“I understand.” If you don’t mean those words, don’t say them. If you merely think you mean those words, but have no real or similar experience to back them up with, don’t say them. If you truly mean those words and have some experience or similar experience to back them up with, then go ahead and use them as words of comfort to someone who’s in over their head. The reason I’m so adamant about the proper use of those two little words is that people often say they understand just to placate a person, and that shouldn’t be their intent or their actual use. “I understand” suggests camaraderie and brotherhood, and if you use those words just to get somebody to move on to another subject that you’re more comfortable with, you’re doing them a heinous disservice and misleading them in the process!
For example, when my doctor, who was a rock climber in his younger years, says, “I understand,” in a situation where I’m upset that I can’t climb and climbing is the only thing that holds the PTSD demons at bay, I believe him because he knows what I’m talking about – he knows the feeling of rock climbing and what it does for a person, as well as the effects of PTSD on me and how much relief climbing offers me in that regard. He is well-justified in saying, “I understand.” That is a proper use of those words and it contributes to our therapeutic relationship.
Another example is when my friend, who has PTSD, is upset and weeping uncontrollably, or expressing the rage common in PTSD and having a rant, and I say, “I understand,” that’s appropriate because I have PTSD as well – I have firsthand experience with the depression and the rage that go along with my limbic system overrunning my entire rational thought system because I have the same disorder. We don’t have to have had the same experiences, but there is an element of shared and/or similar experience there, nonetheless.
I’ll give you an example of an appropriate non-use of the words, “I understand,” regarding not being able to climb due to my injury right now, too. An orthopedic physician’s assistant examining my injury and telling me that I have a secondary injury that we now need to treat because the primary injury is almost completely healed does NOT use the words, “I understand,” when I emphasize repeatedly that I need to be able to climb again. Why is this non-use of those words appropriate? Because he doesn’t understand and he knows it. He has no idea why climbing should mean so much to me, so he doesn’t mislead me or placate me by indicating otherwise. He explains that he’s not going to refer me to physical therapy because he’s afraid they’re going to wrench on my wrist and hand too much and reinjure my scaphoid, and he sees no need for a follow-up unless I see the need for one in the event that my injuries are not healed enough for me to self-rehabilitate in six weeks when I get this (hopefully) final splint off.
I’ll stick with the proper uses of the words in this post because the wrong and improper uses will surface on their own and I don’t need to give you ideas or confuse you. If you understood this post, then you’re in good shape. If you don’t understand this post or don’t see the point of it, check your interpersonal sensitivity meter and flip the situation around – what if it were you who needed someone to understand?