You are here

The Need To Be Understood

In 1999, I spent almost a full month of my summer at a water fasting clinic in Ohio. There, I experienced a two-week water-only fast, followed by a period of clean eating to rebuild my health.

I was immensely blessed to share a room with a man from Boston named Joseph Somario. From day one, I was drawn to Joe's palpable kindness and willingness to share from his wealth of life experiences.

Joe was 70 at the time, and having accomplished so much as a real estate developer, entrepreneur, father of three, and grandfather of four, well, I could not have been more captive in listening to his life story, from his childhood of eating little but cornmeal three times a day, to losing and making small fortunes up and down the east coast and in the deserts of Arizona and Nevada.

I was only 26 at the time and hadn't done a whole lot, but Joe wanted to know all about my life. I will forever cherish my memories of those seemingly endless nights when we shared whatever was on our minds, drunk on gallons of distilled water and the most beautiful moonlit room ever.

Over the course of several days, Joe developed a strong understanding of the difficult relationship that I shared with my father. My father being a first generation Korean immigrant looking to find his way in a foreign country, and me being a second generation Korean-Canadian craving unconditional love that I felt wasn't there from my parents, we had a solid history of being deeply disappointed with each other.

It's hard to describe how comforting it was to have Joe - a man who was older and more accomplished than my father - take the time to offer me genuine empathy. Having Joe understand my hurt and all the pressure I felt to live up to my parents' expectations provided a sort of relief that I hadn't known up until that point.

Somewhere around night 10 of our water fast, with the moonlight illuminating the top of Joe's head as we took in a warm summer breeze through our screened window, Joe said something that continues to reverberate within my soul even now, almost twenty years later.

Ben, as unfair and difficult as things have been for you, all I can say is that at this point in your father's life, his need for you to understand him is probably greater than your need for him to understand you.

As I've meditated on this thought over the years, my appreciation for Joe's wisdom continues to grow. I feel as though he gave me a solid but loving thump to the back with a sack of wisdom that continues to serve me in all of my relationships.

With my father, Joe helped me see that for every ounce of angst that I had in my life, my father probably had two ounces. Maybe not the same pain, but pain nonetheless. With his own struggles and challenges to deal with, my father hasn't always had the capacity to think about the emotional well-being of his children, which is probably true of every parent who has walked on this planet, myself included.

With some of the people I have spent significant time with over the past twenty years, in times of conflict, I have found that the best way I can facilitate reconciliation is to put all of my feelings and thoughts to the side and focus completely on viscerally understanding what the other person is feeling.

My experience has been that when the other person feels truly understood - not just in a superficial way with a mirroring of words, but to a point where they can sense that I have really tried to step into their shoes and feel their pain - at that point, they have much greater capacity to do the same for me.

In times when I can't restrain myself and end up pressing for the other person to understand me first, almost without exception, everyone tends to feels more pain and for a greater length of time.

Call it restraint, call it maturity - not everyone has the ability to put their anger and frustration aside and focus on understanding what the other person is feeling first because there are times when all they see and feel is red. This ability is a true super power in my book, and at the risk of being immodest, I'm darn glad that I have learned to utilize it in most times of conflict because it has spared me many mountains of unnecessary pain.

The late Stephen Covey describes this as habit number five of highly effective people: seek first to understand, then to be understood. I would only add that when you seek to understand, you must do so with all of your heart, and without clutching your own bag of hurt feelings.

My dear friend Joe would tell you that at this point in your mother's life, her need for you to understand her is probably greater than your need for her to understand you.

Speaking of our elders, as I sit here at 42 years of age, I am more aware that parents with adult children can carry tremendous sadness in their hearts, sadness that their pride will not allow them to share with their children. Perhaps the most common source of sadness stems from feeling neglected, forgotten, and not appreciated for all that was done in years past.

Let's remember that the best gift that we can give those who raised us is any action that shows that we think about them, care about them, and remember all that they did.

The next time you find yourself in a contentious situation and you sense that reconciliation isn't going to happen easily, I encourage you to remember my friend Joe Somario and put your feelings away in a box until you have done everything possible to deeply understand the other person's feelings. Then and only then, if it feels right, open up your box and share your perspective. This level of restraint may not always yield delicious fruit, but I promise you the effort will be worthwhile over the long term.


Join more than 80,000 readers worldwide who receive Dr. Ben Kim's free newsletter

Receive simple suggestions to measurably improve your health and mobility, plus alerts on specials and giveaways at our catalogue

Please Rate This

Your rating: None Average: 4.8 (169 votes)
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.


It's all very good to say we should seek to understand others more, but what if we are always being misunderstood and our voice is not being heard? That builds up resentment that no amount of trying to understand others can undo. Trying to understand others while carrying a lifetime of resentment takes its toll. I think there is more to life than trying to be the nice guy all the time who invariably gets trampled on by others.

And just letting go David, it's a dog eat dog world. I've been misunderstood too, and being nice puts you last in line because you'll always be the first to relinquish your seat, your place in line, etc.
In my case, my Father was never there, my Mother was always drinking, I'm emotionally disfigured for life, people scare me, not only that I'm one of those HSP complex types who feels and thinks deeply, hah, now that I'm sick I'm a loner because nobody wants anything to do with that, but I find the U.S. is full of sick people who refuse to admit they are sick, not to mention the health care system and food supply is so poor now, water supply a close third, here we go, smile at people, it might be the only gladness we get.
Thank you for a wonderful story Dr. Ben Kim, a very valid and moving work, I love the wisdom of older folks.

What about in relationships of abuse? In potentially damaging relationships like in cases of abuse, I agree for the sake of those abused and the abuser, that healthy boundaries that protect
both the abuser and the one abused, are important. I've tried the empathy thing with my mom many times, only to experience emotional trauma repeatedly from emotional abuse, manipulation, shaming, upon re-entering the relationship and becoming vulnerable. It's an unhealthy cycle that is wiser for me not to re-enter at this time so I have emotional capital for my marriage and children. I agree that empathy is important and putting ourselves in others' shoes can do worlds of good when done correctly with right minds, but also not to our self-degradation. Extreme kindness (anything in the extreme can be unwise) can be harmful because of how it exploits the giver. Empathy and vulnerability in cases of abuse, can be taken advantage of by individuals who are greedy, self-centered, and power hungry. In cases of abuse, healthy, proper boundaries are important for both the empathic individual and the one in need of empathy, especially when the one demanding empathy avoids all personal accountability and repeatedly offends without conscience.

It's easy, I know, to be wise, when you're not the one in a situation, but I agree with "C" and with respect think David and A are perhaps missing the point. I guess we've all been misunderstood to a great or lesser extent at some time in our lives, and I'm certainly no exception. But i do try to look for reasons (even make excuses, sometimes) for people's negative or uncaring behaviour. What i've found is that although it doesn't always heal the relationship in the short term, it helps me to cope better. I become less hurt, and less defensive and frankly grateful that I don't have to live in the other person's skin! Then I can find the compassion that helps me to forgive, and to continue to seek to understand.

Thank you for re-posting this, Ben. You have an uncanny knack for giving me a kindly dose of exactly what i need at the time. :)

I can't thank you enough for your thought provoking articles Dr. Kim. Here I am in my 60's finally realizing that my dear mother gave me as much of herself as she possibly could while she struggled with her own ghosts trickling down from her father's PTSD from WW2, suicide, guilt, and more. She gave me what I needed to learn. Not what I wanted. I am so grateful I can feel this deep love and understanding for her now, sadly though, she has passed on. Yes, 360 degree understanding is of utmost importance, always.

There are situations, for instance, if the parent you are dealing with is sociopathic and alcoholic, that empathy will only harm the person extending it and cause that person to be exactly where the damaged parent wants her/him - i.e., victim position "one more time." Sociopathy is not curable, as anyone who has a relationship with one will tell you. I spent a lot of time helping my son to be strong and self-accepting, but empathetic to others, as he was growing up. He's now a father himself and in spite of many set-backs we both have experienced in our own lives due to his millionaire father's influence, he has a pretty good marriage and his daughter and wife love him very much. Sometimes you have to settle for the best you can do in the circumstances. I can't spend my life wringing my hands that I married a sociopath and to anyone who has done this, I wish you peace, love and light. (I had to make a difficult decision not to have anything to do with his father over 25 years ago now. It is hard for your child when you do that, but if that husband/father is a safety threat, it is the only choice to make.)