Wednesday 25 November 2020

How To Understand People and Be Understood

One of the most beautiful qualities of true friendship is to understand and to be understood.

Someone once told me we have no right to expect others to understand us. She was adamant about that. Angry, almost, that anyone could imagine otherwise. The most we can expect, she said, was to be heard. I was reminded of this recently when a close friend said it felt like I didn't know her at all. I got to thinking about what it means to know someone or be known by them.

To Know or to Understand?

What exactly do we mean by knowing or understanding one another? Is there a difference between knowing someone and understanding them? Ephrat Livni drew a distinction in his article It’s better to understand something than to know it:

“Knowing” and “understanding” are related concepts, but they’re not the same. Each is a distinct mental state involving cognitive grasp: Knowing is static, referring to discrete facts, while understanding is active, describing the ability to analyze and place those facts in context to form a big picture.

Livni was discussing these concepts in a business and scientific context, but I think the distinction is useful when we’re thinking about our awareness of ourselves and others. Our friendships and relationships are not static things we can ever fully grasp or know. They are dynamic. They wax and wane over time. They deepen as we learn more about each other. Sometimes they fracture or end. They may pause or stall for a time but their nature is to change. The same applies to us as individuals.

We might seek to know each other at any point in time, but for me, the fundamental need is to be understood at a deeper level. Our lives are incredibly complex and interlinked, and our understanding can only ever be partial, Nevertheless, it is this yearning that underpins our need to understand and to be understood, and our pain when that need is unmet.

Is It a Healthy Need?

I disagree with the person who said we’ve no right to expect understanding from others, but am I right? Is it a healthy need? The Center for Nonviolent Communication (CNVC) includes the need to understand others and be understood in its needs inventory. I’m no means an expert but NVC’s approach to communication makes a lot of sense to me. Fran and I have used it when we’re exploring issues that arise between us or with others. Ralph Nichols, “Father of Listening” and author of Are You Listening, went further. He claimed “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”

What Do We Want People to Understand about Us?

A few months ago a friend asked me twenty questions she’d found in an online “How Well Do You Know Me” quiz. It was fun and we had a good laugh at some of the questions — and my answers! I surprised myself actually, in getting more right than I’d imagined. Understanding is more than a game of twenty questions, though. What do we want others to understand about us? It will be different for everyone but here’s what I’d like people to understand about me.

  • My likes and dislikes
  • My values and red lines
  • My plans, hopes, and dreams
  • My issues and triggers
  • What scares and delights me, what makes me smile and cry
  • What I need when I’m sad or struggling

It may be a tall order to expect someone to understand me on so many levels, although Fran comes close. On the other hand, I believe it is possible to have people who understand certain aspects of me really well. What counts is whether someone is willing to engage, to learn, and understand — and allow me to do the same. Taylor Swift captures this commitment in her song Stay Stay Stay:

You took the time to memorize me
My fears, my hopes and dreams

It’s worth remembering that no matter how close the relationship there will always be things we choose not to share; aspects of ourselves and our lives we wish to hold secret from most, if not all, others.

What Does It Take to Be Understood?

We can’t hope to understand or be understood if we’re not prepared to truly communicate; in NVC terms, to listen with empathy and express ourselves honestly. We all like to imagine we’re open and honest with everyone, but this is perilous work and not to be undertaken lightly. Allowing people in close requires trust and courage, and the more we engage the more vulnerable we make ourselves. Psychoanalyst Thomas Moore describes this well in his book Care of the Soul:

We need people in our lives with whom we can be as open as possible. To have real conversations with people may seem like such a simple, obvious suggestion, but it involves courage and risk.

It’s very important who we choose to open up to, as BrenĂ© Brown makes clear in her book Daring Greatly:

You cannot be vulnerable with everyone. It is important to build trust and boundaries before being vulnerable. Otherwise, more times than ever, you will end up getting betrayed and hurt.

This is especially true where experience has taught us not to let people in too close as a defence against betrayal, abandonment, and loss. Psychic and life coach Jamila White expresses this powerfully in her piece Ultra-independence is a trust issue:

You learned along the way that you just couldn’t really trust people. Or that you could trust people, but only up to a certain point.

Even without such issues, connecting clearly and cleanly is not as straightforward as we sometimes imagine it to be, as Fran and I discuss in our book High Tide, Low Tide.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to communicating effectively is the belief it should be easy. When you think about it, it is amazing anyone manages to communicate anything meaningful at all. Each of us has our unique mix of thoughts and feelings, hopes, fears, joys, pains, plans, worries, and views about how the world works. We scarcely understand them ourselves, yet we hope to share them with someone who has their own mix to contend with. And the only tools we have are the sounds we can utter, and the marks we can make on paper or a computer screen. It is no wonder we struggle at times!

Given the potential for misunderstanding and hurt, why do we risk it? Why do we want to be understood at all? This can only be a personal thing but for me there is a deep joy in feeling known in the moment, and understood at a more fundamental level. It’s expressed beautifully in an anonymous quotation which inspired a previous blog post of mine.

Imagine meeting someone who wanted to learn your past not to punish you, but to understand how you needed to be loved.

The fact that this understanding can only ever be partial and temporary doesn’t lessen the reward. On the contrary, it deepens it. The gap between what I understand of myself and what my friend understands of me is fertile ground. Any difficulties that come up are part of the journey towards understanding, rather than problems to be avoided or shunned.

It’s worth saying that being understood can be uncomfortable. My friend and fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson shared this with me recently:

I feel like you know me through and through, Marty. Sometimes that’s annoying and I don’t like it, but ultimately I think it helps our friendship.

In what way is it annoying?

It’s like if I say something and you’ll be like “I thought so.” I’m in no way saying I don’t want you to do that anymore, just that in a funny way I’m like “fs he knows me so well.”

I find it disconcerting when someone can tell how I’m feeling before I’ve told them, sometimes before I’m fully aware of it myself. Fran does this a lot and it’s not always what I need, especially if I’m faking fine — pretending I’m doing better than I actually am.

Getting it Wrong

Understanding someone doesn’t mean never getting it wrong. In fact, we’re more likely to get it wrong with people we feel we understand because we tend to act on the basis of what we know, or believe we know. That’s what happened with me and my friend who said it felt like I didn’t know her at all. We’ve moved forward since then, but it was a valuable reminder not to become complacent or assume I understand people better than I actually do.

Another friend contacted me the other day. She wanted to talk but I was working from home and couldn’t pay her the full attention she needed. I told her so and we agreed to see how we got on, but it didn’t work and we soon ran aground. She messaged me later:

Understanding is hard and requires patience, which is in short order these days. To understand and be understood takes time. It’s [about] understanding when your friend has a lot to do, and also understanding when your friend is three days without sleep. It’s picking up on cues that can be silent, and not missing much when you’re with your friends …

Although unpleasant, mistakes like these can be valuable because they offer the opportunity to grow in understanding. I’ve written in the past about other occasions when I’ve worked through disagreements and issues honestly with friends. Aimee and I have had our share of misunderstandings, but we’ve been honest about them and emerged stronger:

I’m not sure if you agree, Aimee, but I’d say we understand there are times we will get it wrong, and that’s OK. It might not feel OK at the time but it will be when we are able to step back a little.

Definitely! And I think more and more we’re learning not to feel like total failures if we do get it wrong, and not blame one another for it.

I’ll close with another short passage from High Tide, Low Tide. Fran and I believe profoundly that the secret to understanding is honest and ongoing communication.

Approach your friend on the basis that you are each doing the best you can. Be gentle with yourself and with each other when things are not flowing well, and celebrate when they are. Good or bad, keep the channels open.

Do you feel understood by your friends and loved ones? Do you have a good understanding of those you’re close to? If not, you wish you did? Fran and I would love to hear from you.



Writing this article has made me realise how fortunate I am to have friends who understand me — not perfectly, perhaps, but well. They understand what makes me who I am; the things that are important to me, my hang-ups, frailties, and strengths. They get it wrong with me sometimes, of course, just as I get it wrong with them. But they get me, and that’s a really good feeling. Oh, and the person who told me we’ve no right to expect others to understand us? Ironically, she believed she had a really good handle on who I was. She was invariably wrong.


Photo by Diego Sanchez on Unsplash

Wednesday 11 November 2020

I'm Proud of You: Four Words That Mean So Much

This article was inspired by a conversation with fellow mental health blogger Aimee Wilson. We discussed how valuable it is to feel proud of our achievements and each other’s, and how sometimes we hesitate to say we are proud of someone in case it comes across as insincere or patronising.

For me, telling someone you’re proud of them implies a degree of closeness and connection. An expression of pride means far more to me if the person has been there through my struggles, doubts and uncertainties. Their expression of pride acknowledges their role in what led to this moment without in any way claiming it for themselves. Aimee expressed this perfectly in a social media post which I quoted when discussing how to celebrate success.

After almost every blog post, Martin is there telling me how much they meant to him. After every achievement, he is there telling me how proud he is. Well, now it’s my turn! I’m a very proud bestie after all of his recent achievements at work!

Fran and I share several similar moments in our book High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder.

Bear in mind that the other person may not know how to respond. They might feel shy or embarrassed, or doubt they deserve the spotlight you’ve put on them. On the other hand, it’s not uncommon for the other person to respond by telling you they’re proud of themselves.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“I’m proud of me too!”

My ego used to get a little bruised when this happened, as though my “gift” was being dismissed as unnecessary or inappropriate. I see things differently now. The gift is not me saying I’m proud of my friend, it is our mutual recognition that something pride-worthy has occurred. These moments can be profound. They reinforce the importance of taking responsibility for ourselves and our successes, and the part we can play in supporting others.

It’s no less special when someone spontaneously shares that they’re proud of themselves. A friend talked to me recently about her experiences at work. I was happy to hear she’s doing well but what moved me most was when she said “I’m really proud of myself!” because she recognised her achievement and the contribution she’s making in the workplace. Another friend and I were discussing the inner work she’s doing in certain areas of her life.

“I’m just so proud of me!”

“I’m so glad to hear that.”

“It’s nice to feel proud and in control and working on a major issue.”

As we describe in our book, the summer of 2013 was one of the most stressful and perilous periods in Fran’s life. There were times when we both feared for her health and wellbeing, but there were rare moments of relief when things came together:

Yesterday was so soul filling for me, Marty.. The best day yet.. Makes it all worth it.. This is what I came for.. I am proud of myself and the work I’ve done on myself..

It’s easy to say “I’m proud of you” but the words can come across as patronising or insincere if you don’t have a meaningful connection with the person you say them to. Worse, they might give the impression you’re claiming a part of the other person’s success, or a role in their life you do not possess. It helps to be specific. “I’m proud of you for how you handled that tricky situation,” or “I’m proud of you for making time for self-care in the middle of everything you’re going through” are more meaningful than a vague “I’m proud of you” which suggests you want to say the right thing without engaging too closely. I sent a generic “I’m so proud of you” when a friend told me they’d signed up for a training course. She thanked me but considered it premature. She was concerned whether or not she’d be able to complete the training.

“Don’t be proud yet. I appreciate what you are saying but I haven’t done it yet.”

It was a useful reminder to pay attention to what’s important in someone’s life before leaping in to praise them.

When we get it right, expressing pride in ourselves and others can be a beautiful and powerful thing. Aimee and I both blog in the mental health arena, albeit from very different perspectives. This gives us a good understanding of each other’s challenges and goals. We were chatting the other day when Aimee mentioned a new blogging collaboration she’d landed.

I’m so proud of you, Aimee! Which is appropriate, because right now I’m blogging about how to tell people you’re proud of them!

Oooooo, that’s such a good topic! It means so much to me how often you say it to me.

It can take time — sometimes a long time — to reap the benefits, but it can be worth the wait, as Fran shared with me when we were writing our book:

Over the years one lady repeatedly told me she was proud of me. I didn’t understand at first. I never asked her why she did this. Then it began dawning on me. Each tiny painful baby step I took she saw. She saw the work I was doing. The struggles and successes. Who I was becoming. And the answers of why she was proud of me became clearer as I looked deeply and began seeing myself. I began to become proud of myself. I no longer needed her to tell me. In all my life I never had anyone say those words to me and now I realize how very important they are.

Do you have a story about a time someone was proud of you, or when you’ve been proud of someone else? Do you find it easy to say the words or hear them said to you? We’d love to hear from you.


Wednesday 4 November 2020

VRITRA: A Short Film on Mental Health

By Sachit Grover

Now available on Amazon Prime, VRITRA is a short film on mental health. The film stars Sachit Grover, Ankit Prasad, Maya Patel, Bhumika Jain, Arushi Pahuja, and Snuggles. It is directed by Nipa Shah.

In Hindu mythology, Vritra was a dragon who blocked the rivers and caused a drought. Lord Shiva killed him with a bolt and released the waters. In the context of our lives, Vritra represents the mental dragons that grip us — self-doubt, anxiety, sadness, etc. and our friends and family collectively represent Lord Shiva to enable us to be released from our dragons.

This was my first ever short film and I was extremely nervous while filming this. I wanted to have a powerful performance, but I also wanted the performance to be very realistic. Finding this balance was a little difficult. To prepare filming, I had to talk to close friends and family who were dealing with mental health issues. After chatting with a few people, it became easier to get in character. I really wanted to do justice to this role and have this film help bring awareness on mental health.

In the south Asian community, mental health is often overlooked or ignored. I am confident that this short film will be a good step in raising conversation around the topic of mental health within south Asian communities.

Through my acting work, I constantly post videos that touch upon various social issues. On my YouTube channel, I have posted about suicide awareness and domestic abuse, among other topics. I believe it’s important to raise awareness on different societal issues.

To check out my work, subscribe to me on YouTube. You can also follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.