When You Think Nobody Understands You

There’s a litany of ways in which being a human sometimes feel like we’re eternally stepping on a rake and sabotaging ourselves. One of those ways is thinking nobody understands us. We delude ourselves, despite all available evidence to the contrary, that whatever we are experiencing (or a concurrence of experiences), we are experiencing it uniquely. That, nobody else has quite experienced such an experience in this way, at this time, or the concurrence of experiences in this way, at this time, or hit rock bottom quite as hard or had to battle through adversity with this many stumbling blocks or had so little support or those to turn or …

You see where I’m going with this? On and on it goes, however we want to rationalize it, we think nobody else has possibly gone through what we’ve gone through. And therefore, we go mum about the experience because nobody else will understand. And therefore, we burrow deeper into the despair of that experience, thinking we have to battle it alone.

Fun, huh?

One of the things that should absolutely disabuse us of this is books. Books are empathy builders, even if they are fiction books. Books tell us that there are indeed others out there who have experienced and/or are experiencing what we have experienced and/or are experiencing. Books are a shot across the bow to tell us, “I get it.”

“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald

If books don’t disabuse us of this, then the internet should. The internet in real warp speed time constantly inundates us with other people experiencing what we experience. It can be something as benign and silly as this Tweet I saw (which helped to spur my thinking on this):

I love those little moments. Those little moments that connect us all. Standup comedy is another one of those signposts in the world that says, “I get it.” George Carlin was great at it:

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”
― Erma Bombeck

But books, the internet, standup comedians, they also touch on the bigger things we share, like trauma and heartbreak and tragedy, addiction, homelessness, depression, and any and all darkness in between. Heck, one of Carlin’s last big specials was to wax comedically about suicide.

And yet. We still hunker down within ourselves.

Part of this makes me optimistic and really taps into my humanist philosophy: We are much more alike by virtue of our humanity and our day-to-day experiences (and Big Day-to-Big-Day experiences) than we realize, and we often only realize it by reading books, watching comedians, browsing Twitter, and so on. Empathy. Builders.

I’m guilty of this hunkering down. Even though a lot of the things that plague my brain (depression, social anxiety, heartbreak, insecurity, imposter syndrome, insecurity, etc. etc.) are things that plague other people’s brains, I still think, “Nope, nobody has had this configuration of pain hit them in this way, so I’m gonna be quiet. They wouldn’t understand.” And to be sure, we are all different, so there are degrees of differences that still matter, but my point is, the experiences are shared across all humans by virtue of the human condition itself.

“They wouldn’t understand.” How many times have you heard that one, even if when telling it to yourself to rationalize?

But of course they would. Someone would. There’s always someone. The few exceptions I can think to this rule are, say, Neil Armstrong for moon-related experiences. He has Buzz Aldrin to be like, “Did you experience this, too?” and about 10 other guys. (Fun fact: only 12 people have walked on the moon, and four of them are still alive, all of whom were born in the 1930s. Not so fun fact: None of the 12 were women.)

Our brains almost seem like natural self-saboteurs, right? Or at least, some of the maladies we’re experiencing are, and delude us into thinking we are in a fight against them alone.

And you can see why this is a terrible feedback loop to get into. As social beings, perhaps the most fundamental thing we need to our well-being is to be understood. Really, that’s the core element. We want to be listened to and understood. We want people to “get us.” We want people to see us for who we really are … and like what they see. We crave validation from family, friends, coworkers, and strangers. It’s fundamental. However, when we delude ourselves into thinking nobody will understand us, we’re pre-sabotaging that chance for someone to understand us.

Some of this isn’t only delusion, either. It’s fear, and sometimes earned fear. That is, at some point in our past, we did reach out to a select person or persons and for whatever reason, they didn’t receive it well, we felt misunderstood and the trust to do that again was broken; rinse and repeat.

Those are my musings, as I like to muse before I do some researching on the musing. From the Googling I’m seeing, some of what I touched on holds for this feedback loop: Fear of intimacy, lack of trust in others, but also codependency issues (seeking too much validation from others can lurch into unhealthy territory), and communication issues (valuing politeness over what you really think, for example).

I know for myself I can fall into both those latter categories as well. I’m a people-pleaser, and often, that means I walk a fine line between taking up someone’s recommendations, for example, and bending myself to them in an unhealthy way, and on the communication front, I’ve certainly held back true thoughts in the name of politeness or more aptly, not getting into a confrontation. I abhor confrontation for a variety of reasons, and avoid it at virtually all costs.

That article I linked in the aforementioned paragraph then gives 10 ways to get out of this cycle, and it’s worth me reiterating one. Give others understanding first. Are you a good listener? Or is all about you? Are you one of those people that asks good follow-up questions or makes it about themselves by relating what was told to you about your own life?

Good, active listening is hard, and it’s something I struggle with. I’m rather self-conscious about it, in fact. I’m worried I’m one of those people who talks about themselves too much or jumps in with my own story about my own experience rather than further investigating what was told to me. Also, giving “unsolicited advice” rather than listening is an easy trap to fall into. Sometimes people want ears, not a pom poms for how to feel better.

Finally, one other mental trap to think about and probe is the one where you are worried about burdening other people with your problems. But perhaps it’s helpful to think about it this way. As with anything, there’s a line where you could be “oversharing,” as it were or again, doing all the sharing and none of the listening, but it’s likely that person also wants to be understood and also wants to share problems that help them be understood. It’s mutual rather than a one-sided affair.

Welp. That’s a Sunday evening musing for you. Understanding what to do is certainly not the same as doing it … in the endeavor to be understood, no less. Again, fun, huh? But sometimes musing is cathartic in and of itself, and it’s helpful to share with others. Ah, see! I arrived at the point after all.

What do you think about all of this? What are your musings?

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