YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND

We all just want to be understood right? We want that connection that is formed when someone tells you, “I understand.” Well…This post is about understanding and when it is appropriate. I know that there is an innate urge to feel understood in this fucked up and fleeting reality, but sometimes it feels more like a gesture of let me tell you my story and how I got through it, when in a lot of circumstances that is unwanted, unwarranted, and will be rejected.

This is the appropriate response to having when someone comes to you to tell you they are depressed, or struggling with addiction, having panic attacks, or going through any other state of mental distress.

The winter can be incredibly difficult. If you are in a part of the world where sunshine and warmth are scarce during these months, I would recommend researching seasonal affective disorder and ways you can combat environmental depression. Along with the seasons having a drastic affect on your mental well-being, the holidays can FOR SURE take a toll. Even if family and friends surround you, the holidays can feel incredibly isolating and lonely. It’s for these reasons why I felt that it was important to teach you the appropriate way (in my opinion) to react to someone when they tell you they are suffering.

As an absolute rule, both parties should avoid the word “understand”. Let’s break down the two scenarios in which this can happen, and why it is not always constructive.

Friend: “I feel really depressed and have been having panic attacks.”

You: “I totally understand.”

Okay…here’s what you just did. In theory, telling your friend that you “understand” should be the perfect way to help them not feel so isolated. But, here’s the thing, depression, anxiety, addiction…whatever it is, looks different for everyone. You cannot possibly understand because if no two minds are alike, then it would be an impossibility for two people to have the same depression. In addition to this, you’ve minimized their experience. They could have spent the past few years in a depressive state ruminating on their anguish, only to have you “understand” it the few seconds after they admitted their feelings? No. This will be rejected, most likely with the following:

“NO, YOU DON’T GET IT. You just don’t understand.”

At least, this is the way I reacted. I’m not proud to admit this, but this was my knee-jerk reaction to whenever someone told me that they “understood” me. I would even say this to my therapist. I remember once in a session I told my therapist that I was afraid to leave the house because my panic attacks had become so intense. When she told me that she, “understood” I lost it. You UNDERSTAND?! How could you fucking possibly understand what it’s like to be afraid to get out of bed?! How could you FUCKING KNOW WHAT IT IS LIKE IN A SHIT STORM OF A BRAIN I’VE GOT GOING ON OVER HERE? This may be paraphrased, but this is what the feeling I had boiled down to.

U n d e r s t a n d. The word itself has an empathic tone. When she said this, the reason I reacted so adversely was that I assumed she was trying to say that she knows what these emotions are like. But of course, she did; maybe not in a personal sense, but in a professional one absolutely. She did spend a good part of her life studying psychology after all. And again I’ll reiterate, inversely this time, no two minds are the same. Neither one is able to fully understand the other, which is why this lexicon should be avoided unless you happen to be a licensed professional, but even then I would tread with caution.

There is one way that you can use the word “understand” in an effective and comforting way. And it can only be used if both parties have had the same symptom in common. For instance:

Friend: “I haven’t been doing well. I’ve been really depressed and I cut myself the other day.”

You: “I understand what could lead you to do that because I have been there.”

The difference here is that you have a shared action. If you have self-harmed in the past and a friend confesses to you that they have begun in self-mutilating behavior, this is a circumstance in which it is okay to use “understand”. BUT, it should be followed up with something that doesn’t minimize their experience. Because although you may know what can drive a person to cut themselves, you do not and cannot understand their depression fully, so follow it with something that implies that their behavior is nothing to be ashamed of such as: “I understand what could lead you to do that…

If someone trusts you enough to confess something to you that has been causing them anguish, this is an HONOR. Once they tell you to do not, this bears repeating, DO NOT tell them your story unless they ask. This may be the reason why they feel comfortable telling you, it may not, but it makes no fucking difference. This is about them right now, not you.

Here are the best ways to respond when someone tells you they are depressed:

Friend: “Hey, I have been feeling really depressed lately.”

You: “How long have you felt this way?”

Friend: “Hey, I have been feeling really depressed lately.”

You: “Okay, what can we do?”

Friend: “Hey, I have been feeling really depressed lately.”

You: “Tell me more, I’m here to listen and help where I can.”

Friend: “Hey, I have been feeling really depressed lately.”

You: “Don’t worry, we’ll get this sorted. I love you.”

The most important thing you can do in this circumstance listens. Just listen to them. Once they’ve talked it out for a while explaining the entirety of the circumstance (or as much as they’re comfortable with), if they ask you for advice this is when it is alright to share a bit of your experience. Regardless, it doesn’t matter if you have or haven’t experienced depression; it is a good idea to share resources with the other individual. That and love them fiercely, and relentlessly.

Extend your love as far as it will reach this holiday season. You never know who needs it.

Much love & many adventures,

Wolfe

Alternative therapies: