You Will Be Misunderstood Sometimes

August 21, 2014 (Updated Jun 29, 2019) by — Intended Audience: , .

xkcd communication is difficultOccasionally local news agencies will contact me (as well as other counselors, I’m sure) for my opinion on some mental health topic related to whatever news item they’re working on at the time. Observing the results of this is one of many life experiences that remind me that communication is imperfect, and that we are all misunderstood at times.12

Communication is a wonderfully organic process. We might long for communication where our exact meaning is always instantly, perfectly understood, and we always instantly, perfectly understand the other. But I’m not sure that would actually be very satisfying. I think that one of the joys of life is the process of being known and of knowing another–that is, being in the process of knowing and being known. When there is nothing new to discover or learn (about another, or our self for that matter) I suspect that life and relationships would quickly start to feel stale, and boring. The wonderful thing is that we are each dynamic beings, always in the process of moving in some direction regarding our growth.3

So if there’s potentially something life-giving about communication being so organic such that we don’t “get it right” the first time (i.e., it takes repeated interactions to discover another person’s meaning, or help them discover ours), then what are we to make of the fact that imperfect communication hurts at times? This is certainly a place where my Christian frame comes into play (though I think the following should be quite accessible to those from a non-Christian or non-religious background). Life is broken, specifically in the sense that we experience pain, which is something I don’t believe we were originally intended for.4 Regardless of your stance on Christian ideas of how pain entered our world, I think we can all agree that even with all the advances we make in science, technology, medicine, etc. life is not fully what it should be. We each experience pain and suffering (and ultimately death), and deep in our gut we sense that this is wrong–that it’s unnatural.

So what do we do then with these particular places of pain and disappointment (of being misunderstood and misunderstanding others)? There are a lot of common things that we tend to do here: get angry/frustrated (at others or our self); work harder to try to “make” others understand us (or to “make” our self understand another); feel ashamed, devalued, etc. (for not being fully understood, or for not fully understanding another). I’d like to propose two alternative responses (and the second one requires the first): grieving and laughter.

When we are misunderstood it is disappointing, and to the degree which we experience that disappointment we must engage those uncomfortable feelings (otherwise the feelings will fester and become toxic because ignoring them doesn’t make them go away, despite what we might wish sometimes). As we develop the muscles of being able to grieve the disappointment (and what at times can be intense pain) of being misunderstood (or misunderstanding another) there is a freedom and peace that grows within us. And as we develop our capacity for those emotions, that opens the door to the second item: genuine laughter.

Healthy laughter in the face of disappointment necessitates first engaging and grieving the underlying pain (otherwise the laughter just becomes a farcical distraction, attempting to “make” our self feel something we actually don’t, which in this context could feel a bit cruel toward one self). When we are honestly facing our pain about something that frees us up to enjoy whatever humor there might be in the situation. I should clarify that I don’t think that laughter always follows dealing with our pain of being misunderstood (or misunderstanding another). Healthy laughter is more likely to follow our processing the less intense (or severe) misunderstandings of life. There are things, however, that it will never feel congruent to find humor in, no matter how much we process our pain regarding them. And that is okay. However, there are also a lot of day-to-day misunderstandings which, once we’ve dealt with whatever pain we feel about them, can bring out a chuckle (or more!) from within us, as we engage the sometimes silliness of life and misunderstandings.5

Like many topics, this is one where there is much more that could be said. But it is the nature of communication that there be stopping (or pausing) points. It is partly this freedom to decide how much we communicate (both in sharing and in listening) with another which helps us to not feel trapped or stuck relationally (i.e., it is good for us to exercise our human autonomy, our right to decide when and how we engage with another). And it is at these stopping points that we are confronted with the risk–really we could say the guarantee–of being misunderstood and misunderstanding the other.

My mind goes back to the news experience that prompted me to think of writing this blog post. I was quoted in a news piece, and thankfully they were pretty faithful to the literal words I used. But the nature of that particular news item was such that there were a lot of other things I shared (with the news person) which provided much greater context to what I had said, and thus shaped the meaning in ways that are important to me. And so, in essence, I was probably misunderstood to varying degrees by all the people who saw that particular news item. And at the time my heart sighed a little at that thought, because I too do not like being misunderstood. But since I have much practice at facing my own pains in life, my heart also chuckled as I thought “Well, that went differently than I intended–C’est la vie!”6 And then I thought, “Perhaps I’ll write a blog post about this…”–and here we are. :)


  1. Note that it’s not necessarily that I’m misquoted (though that can happen too)–sometimes quotes of me are simply not given as much context as I wish, which can make it sound like I’m saying something more strongly than I am, or emphasizing something that is only a small piece of a larger thought process. 
  2. Comic Credit: (On the xkcd site the caption is hidden in the “tooltip” that appears when you hover your mouse over the image.)  
  3. Ideally we’re moving towards greater wholeness, but unfortunately we sometimes are moving towards greater stuckness. 
  4. i.e. I think that God meant for human beings to still learn, grow and develop, but in Christian theology the “Fall into Sin” brought pain and death into the human experience, thus making learning, growth and discovery into painful, scary processes. 
  5. Perhaps this is a part of what is meant by the Bible passage (Proverbs 31:25) about being able to laugh about the future? The idea being that when we are more at peace with our self, grounded in the experiential knowledge that we can face painful things, then the future becomes less of a threat and more of something we can move towards with confidence and joy. 
  6. “C’est la vie!” is French phrase meaning “That’s life!”, “Such is life!” or “It is what it is!”. 

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