Understanding Others

One major lie most people tell themselves is that they understand others. In fact, I would say virtually everyone at some point has made the false assumption that they understand someone as a person when they do not. This is particularly the case with those who are not suffering from a mental condition that gives them a differing perception of social interactions. It is extremely common that people assume that they can understand others well; it is prevalent in the vast majority of social problems. This is how people are conned out of their money and possessions, how relationships fall apart, and why people feel lonely and realize that they are often very alone in how they experience the world.

At one extreme, this can result in family members being blindsided by another family member leading a lifestyle or doing something horrible that they do not expect, whether actually bad or only in their eyes, or possibly said family members refusing to accept that someone they thought they knew would do such a thing. It is evident in such cases that there is a large divide between the perception of an outsider to one person’s world, and that person’s reality. People who are not neurotypical – in the sense of having a chronic abnormal mental or psychological condition, not specifically the autism spectrum – generally understand that they are different from others mentally, even if they cannot always explain why.

I should differentiate what I mean by understanding, as the term is vague enough to cause some confusion. There are two kinds of understanding: the understanding one has when communicating with others, and the understanding of them as a person. One can communicate well with another, and still fail to understand them as a person. Conversely, one can have poor outward communication, but still be someone who is not difficult to understand, if they are simple enough. For example, in the former instance, one may act superficially or be selective in the side of themselves that they wish to show to others, even if they have established good rapport between each other, and can communicate on a similar wavelength. On the other hand, if someone is a low functioning individual for instance, it easier to understand their base behaviour and how to control them. This also verges into philosophical territory about what makes a person a person, and the understanding of others naturally follows from this.

As an example, if someone has very low intelligence and is prone to aggressive outbursts, one might treat that person more like a house pet, instead of someone to be negotiated and reasoned with. It may sound harsh, but some unfortunate individuals really cannot comprehend the world on a high enough level to be treated the same way you would treat a more intelligent socially well-adjusted individual, if eye contact can provoke a tantrum or if encroaching on their physical space is first and foremost met with a fist. They do not function on the same level as you, and it would not make sense to treat them in particular ways if you want to get along. This is not just the case with people who have diagnosed developmental delays – it is merely a more easily comprehended example. You develop a greater understanding of that person in observing and being able to control simple behaviours. Of course, that person lives in their own world, and it is especially difficult to make sense of it if their mind is completely different. How socially intelligent you think you are does not matter here.

Even if one does not have a developmental disorder or mental illness that makes them difficult to understand – whatever their level of functioning may be – that does not mean you understand someone as person because they are not affected by those things. You may be able to comprehend what they are saying to some extent, as their behaviour and way of communication is more familiar to you, yes. However, that does not mean you have reached into the core of their mind, to observe the cogs and gears that make them function the way they do.

Most people don’t need to understand others perfectly to be able to get along with them. For people like me who are more acutely aware of the distance between myself and others, I may feel more detached and aloof when I cannot reach beyond the superficial, if there is something even there. Even if you’d like to become closer to someone, you may never feel the same kind of comfort that you could, if they could communicate with you on a similar level. And even if you are able to do that, there is a “spark” that is needed in getting along with someone long-term. This is the deeper part of understanding where you feel a level of attachment to someone that goes beyond outward communication.

I have had situations in my own life, where it feels as though I am speaking a foreign language to someone due to their mental state, which results in no progress being made during this conversation. Perhaps I have come off in a similar manner to others at points in my life, where there is a mutual lack of understanding due to a certain barrier that could not come down. One may misinterpret or be unable to view things from a certain point of view, due to how they perceive the world, whether it be how they were born, or because of other factors clouding their vision.

Soulmates are a concept that people use to justify that you truly can understand someone on a deeper level. I myself am not sure if such a concept exists, and if it does, it is something very few people experience in their lifetimes. Perhaps they do, perhaps most people use that as a pretext to trick themselves into seeing someone as their ideal person who they should stay with forever. Preserving the integrity of your own soul is more important than making the mistake of entwining your soul with someone who you do not truly understand, which frequently happens for the worse.

Is it possible to genuinely understand the essence of a person? It is not absolute: there are varying degrees of understanding of someone, so it is not as if you cannot know someone at all, or you know understanding everything about them. I cannot say that it is impossible to truly understand someone, even if it is not something I have experienced myself, even if I have erroneously believed that I have before, and despite the overwhelming majority of people thinking they do. They may not outright say “I understand you as a person” but it shows in their treatment of others and their attitude towards them. This may be have benevolent and loving intent, but it also may be cruel and domineering. Understanding others is not an intrinsically good or bad thing, even if people strive to understand others for their own ends, or for altruistic reasons.

Assuming you understand someone as a person is parallel to giving one’s “love” towards someone. What people typically see as love is often superficial, just like the understanding they have of others. It is much easier in retrospect to know if you’ve experienced the real thing, rather than when you are caught up in it.

I have also considered, against all of my intuition and observations, that I may feel this way just myself and most people are capable of truly understanding others, while I am a black sheep. One on hand, that would explain certain things about my own life. On the other hand, given what I know about others and their increasing feelings of isolation, certain other things would not make much sense. I myself have felt lonely as a person before, but it is rare that I feel it these days, even if I feel disconnected socially from most people. I am fairly content with myself, even if I would enjoy the companionship of the hypothetical idea of people who I would see regularly and have a similar understanding of the world, which I am sure would enhance my life. While those people could be called friends, or potential ones, not all so-called friends are someone you can have meaningful connection with.

Having someone who makes an effort to understand you and do positive things with that knowledge is better than surrounding yourself with people who make no effort, and/or make hasty assumptions about what kind of person you are for their own convenience. Gradually, as people draw quicker and broader assumptions about others, and based on what they’ve picked up socially or through media, they will feel more isolated and lonely. They make more assumptions about the world, almost all false, which will exact the toll on their mental and spiritual health. This will make them miserable, but climbing out of that pit becomes more and more unthinkable to them as they grow deeper into it. It’s a cult-like mindset, but because the factors behind it are so ubiquitous, and they are unaware of these factors, as are the others who they frequently associated with, they are likely to be trapped in that miserable perspective for a long time, if not for their whole life.

Understanding someone as a person is not something that can be taught. However, you can recognize if you understand someone as person or not by comparing your perception of them to how they act, even the smaller actions that you might otherwise ignore should be examined. While you might not be able to entirely piece together what kind of person they are, by doing so, it will be easier to discard any inaccurate misconceptions you have about them.