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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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. gypsy116
    Nov 17, 2012 @ 20:52:40

    I think the way your psychiatrist came off makes him look like a complete ass, but I do somewhat agree. I think that a person can learn to empathize with someone elses situation, provided theyre wiling to take the time really listen and probably do some research. And out of the ability to empathize with the person and situation, yes they can help. Do I think they can actually understand? No. Its not possible to fully understand anything you havent actually experienced. I can empathize with my sister, who is going through labor right now. I know many people with children, Ive heard all theyre labor stories. Ive been in the delivery room through parts of labor, and delivered a litter of puppies. So, yes, I can definitely empathize, but unless I have children, I will never be able to actually understand. I think thats true for anything. I hope that makes sense.

    • Lola
      Nov 19, 2012 @ 09:19:42

      Thank you for sharing your opinion, gypsy! 🙂 It’s funny, because to me it seems the other way around. While I think I understand where you are coming from, to me understanding means to grasp something with your rational mind. And I can rationally understand that labor, for example, is something that must be really painful. I can understand how to some mothers it can still feel like the best moment ever when they see their child, because my mom told me about how it felt to her to have her three children. I can understand that, like I can understand that a drop from a skyscraper would kill me, even though I’ve never tried it. I don’t think understanding is the same as knowing how it feels. After all one can never fully *know* how someone else feels, even when you’ve been through the same thing, because the experience is probably a little different for everyone. I suppose to me understanding how someone feels, for example, means more like being able to make sense of someone elses feelings, to understand why s/he has them. In the case of my psychiatrist, I would have felt understood if he would have been able to tell how self harm is a coping mechanism. I don’t think it should be so hard to understand that for someone who is working mental health, even when he has never experienced it himself.

      I also kind of wonder if people are not equipped to understand one another, because in some way our experiences compare. Of course never for 100 percent, but anyone who ever smoked a cigarette to feel better, drank alcohol to feel better, slammed his fist on the table to feel better etc. should understand how something destructive that is bad for health can help with coping. So just saying “I don’t understand that”, wouldn’t that be like saying “I have no experience that helps me make sense of that”? I find it hard to believe anyone would have no experience whatsoever to relate to someone else’s experience. After all, where would empathy come from, if we had no understanding of what the other is going through?

      Gee, I really don’t know if my head is a mess for thinking that? It seems to be very much against the popular opinion. But what else is new?! lol

      • gypsy116
        Nov 20, 2012 @ 21:34:18

        I guess I see logical understanding and physical or emotional understanding as too different things. I think we just relate different meaning to different words, but even though were not seeing the words in the same way, the outcome is still the same. Someone on the outside who doesnt actually know what something feels like or whatever, can still be helpful if therye willing to try to step outside of themselves to the best of their ability.

  2. prideinmadness
    Nov 18, 2012 @ 13:53:13

    There are things that I have never been through but I have been through hell and it is that experience that allows me to empathize with others. You can’t always have understanding but you can have empathy.

    • Lola
      Nov 19, 2012 @ 09:25:55

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, prideinmadness! 🙂 Do you think that you need to have the exact same experience to understand how someone else feels? And how about someone who doesn’t have been through hell herself, but can understand how it must feel, because she is aware of the psychological mechanisms behind it?

      • prideinmadness
        Nov 19, 2012 @ 15:46:14

        It comes down to empathy, which actually needs to be taught. I’m totally simplifying it but I wouldn’t be where I am now if I waited around for someone who 100% understood because they had the same experience.

        One thing my friends and I realized was that although some of them may not have cut or I may not have developed a drug/alcohol addiction, the pain was similar, if not the same. We felt something that we could all relate to. Even “normal” people have experienced a depression or a rage that has been at the same level as what I have experienced and that is what I try and focus on. We’ve all had pain.

      • Lola
        Nov 19, 2012 @ 17:32:46

        Yes, I agree that it’s probably impossible to find someone who has an 100% understanding of every last little thing. But like you said, different things can still relate to each other, and everyone probably knows what certain feelings feel like (like pain, fear, joy, etc.) even if the experiences come from different situations or have been experienced in a different intensity. I think that should enable people to at least to a certaind degree understand where someone else comes from, even if our own experience was different. To just say “I can’t understand that, afte all I’m not you” seems like a bit of a cheap way out to me.

  3. finallyamanda
    Nov 27, 2012 @ 09:49:37

    Understand? No. Be empathetic? Yes. Care? Yes. Be compassionate? Yes. But it takes a t
    true, caring individual 2 do so. I hate when people are there 4 u but only when convenient 4 them. It’s not a part time job! And as 4 that psych… He shouldn’t even b a part timer…

    • Lola
      Nov 28, 2012 @ 09:38:33

      Thank you for your thoughts! 🙂 I agree that someone needs to care in order to at least TRY to understand. It’s probably more a matter of whether it’s important enough to the other person to care than a matter of whether true understanding is possible or not. Some people who work mental health really have gotten themselves into the wrong profession and that sucks.

      • finallyamanda
        Nov 28, 2012 @ 11:51:02

        Ya, like my last therapist who just stopped seeing me 😦 I called to reschedule with her cuz I couldn’t make it, left her a message n never heard from her again! She was the first therapist that I’ve ever connected with, other than in treatment. Sometimes I think of dropping by when I see her truck in front of her office 2 give her a piece of my mind but really it was a blessing in disguise I think. I’m doing better without the extra over analyzing from therapy. But still what kind of therapist does that? Especially when she knows I have issues with people not caring about me!

        • Lola
          Nov 29, 2012 @ 13:22:52

          Oh that’s rotten, that your therapist just stopped seeing you without notice or anything. Totally unprofessional, if you ask me, and even damaging, especially for people who have abandonment issues in the first place! 😦 I’m sorry that happened to you. Unfortunately some therapists really suck and it can be a challenge to finally find a good one. Sometimes it seems to me like finding a caring, skilled therapist can be trickier than finding an honest car salesman. But don’t give up, they do exist, and when you have found one it can make a big difference.

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