Surely one of the most important of human needs is to be understood: To feel that another person really understands you, really gets you. And when you feel this sense of being understood, you feel less alone in life.
It is an existential fact that to some extent we are all alone. It is a very large universe – expanding minute by minute – and we are very small in the cosmic scale of things. It can get lonely out here. There are, of course, different types of relationships that help to ameliorate that feeling. There are family ties which can provide that sense of belonging to a group of people, one’s tribe. There are other significant relationships, significant others, which may provide a sense of belonging. And then there are ties that are forged through common interests and experiences with others. Right now people are wearing a lot of Giants jackets and hats as the San Francisco baseball team heads into the playoffs. The jackets and caps signify a sense of camaraderie and belonging.
There is a special sense of bonding that comes through the experience of being understood, and this is the kind of intimacy that psychotherapy provides. In the psychotherapeutic relationship, the client is free to speak what is on his or her mind. This freedom to say everything, including what might in some contexts be shocking or embarrassing or shameful, provides the foundation for the work. The other key pillar of that experience is the therapist’s overall acceptance and nonjudgmental attitude. (I suppose yet another fundamental pillar is the therapist’s willingness to reflect on and work out those times when the client does not feel understood or may feel judged.)
It is my task as a psychotherapist to attempt to understand. Obviously, people are different with different experiences. I do not think, therefore, that the experience of understanding another necessarily depends on having had the same experience. If I am working with a woman contemplating starting a family, I do not know that experience because I’m not a woman with those particular concerns. Perhaps what is required is having near-enough experience and a capacity to imagine. Empathy is truly the act of putting yourself in the other’s shoes. Though I do know what it is like to be a woman contemplating having a child, I do know something about the struggle with conflicting desires and concerns, ambivalences and fears.
Perhaps it is my attempt to understand which also has an impact on my clients. Even when discussing situations which may be differ vastly from mine, my clients can feel my striving to understand, to get their experience and reflect with them on it. And in the process, I believe my clients feel less alone. To feel just a little less diminutive in the grand scheme of things — to feel truly understood – is one of the great benefits of an ongoing psychotherapy relationship.