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How to Feel Understood

Tips for self-disclosure.

Key points

  • Often, there is a difference between what a person intends to communicate and how it is heard.
  • Metaphors and analogies can help convey an experience in a way that's more accurately understood by others.
  • Extending empathy to someone else’s experience increases the chances of them extending empathy to one's own.
Maksim Goncharenok/Pexels
Source: Maksim Goncharenok/Pexels

For years, I argued with my wife about how much I prioritize my friends. She didn’t understand why I rearranged my whole day for them or why I spent hundreds of dollars I could have saved traveling to see them. I got frustrated that she couldn’t understand that it would always be worth it to me to interrupt my plans or spend that money until one day I told her, “How I feel about my friends is how you feel about your family.” That one sentence improved the whole conversation. Almost instantaneously, she could comprehend years of interactions in a different light. The look she gave me felt bittersweet, something like, “Oh, why didn’t you just say that?” As if that wasn’t what I’d been trying to communicate for years. But I really wasn’t. I was trying to explain this concept in my terms instead of translating it in a way my wife could appreciate.

When my wife spends time with her three siblings and her parents, she feels grounded. She loves vacationing and celebrating big moments in her life with them. My relationship with my family is more complicated. Sometimes I feel that sense of calmness with them, and other times it can make the stress worse. My friends are the people I turn to when I’m depressed and need to feel grounded. They’re the people who unwaveringly build up my spirits and make me feel better. Every time I said “friends," my wife heard it in the way she thinks of friends. Once I said friends mean family, she heard what I was really trying to say.

Consider personal history when choosing words

“Analogies, it is true, decide nothing, but they can make one feel more at home.”—Sigmund Freud

You can use the same words as someone else but the meanings of those words are different because they’re based on your personal history.

If you want people to understand you, use metaphors and analogies to meet them on their terms.

It’s so much easier to explain something when the listener already has an idea of what you’re talking about—just like it would be easier for me to give you directions based on landmarks you know, instead of landmarks that only I’m familiar with.

Compare experiences

It’s always helpful to be understood by the person you’re talking to but it’s necessary when you need to talk about your problems. Prioritize shared experiences over shared language. You can compare what you’re going through to something the person you’re talking to has gone through. Here are a few examples:

“You know how terrified you felt last year when you lost your job? That’s kind of how I feel when I think about getting divorced.”

“Remember when you were nervous to tell your dad that you started gambling again? That’s how nervous I’m feeling talking to you about this.”

“Whenever I walk into an elevator I feel overwhelmed, like when you have to give a speech.”

Use metaphors and analogies

If you don’t know that much about the person you’re talking to, use metaphors and analogies that create an image in their mind. For example:

“When I’m depressed, it feels like I’m drowning with my arms together.”

“I’ve been through some really traumatic experiences so when people yell at me, I blackout like I just took five shots of tequila.”

“Every time I go to the doctor to check if my cancer is still in remission, it’s like I’m walking to an executioner’s chair”

The key to feeling understood isn’t only about how well you can explain yourself. It’s just as important to think about how well the listener understands what you’re saying. Learn from my mistakes. Save yourself time, energy, and arguments by using metaphors and analogies when you talk about your problems.

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