The Need To Be Understood

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Most of us are desperate to be understood, to have that sense of isolation shattered by finding people in our lives who really get us on an intimate level. 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.

Most of us don’t take the time to question this need. It’s a societal attitude that is simply taken as a given. But the pathology of normalcy always is. Just because we can’t name the sickness doesn’t mean we’re not ill. When we judge ‘health’ or ‘dysfunction’ by relative cultural norms then at the superficial level everything is fine as long as we fit into the health category but at the deeper level we suffer because we’re kept from becoming fully human, from maturing into the productive people we can be.

In the context of this article, desperately wanting to be understood, what we are often actually dealing with is primary narcissism. From the psychoanalytic point of view the attitude hasn’t gone far beyond the oral stage of development, the stage in life where all needs and wants are instantly provided for, where we are seemingly the center of the universe, where all of the people in our lives are like planets circling around us to fulfill our every desire. As babies we only needed cry to have mother or father come rushing over to first discover and then fix whatever was wrong, almost like magic.

As adults, remaining at that oral stage of development means passivity, fully expecting others do things for us, to meet all our needs, including going out of their way to understand us and make us feel understood. We become bitter and resentful when these needs aren’t fulfilled.

The mature outlook, what Freud would have called the genital stage of development, is more active, it’s productive, it creates in order to get needs met rather than sitting back and waiting for them to be met. We could say then that with the mature outlook, while the need to be understood obviously still exists, it’s balanced by the need to understand, to go out there and make sense of the world and other people. Narcissism is traded for objectivity. Of course in this process we come to understand ourselves better and those around us usually do too. This idea reminds me of Frankl, who often said that “The more you aim at it and make it a target the more you are going to miss it.” The way to be understood is not to wait for others to understand us but to actively work to understand ourselves, others, and the world.