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On The Importance of Being Understood


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.   The way we understand is informed by concept and theory, but it is not only, nor primarily, conceptual.  It is direct comprehension grounded in intuition and empathy.

Beyond extensive clinical study and experience,  I have also spent years inquiring deeply about how “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.  When there is a milieu of understanding and being understood, there is basic safety.

Feeling understood is a primary foundation of psychological safety and part of what makes it possible for us to learn to modulate our emotional states. Understanding is a basic element of intimate connection.   To the extent that we feel accurately and empathically understood, we can trust and feel close to another.

Above all, it must be recognized that deep emotional understanding is a relational event.

In more personal terms,  we might also say that when we feel emotionally distressed, what we seem to need/want most is to express our feelings and have them deeply received by an empathic Other.  When this can happen,  it often feels as though the bubble of emotional tension or worry bursts and evaporates.

In the presence of a trusted other, the experience of being understood seems to provide a balm of emotional safety which allows relaxation and letting go;   release from the clutches of painful feelings.  Sometimes when the need for understanding feels urgent, lack of adequate attunement on the part of a needed Other can trigger old developmental wounds.

There is a great opportunity in such emotional reactions.   Being upset often signals the presence of something not yet seen, understood, and/or accepted.  For this reason, it is useful to “inquire deeply” in such situations by turning towards the upset and feeling our way towards deeper understanding by asking 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?

Understanding is a worthy topic for self-inquiry.   For one thing, as the writer/journalist Mitch Albom puts it, “in order to move on, you must understand why you felt what you did and why you no longer need to feel it”.

For me,  “emotional understanding” is no less than 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.  Endeavor to perceive accurately and empathically what the other feels.  Learn to express what you 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 as by 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