You Just Don't Understand

I was extremely blessed to have some amazing teachers in high school. One being my sophomore World History teacher, Mr. Paul. He was an insanely brilliant man who could have run the world but chose to run a classroom instead. Though I remember very little about the history part, I will never forget his lessons on the world. One of which was: “The phrase ‘you just don’t understand’ is stupid.”

He sang the word “stupid” in a way that made us laugh, but got our attention. He then went on to explain to a room of self-absorbed teenagers the concept of empathy. He said, “Just because someone hasn’t been in the exact situation as you, doesn’t mean they can’t understand your feelings.” We’ve all felt pain. We’ve all felt joy. We’ve all felt loneliness, depression and failure. The level of these feelings varies, but we’ve all felt them. Therefore, when you tell someone, “You just don’t understand,” you are essentially saying his or her feelings aren’t as real as yours. By navigating the world in this way, you end up isolating yourself from people who care.

This lesson, as simple as it may seem, has affected almost every friendship I’ve had since. The truth is my life hasn’t been all that challenging. I grew up in a healthy loving two-parent household and was never the victim of any major tragedies. So to me, the phrase “you just don’t understand” wasn’t something I felt but more something I felt was directed at me. I felt as if no one would want to talk to me about their problems because I had nothing to lend to their experience. Mr. Paul taught me I had something important to lend, empathy.

Just because my best friend hasn’t died doesn’t mean I can’t understand how painful it is that yours has. Just because I haven’t struggled with an eating disorder doesn’t mean I can’t give you support while you overcome yours. What we  lack in experience we can make up for in empathy. I am now the friend everyone comes to with their problems and I love being the “Go To”. Whereas I may not be able to say, “I know exactly how you feel”, I am able to say, “I care.” Usually that’s enough.

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  • Rebecca Lynn

    Just to let you know, you’re very right. I’m attempting to leave behind an eating disorder, and my best friend and I are in the exact same boat, but my boyfriend, who has never struggled with food or body issues like I have, is the first person I talk to. His empathy is overwhelmingly comforting and supporting. And non-judgmental. At the end of the day, anyone with any problem just doesn’t want to feel judged, and a great sense of empathy makes that possible.

  • Alycia Lourim

    This is beautiful. I love it.

  • Andra Shannon

    Totally agree, Nicole! I, too, haven’t been through many horrific life events thus far, but I’ve always felt that I am a compassionate and understanding person. I’m able to recognize when someone is going through something, put myself in their position, and feel what they’re feeling… Which I guess is the definition of empathy. And I think all humans are capable of this. We just need to lean on each other more often… No one needs to be alone.

  • Ximena Santillan Guerra

    Love it! I also had a world history teacher who taught me a lot! About life, history, music, to achieve something you really want! I will never forget that teacher! I’m totally agree! Just because I haven’t lost a friend or haven’t had a heartbroken! Doesn’t mean I don’t understand!

  • Erin Miuccio

    Great post! The world would be such a better place if more people understood empathy. Bravo for your teacher explaining it! Not everyone will get it, but the more it is taught, the more people will start to understand. Thanks for posting!

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