That feeling of euphoria when someone understands you. Mmmm. Whether though their words or actions, feeling understood makes you feel noticed, loved and safe. On the other hand, when someone shows you they don’t understand you, God damn it can be so painful. Done repeatedly, it can damage relationships, make you feel miserable, even lonely, and it can make you question a lot. Your own worth, your own reality, that relationship, and why the person is treating you that way. Sometimes it’s their jealousy, sometimes it’s their passive aggressive way of telling you they don’t like you, sometimes it’s because they’re not paying attention.
Before you even decipher the reason behind their behaviour, you’re hit with the feelings that come with it. Once you stabilise yourself back to level-headedness and clarity, you may put the thought to bed – or so you think you have – and carry on living. You put the blame on yourself, you’ve heard all those quotes about how, ‘nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent’, and suddenly you’re the problem.
‘Maybe it’s something I said or didn’t do. Or maybe they’re just having a bad day; I know they’ve been really overwhelmed with work, recently. Anyway…’ you say to yourself as you drive on, focused once again on where you’re headed.
A week later, you suddenly you find yourself driving down Feeling Not Understood Road again. You’re trying to have an important conversation, they’re not being compassionate, you end up getting annoyed at them because they don’t seem to be even trying to understand what you’re saying, the exchange turns a little sour, you both become frustrated, but days later you’re back to normal – laughing, smiling, chatting.
Three weeks later, you ring them, they are driving. They ring you back once they have parked up at their destination. They are in a rush so you have a quick conversation about the problems you are having with a friend of yours. It becomes evident they are not properly paying attention to your worries and they give you a generic response like, ‘Just talk to them’, and then tell you they have to go, and put the phone down.
You look at your phone. Your head hangs down for the next two minutes. You feel hurt, ignored, anxious. Your subconscious mind is saying something to you, but you’re not quite able to recognise the message. All you know is, you have a lousy day and you haven’t been able to shift an uneasy feeling in your body.
You go to sleep. You wake up the next day, you’re feeling better, but every now and again that uneasy bodily feeling returns.
You’ve noticed that you have been feeling tired and somewhat glum.
Five weeks go by and then one day, it happens.
’You just don’t care anymore, you don’t listen, you’re rushing off, you act as though what I’m saying is all in my head, or that it’s not that big of a deal. You’re in your own world whenever we talk. I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall whenever I’m turning to you about something.’
There it is. Your subconscious mind‘s evaluations have finally reached your conscious mind allowing you to pinpoint with specific words what your subconscious started processing a while ago. You feel relieved and lighter. However, now your mind is whizzing onto the next problem. The epiphany arrives. You needed it. But it punches you hard almost taking your breath away. Your heart physically hurts. Tears swell up in your eyes.
You’ve realised what’s been bothering you subconsciously. They are not making any effort to understand you, be there for you, love you. You feel unloved. You feel disconnected. Also, unprotected. Plus anxious about what the future of the relationship holds. You recognise now that this is what that bodily feeling was all about. And now you may be feeling nauseous as you mentally comb over the past. The disconnection. The ignorance. The lack of compassion. Them not understanding you, and worse, not even really trying to. Their lack of care. Their sheer lack of genuine concern!
Sometimes they’ve given some signs of attentiveness but as you now delve deeper you realise there were inconsistencies.
Do you know what inconsistencies tell you? They tell you the seemingly real was not quite so.
Sure they said all the right things, but as you now dissect all the intricate details of the recent, and perhaps not so recent, past, an unsettling picture starts to unfold.
Their concern was not really concern. Maybe it was an attempt to look like they cared. Their empathy did not really feel like empathy, maybe it was merely to appease you so they could get back to other things they found more important (than you).
Feeling understood, or not understood, activates different brain processes
Before you go blaming yourself for being ‘too sensitive’ or ‘putting too much pressure on someone else to make you feel good’, know that there’s a very real reason you feel bad when you don’t feel understood.
Feeling understood and not feeling understood activate different brain regions. Feeling understood activates neural regions that have been associated with social connection and reward whilst not feeling understood activates neural regions associated with negative affect (i.e. negative emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, distress, contempt and disgust).  In turn, these different neural responses for feeling understood vs. not feeling understood, are linked to subsequent feelings of social connection and social disconnection, respectively.
How telling is that! It’s as though your brain’s processes and the resulting emotions, are also telling you, this is person is good for your well-being or survival, that person is not – stay close with the first and fix the other or distance yourself from them.
After all: “Your emotions are your mental health feedback system, similar to the body’s physical health and survival feedback systems…We use negative emotions to know that ‘something doesn’t feel good’ and needs addressing, and positive emotions to know that ‘things feel good’ and can or should continue.” (Resilient Me)
Your body is geared for survival. So when something is a threat to it, it will tell you and it will either do something for you (e.g. clot your blood, create a scab over a wound), or it will ‘sound’ a warning so that you do something to protect yourself (e.g. have some me-time, sleep, prune negative people out of your inner circle).
Whether you feel understood or not, affects your life
Other research finds that not feeling understood can lead to various negative consequences whilst feeling understood can lead to numerous positive outcomes for our health and well-being.
♦ In close relationships, felt understanding has been shown to encourage intimacy  and relationship satisfaction. 
♦ In relationships in general, when people share positive events with others, it boosts their positive emotions and well-being. When the listener responds to the discussion actively and constructively, rather than passively or destructively, sharing the positive news enhances the storyteller’s well-being and positive emotions even more so that the positive event itself. Such behaviour is also associated with higher intimacy and daily marital satisfaction for spouses.  So attentively sharing in someone’s good news, nurtures the relationship as it helps them to feel significantly happier. Naturally, they are going to appreciate you more for it, too, and your relationship.
♦ And here’s a somewhat unexpected outcome. When interacting with strangers, feeling understood increases our tolerance for physical pain and our perception (like how steep a hill is and how distant a location is!  In other words, when we feel understood we feel happier and are better able to face challenges whereas when we feel misunderstood we perceive challenges as more difficult to overcome.
What to do when you’re not feeling understood
It might take you months or even longer to realise something is amiss in a significant relationship. Don’t give yourself a hard time about that. These things creep in so slowly and the more you trust and like the person, the more you overlook the seemingly obvious when you look back in hindsight.
Now, the relationship in question might be with your in-laws, partner, friend, child, parent, or colleague. When you realise there are red flags that your relationship is not as healthy as you’d hoped or once thought, you need to do something about it because then you can work out whether this is a relationship that is good for you and needs nurturing or is bad for you and needs pausing or pruning (more on this below).
Step 1: Ask yourself good questions
- Am I talking to them when they are distracted?
- What does their non-verbal communication tell me about what’s in their heart and mind (what they’re really thinking and feeling)?
- Has any of their other behaviour changed towards me and since when?
- Do they always behave as though they don’t really know me well?
- Do they always subtly treat me with disregard?
- Am I communicating clearly?
- Am I communicating calmly and respectfully?
Step 2: Ask them good questions
- Is there anything bothering you lately as I’m feeling ignored?
- You seem distracted when I’m talking to you about important stuff; what’s the reason?
- What can we change so that we talk more, and actively listen to each other?
- Are you satisfied with our relationship?
- Have I done anything to upset you?
- Are there any changes you would like to make to our relationship?
Step 3: Create a plan of action and implement it
- Changing bad relationship habits you’ve fallen into such as not spending much quality time together, just the two of you, or allowing technology to disrupt your personal lives.
- Discussing a past issue that has been left unresolved, perhaps because they haven’t mentioned it to you but have allowed it to fester.
Step 4: Review changes and tweak as necessary
See if what you have done to improve things has worked. If after some consistent effort to resolve issues highlighted, you are still not feeling understood – you feel ignored, adrift, and dismissed – consider anything else you may have overlooked by repeating Steps 1 to 3 above. If you want help with this, go to Step 5.
Step 5: Consider professional help
Sometimes you just know this relationship is bad for your health and happiness. You absolutely know you’ve nurtured it enough to know it’s not going to improve. In that case you’ll either pause it or prune it.
Pausing the relationship means placing it on hold, minimising the time you spend with them, thinking carefully before you damage your self-worth and well-being (any more) by hanging around them.
Pruning is when you know you need to get away from them, or get them away from you and your life, for the sake of your health and happiness.
If you’re not sure you have done everything you can to improve your relationship, or need help because you’re too sad, confused or exhausted to keep doing it alone, consider professional relationship help.
Frequently feeling understood or not understood, is a message
Remember that negative relationships hinder our health and well-being. Get help if there seems to be hope, otherwise create a distance from it or, if the relationship is dead or dangerous, get out with your sanity, safety and resilience intact.
Remember, your body will tell you what your subconscious mind has already evaluated and the decision it has calculated, often before you can consciously specify it in words. Does your internal body feel tense or relaxed, ‘bad or ‘good’? Tense or ‘bad’ = something is not right and needs addressing. Relaxed or ‘good’ = things are good and can continue.
Tune into those visceral sensations within as you thoughtfully reflect on your relationship, your experiences with that person, and when you follow the five steps above. Remember, your brain and body are built to keep you alive and well, pay attention to what your emotions and bodily sensations are telling you.
Whether you frequently feel understood or dismissed, will ultimately tell you whether that person should be in your inner circle. If the dynamic changes, great, they can stay, if it doesn’t, do what’s right for you.
1. Morelli, S. A., Torre, J. B., & Eisenberger, N. I. (2014). The neural bases of feeling understood and not understood. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 9(12), 1890–1896. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst191
2. Laurenceau, J. P., Barrett, L. F., & Pietromonaco, P. R. (1998). Intimacy as an interpersonal process: the importance of self-disclosure, partner disclosure, and perceived partner responsiveness in interpersonal exchanges. Journal of personality and social psychology, 74(5), 1238–1251. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.528
3. Lippert, T. & Prager, K.J. (2001). Daily experiences of intimacy: A study of couples. Personal Relationships, 8: 283-298. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2001.tb00041.x
4. Gable, S. L., Reis, H. T., Impett, E. A., & Asher, E. R. (2004). What do you do when things go right? The intrapersonal and interpersonal benefits of sharing positive events. Journal of personality and social psychology, 87(2), 228–245. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206
5. Oishi, S., Schiller, J., & Gross, E. B. (2012). Felt Understanding and Misunderstanding Affect the Perception of Pain, Slant, and Distance. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 4(3), 259–266. https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550612453469