When Understanding People Goes Too Far: A Relationship Survival Guide

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Carrie De Simas

Editor in Chief @ GoneWithTheWord

In our information obsessed society we are all hunters of information. We scour social media looking for the next great tip. We read books to lend insights into our business ventures and we look for cues to better understand the other people around us.   

The smartest of us will strive to find clues and insights into how to better interpret people’s behaviors and words so we can more safely and successfully maneuver our personal and business relationships.  

The expression is to not judge people until we have walked in their shoes. The word judgment means coming to a conclusion after evaluating the available information. So judgment, like understanding, is a form of belief in our insights into another person’s actions, words or motives.  

My father is a well-known therapist. He has often said that if you really understand a person you can never truly hate them. If his words are to be believed, understanding leads to sympathy or empathy or tolerance.  

So understanding is good. Right? 

Perhaps. But not necessarily. Though understanding why someone behaves the way he does is helpful, it can also be used as a powerful excuse for inaction. 

A girlfriend of mine was in an abusive relationship with her partner. The number of times I heard her say “It is because of his childhood that he behaves badly sometimes, so I can’t really blame him…” (These behaviors included screaming at her in public, humiliation tactics and excessive control over what she wore and said.) 

It is well and good to understand people but it doesn’t change the facts. A lamb may understand a wolf but it doesn’t mean that he believes he will be anything but lamb chops if he tries to get the wolf to face his cub history.  

So when does understanding go too far? When it holds you back. Nothing and no one should hinder you from a safe, healthy and happy life. 

If someone acts as a negative force in your life, you can understand her, you can feel empathy or pity or rage, but at the end of the day we are all adults with choices to make.  

This person may choose to remain stuck in victim or villain behavior but that is her choice. Yours is to choose whether or not this person offers enough good in your life to make it worth the energy suck that comes along with her negativity. This is true of personal and professional relationships.  

So what is the end measure of understanding? Take time to understand people. And even walk a mile in their shoes. But if they hold you back or keep you down use those shoes to run in the other direction.  

 

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