When I started graduate school three years ago (how has it gone by that quickly???) I remember our professors telling us that one of the most dangerous phrases is “I understand.” I knew this to be true from my own previous experiences in therapy, but had never really thought about it before. Some of the most well-intentioned people use these words to attempt to convey empathy, but it is really a lie. Even if I have been through a similar situation as someone else, there is absolutely no way I understand them, where they are, or what they are feeling. I have never been them. I have never walked in their shoes. For me to say “I understand” would completely discredit and devalue my clients’ experiences and what they are feeling in the moment.
Sometimes I share bits of my story with people to give them hope or to convey some sort of empathy, but I never say “I understand.” Over the past few months, though, I have really been challenged in this area while working with people who are experiencing things I truly DO NOT understand. Even if I have experienced pain, betrayal, shame or grief, I don’t understand where my male clients are coming from entirely because I have never been a man. There are days when I wish I had a different body or looked differently, but I have never wanted to change my gender or not be me.
In an attempt to wrap my head around things I truly do not understand or have never experienced, I have been watching movies and reading books. While these are far cries from experiencing things in real life, it is the closest I can get in order to increase my own capacity for empathy and compassion. One book I am currently working my way through is called Mom, I Need To Be A Girl. It is a short book written from the perspective of a mother whose son, Daniel, came to her one day as a young teen and admitted that he had never been comfortable in his body and that he needed to be a girl rather than a boy. Daniel is now Danielle, and his mother painfully and honestly describes her journey of heartbreak and confusion.
With the onslaught of magazine covers showing the gender reassignments of people like Chaz Bono and Bruce Jenner, I have found myself stumped over the past couple of years as to what it is like to feel trapped in someone else’s body. I have struggled with my weight my whole life, and have been jealous of other women’s physical make up, but I have never not wanted to be me, much less not wanted to be a woman. I have never looked at a man and thought, “I would rather be that.” With more and more people seeking therapy either for their own desire to change or parents who are baffled as to how to help their children, I wanted to hear from the minds and hearts of those who have lived this struggle.
Being from the South, my response to this battle in my younger years would have been much more judgmental, I have to admit. As I have grown in my years, my faith, and my role as a therapist, I have become much more empathetic to people’s struggles. I have also become much more curious. Rather than labeling someone’s current state, I have come to a place where I want to ask more questions, admit when I am ignorant, and learn as much as I can.
I am certainly learning a lot from this little book. At the same time, I am reading another book called Reviving Ophelia, a brilliant work about how adolescence has changed for girls over the past two decades and how parents, teachers, mentors, and leaders can walk with girls through these difficult stages of life rather than scoffing at or being annoyed by them.
I guess you could say one of the phrases I use most in my sessions these days is, “I don’t understand. Can you teach me what it is like to be you?” Life changing conversations happen after that question. I learn so much. I watched one of my supervisors and professors, Dr. Jim Coffield, say this time after time during graduate school and I love how he asked this question with such genuine curiosity while sprinkling dignity on each client he encountered.
Today I am ok with saying, “I don’t understand”. I learn so much more when I do.