What Does It Mean to Be Understood in Therapy?

A young woman talks in a therapy sessionOne of the basic ingredients of good psychotherapy is being understood. People often do not consider what it means for a therapist to understand. Ideas vary from one school of therapy to another—even from one therapist to another.

Some look for understanding through causes. How did you get to be the person you are? What early experiences may have taken part in forming your personality?

Some therapists focus on understanding in a manner rooted in biology. Do you have a shortage of neurotransmitters that are designed to make you feel happy—to give you a sense of well-being?

Others are more interested in understanding what you experience as you go through the world. What does it feel like to be in your shoes—to have your anxieties, loves, fears, and hopes?

Most therapists use a combination of these modes, as well as many others I haven’t mentioned. In my view, there is a critical part of understanding that provides a profound respect for your humanity—a sort of understanding that is familiar to all of us, but is not an ordinary part of the therapeutic literature.

I’m referring to the process of understanding a person precisely how that person understands himself or herself. I believe the modes of understanding that I have mentioned are critical, but having someone see you in the way you see yourself is foremost. There is subtle disrespect in a therapist’s bypassing your self-understanding toward an investigation that lies beneath—whether it be unconscious phenomena, biochemistry, or even felt experience—as your experience in the world is not quite the same as your evaluation of it.

It’s true that we all have blind spots, and therapists are in a position to notice things we may not. We collaborate with our therapists to investigate the mysteries of the unconscious, the unknown, and what we don’t understand about ourselves. That quest has been a part of therapy since its inception. But wouldn’t it make sense for therapist and person in therapy to have dialogue about that first?

For example, does your understanding of self-discovery differ from that of your therapist? Presumably, nobody is the expert when it comes the most important human questions—those that matter most to us. Therapists in their craft have something to teach: Sigmund Freud’s technique ignited a passion for self-inquiry lasting more than 100 years and still burning. However, the extent to which you may have something to teach often is overlooked.

Following one of Freud’s favorite metaphors, as the archaeologist penetrates beneath the earth’s surface, the psychoanalyst does the same with the mind. In a descending excavation, the height of great aspirations—the astronomer’s sky—may be inappropriately understood.

Therapists can become preoccupied with your biases and misconceptions. They may lose sight of the independent dignity of what you see. What are the things you love and hold dear? Why do you love them? What are the things that guide your life? Love? Family? Truth? Beauty? Security? What are your highest aspirations? Your virtues? Strengths? What are your opinions about the most important things? The universe? And how do you understand your place in it?

Many therapists develop understandings of people in therapy in relation to these questions. However, it might be a mistake to believe these investigations lead only to an illusory superstructure under which your real truth lies. These questions are integral to being human and hold an independent dignity. They cannot be reduced to something else. It is a terrific advantage if your therapist welcomes the things that are most dear to you and understands them on your terms with the utmost seriousness.

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  • Stacie l.

    October 25th, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    For many people it is quite simple: it means FINALLY having an outlet to voice what is happening in their lives on a day to day basis in a way that feels safe and non threatening. I think that basically that is what so many of us are looking for but have a hard time finding.

  • Derrick J

    October 26th, 2012 at 12:43 AM

    If anything,one needs to be considerate and have empathy to understand another person. This becomes so important because the client is usually someone who is battered due to whatever the reason and needs someone to listen to him and understand him. That in itself helps a great deal because sometimes just getting something off your chest is a bug burden gotten rid of.

  • Scott

    October 26th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    No, I can’t imagine that the client/therapist relationship can be built on pretense. It has to be one in which the client is always taken seriously and that the therapist works hard to see how his beliefs and interests could not only be integral to his problems, but as a pathway to his recovery.

  • wayne parnell

    October 26th, 2012 at 7:56 AM

    sometimes when I speak of my problems with a friend,he does understand it but just not the way I see it.Maybe we do not see things from the exact same point of view even though he tries.Its hard to put it in words but when THAT connection and commonality occurs then therapy is best served I think.otherwise there is always that little hindrance whenever you talk with your therapist.

  • JO

    October 26th, 2012 at 2:38 PM

    The more you are willing to open up and let your therapist learn more and more about you then the greater the likelihood there will be for feeling better and finding relief from what ails you. Even if you are a naturally more private person I can’t help but feel like if you want to make a real difference in life you will find your therapist to be someone to whom you can open up and allow to see inside to the real you. That’s what therapy is all about anyway- allowing someone in to see you faults and all and find a way to help you reconcile the good with the bad. It can be an awesome experience when you are willing to let someone in whom you can trust and who you know is there to help you through life, hiccups and all.

  • Mary S

    December 25th, 2016 at 9:36 PM

    Jo’s comments about opening up to the therapist seem to miss the point. The therapist needs to hear you when you do open up. Otherwise, you might as well be talking to a brick wall, or into a black hole. One problem I have encountered is that therapists so often see things in simple terms, whereas I see them in complex terms. It is very frustrating to say something complex and have a therapist respond with a simple “You …” statement that just picks up some words you have said, but leaves out the qualifications, connections, and other expressions of uncertainty or complexity.

  • eric

    October 26th, 2012 at 11:36 PM

    for me being understood is not just agreeing with what I say or hearing me out.It is actually getting what I am feeling about what i am describing to you right now.that is true understanding.to understand the circumstances and my frame of mind along with the actual content!

  • Gerald

    October 27th, 2012 at 8:46 AM

    You have to keep in mind that someone is not going to understand everything about you the first time that you meet.

    This is a slow process that you might have to give a little while to develop.

  • Flowing Pearl

    October 27th, 2012 at 9:47 AM

    They say the person who knows you the best is your therapist.But I think along with the quantity of things the therapist knows it is also important for him to ahve quality in how much he knows you.Its no use knowing my whole life story without knowing how I feel about it all,is it :)

  • Isador

    October 27th, 2012 at 11:46 AM

    Someone that might have had personal experience with or at least case experience with what I am dealing with would be the right candidate in my books.I would not be comfortable talking to someone who is dismissive either.yes it is not easy to be a therapist but hey that is the reason why everybody isn’t one!

  • Frank

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:20 AM

    Don’t we, shouldn’t we always feel like we are working with a therapist who gets us, who understands us, and who is not judgemental? Is that too much to ask?

  • irene

    October 28th, 2012 at 5:42 AM

    understand me?nobody can.whenever I try to talk to someone close to me and speak about the things that may be bothering me they do not seem to understand what I mean.i feel so disconnected from everybody.maybe I am weird?its just that whenever I say something the intended meaning and feelings in the message just vanish and a different message is received at the other end.

    does this mean I am bad with communicating?or is it that those around me find it difficult to understand me?I have not tried speaking with a therapist because I do not have anything too serious bothering me but it would be good to have those around me understand what I say and feel.


    October 28th, 2012 at 12:41 PM

    Not gonna lie here but I am just not comfortable sharing everything with anyone.I do have close friends that know a lot about me but I don’t ever see myself being able to open up everything to someone I just met,whatever may be the reason.that’s just how I am I guess..

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    October 28th, 2012 at 7:36 PM

    Thank you all for your comments! I didn’t expect this. It’s my first article so I’m very grateful. A lot of extremely interesting ideas worth considering.

    Addressing your response, Irene, I know a lot of people can relate to what you’re saying. I sure can. I believe, in part, it points to a larger cultural message we receive all the time: “We don’t have time for emotions. Produce! Get things done!” We’re encouraged to develop a false self. Sadly that makes it more difficult for those who are more authentic, and who have a lot to say. It is a risk (referring also to Oswald’s comment), to open oneself up to being understood… Because it makes you vulnerable to being misunderstood, which can feel devastating. I’m reminded of a quote by a psychotherapist, D.W. Winnicott. He said, “O what a joy it is to hide. And yet what a tragedy to never be found.” We hide because we want to know someone’s trying to find us.

  • Stephen L Salter Psy. D.

    October 28th, 2012 at 10:14 PM

    To add another thought, or to summarize, I think the act of understanding involves the will of both people, and it involves care, vulnerability, and effort.

  • Liz

    October 28th, 2012 at 11:54 PM

    Some people are not able to put across their message in a way that is best understood by the other person. Maybe you need to change your technique Oswald.or maybe you have that one friend,that one individual who has been able to understand you when others havent,you could talk to that person. Or maybe write a note and then give it to someone you want. There are many ways of overcoming this problem Oswald. Don’t lose heart, keep trying.

  • rhett

    October 29th, 2012 at 4:19 AM

    i don’t need a therapist to need to feel understood
    we all have that inner desire to feel understood and loved

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