As a psychologist I’m always gratified when someone responds to my summarizing what they just shared with the single word, “Exactly!” Why? Simply because I’ve learned over the years how important it is for people to feel that another can pinpoint their thoughts and feelings — and, on the contrary, how upset they can be when they don't feel understood. In such moments, they experience a break in the relationship — and with that, feelings of uneasiness, aloneness, or irritation.
Manal Ghosain (2014) writes about our wanting to be accepted, appreciated, approved, attended to, liked, loved, cared for — and understood. But what she doesn’t consider is that if we don’t, or can’t, experience others as understanding us — who we are and what we’re about — then all of these other wants can end up feeling relatively meaningless. Not feeling that others really know us can leave us feeling hopelessly estranged from the rest of humanity. It may well be that feeling understood is a prerequisite for our other desires to be satisfyingly fulfilled.
Without experiencing that others know us, or are able to, we’re left feeling alone — at times, despairingly so. It’s a bleak place to be and can lead to feelings of emptiness and despondency. In such a state, we’re even vulnerable to taking our lives. Enduring feelings of acute isolation from others can make our existence feel like a sham. Loneliness has frequently been perceived as virtually synonymous with depression, which is why being afflicted with an oppressive sense of alienation can go hand in hand with suicidal thoughts and actions.
Absent the substantial chemical or sexual attraction intrinsic to the heated glow of romantic love, can you actually stay in love with someone whom you feel can't or doesn’t “get” who you are? When you feel misunderstood, the connection between you and the other person is instantly broken. You’re cast back onto an island of aloneness. If love isn’t about intimately crossing that divide — enabling us to feel fondly and fulfillingly “joined” with the other — I have no idea what it might refer to.
Let's consider 10 reasons why feeling that others can grasp the meaning of your words and actions is critical to achieving an enduring sense of security and well-being:
1. You’re known.
When you experience being misunderstood, the connection between you and the other person is (however temporarily) severed. You’re by yourself, “dis-joined,” cut off. I list this advantage of others “getting” you as the starting point, because I believe all the other benefits of being understood stem from this.
2. Your identity is confirmed.
Having others see you as you want and need to be seen verifies your sense of self. It assures you that who you believe you are is understandable and justified. To feel truly “gotten” is to feel deeply, rewardingly validated.
3. You exist.
Because we’re all social creatures, if you’re to feel “real,” a certain amount of external corroboration is necessary. As Michael Schreiner duly notes in “The Need To Be Understood”: “The unconscious fear that seems to always be lurking in the background is that if we aren’t understood it will be as if we never existed.” (A scary thought, indeed!)
4. You belong.
Feeling understood connects you to others, allowing you to feel welcome. Conversely, feeling all alone and detached from those around you can, emotionally, be extremely painful — as many a marginalized or shunned child would sadly attest.
5. You’re part of something larger than yourself.
We all need to feel that we’re related to a community of (at least relatively) like-minded individuals. Such an expanded perception of self helps to make our lives feel more meaningful, more purposeful — and it contributes to a sense of personal value as well.
6. You’re accepted.
Feeling understood is in many ways tantamount to feeling socially recognized, or “endorsed.” Even nonverbally, another’s physical or facial reactions to something you’ve shared can be most comforting. Various acts of empathy (as long as they’re accurate) also connote acknowledgement, understanding, and support. And however introverted you might be, gregarious species that we are, no one enjoys feeling alienated from others or “all alone.”
7. You’re empowered.
If you feel understood, you’re not groping your way in the darkness. With others’ respectful willingness to recognize you and your intentions, you’re empowered to attempt, and accomplish, things that you otherwise might not be driven to do. Things tend to matter more to us when we have a sense that others care about them, too.
8. You understand yourself better.
If someone says, “So, in other words, it sounds as though you must believe [X] because you seem to be implying [Y],” it’s quite possible that their synopsis of what you shared actually goes beyond what you yourself had realized. In adding something of their own intuition and experience to your utterance, they may help you better comprehend the deeper, more personal ramifications of what you're communicating.
9. You experience more satisfaction in your relationships.
Feeling understood prompts you to relate more fully to others, to show more willingness to be open and vulnerable with them. As Carl Nassar (“The Importance of Feeling Understood”) astutely observes: “When we feel understood . . . we show [others] our true selves—flaws and all. In turn, they are more likely to be vulnerable and honest with us. This helps us connect . . . on a deeper level, improving the quality of our relationships.”
10. You’re shielded from the depths of depression.
Depression is closely tied to feelings of separation and estrangement. So feeling understood and connected to those around us may be one of the best safeguards from entering this so torturous, agonizing state . . . as well as constitute its “antidote.”
“The Neural Bases of Feeling Understood and Not Understood (Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (2014), 9, 1890-1896), an article by S. A. Morelli and others, experimentally documents how feeling understood heightens well-being — both personal and social.
Employing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) with the study’s participants, the authors’ results demonstrated that “feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with reward and social connection (i.e. ventral striatum and middle insula), while not feeling understood activated neural regions previously associated with negative affect (i.e. anterior insula).” Further, supplying empirical support to points earlier made here and, too, corroborating earlier research in this area, they add: “Feeling understood makes individuals feel valued, respected and validated . . . and leads to important changes in affective experience and feelings of social connection.”
Two final considerations deserve mention here:
1. Are you doing everything that, potentially, you could do to make yourself understood?
That is, how much responsibility might you yourself have for being misconstrued? For instance, if a response to your text or email is far afield from what you thought you’d communicated, you might want to re-read your message and check whether what you wrote accurately transcribed what was in your head.
In general, you can’t assume you'll be understood unless you take the time to make certain the language you’re employing is crystal clear. If you don’t do this, any misunderstanding is more likely on you, not the other person.
2. How well do you understand yourself (your characteristics, values, preferences, motives, etc.)?
If you’re still confused about who you really are, or what you stand for, you can’t expect anyone else to grasp what you yourself remain unclear or befuddled about. In which case you may need to engage (with the aid of any number of self-help books devoted to the subject) in a process of self-inquiry and discovery. And if you get stuck here, consider that such inward exploration can be greatly facilitated by working with a professional therapist.
... After all, knowing yourself is every bit as important as being known by others.
© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.