Maybe I don’t know how you feel

by Kristin on October 4, 2013

in Love, family & community

Photo by diapositivasmentales

“You don’t understand how I feel!” my 13-year-old wailed.

I had to bite my tongue to keep from uttering that automatic maternal response: “Yes I do!”

Instead, I said, “You’re right, I don’t know exactly how you feel. But I’m trying to understand!”

I think I saw a glimmer of trust and relief in my daughter’s eyes as I spoke this counter-intuitive response. In an odd way, I think she felt more heard. Because she didn’t want a general blanket of understanding—a generic “I was a 13-year-old girl once,” and “Life can be hard.” She wanted validation of the very specific things she was feeling in that moment, even if I didn’t understand them (and even if she didn’t fully understand them).

This is one of the hardest and most important lessons I’ve learned about parenting adolescents. “I don’t understand” is such a hard thing to say. We want nothing more than to understand where our children are emotionally. And it makes sense that parents, of all people, should be able to understand—we should have a direct line to our children.

After all, I think, looking at my distraught daughter, I carried her in my womb for nine months and nursed her at my breast! I know her inside and out—I’ve watched her struggle and learn over the years, and I’ve comforted her in her tears. There’s even a part of me in her blood, in her genes! When she says, “You don’t understand how I feel,” of course I want to say, with confidence, “Yes I do!”

But somewhere along the way, she began treading that rocky terrain between childhood and adulthood, and forming an identity apart from me. She is NOT me, even if we share many traits and a history.

And at some point I learned, probably while reading one of many parenting books, that validating the feelings of others is one of the most important gifts you can give. Sometimes that validation comes from saying, “That sounds really hard and painful,” rather than saying, “I know how you feel.”

Of course, we still want to help those we love feel less alone, and we can. We can listen intently and do our best to understand. We can acknowledge the parts we do understand a bit—”I never wanted to talk to my mom about that stuff when I was 13, either,”—while admitting the parts we haven’t experienced. Our very helplessness can dignify and validate what they’re feeling, by communicating that the situation is real and doesn’t come with an easy fix.

As I’ve struggled through this lesson as a mother, I’ve wondered how I should apply it to other relationships in my life. We all want to be heard and understood, but at the same time, we don’t want our problems and feelings to be generic—for the complexity we feel to be flattened into neat, uniform squares. Are we often too quick to assure others that we know just how they feel? And do we fail to fully listen and be present, in the process?

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  • suziwalks

    this is true not only with parenting but with friendship. A great post, as always!!

    • kt_writes

      Thank you, Suzi. Here’s hoping we can all learn to be better friends to others, little by little.

  • Alison Hector

    Often we’re so eager to say something that we’re not fully listening to the person, Kristin. Like Suziwalks said, it happens with friendships too. I remember a friend telling me about a problem she was having with her father, and she made it plain that she didn’t want to hear “what I’d been through.” She wanted for it to be her time to bring out into the open what was bugging her. At the time, I sort of resented that she didn’t want my input but as time passed, I got to understand where she was coming from. Sometimes just listening is the gift that brings validation and rapprochement.

    • kt_writes

      It’s such a fine line, isn’t it, between trying to share in something and shifting the focus onto ourselves. And each situation—and person—is different, making being sensitive in the moment so important.

      • Alison Hector

        Yes, sensitivity in the moment! What someone will listen to today at two o’clock and receive well might be anathema to them tomorrow morning at nine o’clock. The moment… so vital.

  • Jane D

    Lovely post, definitely not a skill to only use with parenting teens – I have found it to be true in my own life when people say ‘I can’t imagine how you feel’ that validation brings me some comfort x.

    • kt_writes

      I have definitely found that, too. And I’ve also been comforted in more universal situations, like when you slam your kneecap into something, and someone says “Oh, I know—that hurts so much!” I’m guessing the difference lies in the complexity of feelings that come with more complex situations (and call for more complex responses). Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Amberglass

    I’ve always been that empathetic/counseling/I understand your emotions sort of person – but it was a revelation to me when I was going through the worst breakup of my life to have a friend – who had gone through an equally bad breakup -comfort me by saying – “I don’t know exactly what you’re feeling – but I know it’s incredibly hard”. I’ve tried to keep that in mind since – it’s counter-intuitive, and humbling, but sometimes that’s what the other person needs to hear.

  • RonSimkins

    So true. Finding a way to communicate sympathetic listening without pretending to be fully empathetic is an art and goal we all need to pursue. Kristin, as is so often true in your blogs, great job of observing and learning and then sharing with, and challenging, the rest of us.

  • Caroline

    I love this post. Several people I’ve been building relationships with in our community as of late have been so encouraging parenting figures, especially as I go through a time in life when I’m not really sure if I want to be a parent myself. Thanks for these words. (yes, I realize this was written 2 months ago – back off! :))