I think I am making a mistake in my personal relationships: I can’t really ever know what you are thinking or feeling, so I ought not say that I understand you.
One of the most commonly used statements when someone we care about is struggling is, “I understand”. I think this statement can actually be quite damaging, despite the good intentions behind it.
Firstly, it is an egocentric response to someone else’s suffering; the sentence begins with “I,” not “you.” Secondly, for me, this has been an alienating and frustrating statement to hear. I want to scream at the person who uttered it, “You don’t understand.” You don’t have to live with this rage I occasionally feel, you don’t understand how insecure I feel now in my relationships, you don’t experience the financial vulnerability I have to live with daily, and you don’t understand how the betrayal has affected my world view of relationships.
How could you? How could I ask you to? You don’t have my life experiences, you don’t live with my perceptions, you don’t have my particular set of coping skills, or lack thereof, and you aren’t inside my head intimately feeling what I feel. In short, you are not privy to the deranged monkey that lives in my mind; for this you should be thankful. You think you understand, but how could you?
How could I understand what you are truly going through? I don’t live with your crazy monkey either. I can attempt to be empathetic and guess what you might be experiencing. I can attempt to hear you and validate your feelings. I could say “his/her actions must have hurt you terribly,” or ask, “do you feel betrayed or confused by those actions?” Those statements put the emphasis back on the person who is suffering. Those statements acknowledge that although you wish to understand your friend/partner/family member, you will not presume to know what they are going through.
When I reflect on my counselling sessions, those are the types of statements I heard from the professionals. My counselors did not tell me they understood; they first checked with me to see if they were grasping my unique emotional reaction to the situation, and thereafter they offered empathy.
In the early months after the break-up, there was only one friend I felt safe enough with to share how much I hated people saying to me “I understand”. On reflection, her response to me was sound. The feelings are the same, regardless of the specific situation. I believed that my situation was so strangely unique no one could possibly understand how I felt. Yet, my friend was correct that any infidelity will create feelings of betrayal; that is a human response. Any request for an open marriage will probably elicit confusion, sadness and/or hurt. So, rather than focusing on the particulars of my situation, I would have done best to acknowledge the universal emotional responses people were saying they understood.
I am just as guilty of saying “I understand” to someone, that just occurred to me. A girlfriend is enduring a horrible “tsunami divorce” and because I too have gone through one, I keep telling her I understand. Do I really? No, because I am not her: I didn’t have two young children when my ex abandoned me and I didn’t grow up with the divorce of my own parents stigmatizing me. My friend occasionally says something that reminds me of how alienated she might be feeling because of her specific situation. I can hear myself in her, that cry of “I don’t feel understood by you despite what you are telling me.” I can only identify with her possible emotional responses. Which is probably good enough, because none of us are really that different from another, and this is a good thing as outlined by Lisa Arends in “You’re Not Special.”
When I expressed to my boyfriend my lack of belief in happily ever after, he responded with “I understand,” and that flash of irritation surged in me again. He has never been married, never had his spouse ask him for an open marriage, and never had a 12 year relationship end in under five minutes with no means of rebuttal, so what does he truly understand?
I think what my boyfriend was trying to communicate to me was his support. I think what we humans are actually trying to do when we use that statement is bridge the separation between us. We are trying to find a way to connect to the griever and let them know we are emotionally available to them, or at least I hope that is what our intent is.
When I reflect back a year ago to the people I felt most supported by, they never told me they understood what I was going through. I, in fact, felt the most supported by the people who expressed their own disbelief, confusion and/or disappointment with the situation.
To say you understand me, or for me to say I understand you, is, in a small way, an attempt to manage the others feelings, which is another article for another day. I don’t know what my issues are that I feel defensive when someone says they understand me, but I think it stems from my perception that the communicator does not want to continue the conversation by delving into what my statement is really about. I think I see it as a minimization of my experience. A there, there and a pat on the head if you will. The statement ends the conversation.
The language we choose to use in our conversations can be a tricky thing unto itself. Different people will have different understandings of words, especially across cultures, and might attach different meanings or significance to certain words. I myself strongly dislike the word sympathy and will never utter it. Right or wrong, I was brought up to believe the word sympathy meant you felt sorry for someone, which is looking down on someone or having pity for them. No one needs pity. I was taught throughout my life that having empathy is the correct approach to someone else’s struggles.
Yet, in the last couple of years as I have explored spirituality, the leaders and teachers I respect don’t use the word empathy; by and large they use the word compassion. So when I was challenged on why I differentiate between the words empathy and compassion, I had to look up the meaning of the words so I could clearly articulate what I felt.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as “the psychological identification with the feelings of another”, and compassion as “sorrow accompanied by a desire to alleviate suffering.” And there was my justification for not lumping the two words together. I really like that action portion of the definition of compassion. There is a verb in that word encouraging you to do more than just identify with someone’s feelings. I know firsthand that I have the ability to hear someone, be empathetic to their situation, and have little actual compassion for that person.
I believe we are all doing our best at any given moment with what we know to support another person, but I throw the challenge out there that we can learn to use better language to effect our support. I promote the idea that saying “I understand” may widen the gap you are trying to close and may actually isolate the person you are trying to comfort. I encourage you and I to instead be more vague in our claims of understanding, and validate the other persons feelings instead. I don’t believe it matters to the other person whether or not you understand what they are thinking or feeling.
I think what matters when someone is in any crisis is that they are heard and accepted for who they are, what they are thinking, what they are feeling, and where they are at that moment in their minds and heart. I think what I am trying to champion is that expressing compassion in addition to empathy would go farther with someone like me, and maybe you too.
Photo: Flickr/Davy Landman