Understanding is not possible if you have not been there yourself?

I remember this one day in treatment, which was shortly after I’d been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, so several years back already. I was at the hospital at the time and seeing this psychiatrist, who put me on lots of drugs and I had to have regular talks with him. Among other things he demanded I stopped self harming, to prove I was serious about wanting to get better. I was still kind of serious at the time, but what he demanded was near impossible and I asked him can’t he understand that I can’t just stop?

His reply was that it is impossible for him to understand this kind of thing. That all he could do was try to help me, but not understand me and that I could not expect anyone in a helping position to understand me, because it’s impossible to understand crazy. That if people understood, they would be crazy themselves.

At the time I did not question what he said. After all he was a psychiatrist, so I assumed he knew what he was talking about, and I felt misunderstood anyway, so he at least confirmed it. I just accepted that anyone who was not there himself could not understand what I was going through. That all anyone could do was throw whatever they considered help my way, but that understanding was out of the question.

The first time I started thinking about the statement again was after I moved in with the people who are now my family. I remember one thing my mom – back then I was still calling her by her first name – always said whenever we were having trouble was “Talk to me, Lola! I want to understand! Explain to me what’s up!”

Convinced that understanding me was impossible anyway I was quick to tell her to go away and forget it because she’d not be able to understand me anyway, after all how could she?! She had never been in my situation! She had no idea how it felt to be me! So she could not possibly understand anything!!

But you got to know, my mom won’t accept that for an answer. She will back off if she sees her insisting is making the situation worse, but she will come back to it, and she does it in a way that never fails to make me WANT to tell her, sooner or later. So eventually I always did try to explain to her what was up.

And now here comes the truly crazy part – I feel like she DOES understand. That even when I am most fucked up, she is able to make sense of it. Without ever having been there herself. To stick with the original example of self harm, I’m pretty sure she does not self harm and never did . . . but she understands why I sometimes have to, in order to cope. That doesn’t mean that she thinks it’s good, but just that she understands why I do it. And while she demands I use the more sophisticated coping strategies that I am capable of when I am capable of them, she allows that I cut, for example, if I can’t cope in any other way. Because she understands. And she’s not just saying it, I can tell that she does. Because she knows things about how I feel that she’d not be able to tell, if she didn’t understand.

So now I’m really wondering if that psychiatrist simply bullshitted me!

After all, if “understanding is not possible unless you’ve been there” he doesn’t ever need to try and understand anyone. Which sure is convenient and makes his life easier. Why bother?! But then I wonder, how can he claim to be able to treat people, when he can not even understand what he’s treating? How is that responsible?

I’m baffled.

So either I’m getting it wrong or he was getting it wrong. What do you guys who read this think? Do you think people are able to understand things even when they never went through those things themselves? Or is understanding not possible? And would it then be possible to be understanding towards someone, when you can’t really understand him in the first place? Would it be possible to help someone if you don’t even understand him? And do you really need a full understanding of every last little detail in order to understand someone?

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