. Discerning this distinction led me to recognize the many different flavors of meaning I attach to “being understood” (and “understanding”). Understanding is a spectrum of experience, not one single ‘thing’. One size does not fit all.
As a psychologist and psychoanalyst, I have devoted my life to understanding others. In my effort to meet emotional experience – both my own and that of others— in the best way I possibly can, I have given a lot of thought to the nature of emotional understanding. Deep emotional understanding is direct comprehension grounded in intuition and empathy. It is informed by concept and theory, but it is not only, nor primarily, conceptual.
Beyond extensive clinical study and experience, I have also spent years inquiring deeply about how deep emotional understanding lives in my own experience. I offer the following ideas for your reflection:
- The psychological need to be understood is universal and basic to who we are as human beings. “Understanding” has an important psychosocial function and is one of the basic moves in the dance of social communication and conversation.
- Understanding is a basic element of intimate connection and is what allows us to feel emotionally safe. To the extent that we feel accurately and empathically understood, we can trust and feel close to another.
- Feeling understood is an important part of what makes it possible to learn to modulate our emotional states. When we feel emotionally distressed, what we most need/want is to express our feelings and have them deeply received by an empathic Other. To feel well-met by a trusted other is a soothing balm for painful feelings. It is in safe connection with a trusted other that we are best able to relax and let go. This is what can release us from the clutches of painful feelings.
- Conversely, lack of empathic understanding can be traumatic. This can easily occur when the need for understanding is urgent. Lack of attuned understanding on the part of a needed Other can re-trigger old developmental wounds.
- It is in the matrix of understanding between ourselves and others, especially in infancy and childhood, that we acquire basic learning about emotions and develop ways to cope with our feelings. Our experience with intimate others, especially in infancy and early childhood, is the template for our emotional personalities.
- It is in relationship with others that we learn how the human mind works. Through our interactions with others, we come to understand mental states and the emotional dynamics involved in them. This understanding is the key to skillfully navigating the interpersonal domain.
Being upset signals the presence of something not yet seen, understood, and/or accepted. For this reason, there is a great value in turning towards the upset and feeling our way towards deeper understanding. In order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it.It is useful to inquire deeply by asking ourselves questions (often implicit) such as:
- What am I feeling, and what triggered it?
- What wants/needs my attention?
- What am I clinging to?
- What am I avoiding?
- What do I not want to feel?
For me, deep emotional understanding is a basic relational aspiration. The essential ingredient is, I think, the intention to listen deeply to others, what they say verbally as well as nonverbally; both what they say and what they do not. I endeavor to perceive accurately and empathically what the other feels and to express what I have understood so that the other may feel deeply heard, seen, and received. That said, I do not mean to suggest here that every interpersonal interaction needs to be unpacked or analyzed. Deep listening is an art as well as a skill.
Last but not least, what we understand and how we engage with the process of understanding are integrally related . What we come to understand about another is not a fixed psychological reality but a dynamically changing function of the emotional interchange that unfolds between us. Our understanding will tend to reflect our ability to be present and open as well y the feelings we have about the other. It will develop in relation our empathy and curiosity, shaped by the questions we ask as well as what we learn from each subsequent experience. Through this process, wisdom and compassion can unfold at the leading edge of our understanding.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” …. Anais Nin