Symbolic interaction is a branch of sociology that looks at the way that we perceive objects and symbols in our world. We have rote understandings of categories and often our understanding of other humans is blind to anything that might threaten its foundations- and while this can blind us to bad things and we want to avoid this… it can also blind us to good things and this is equally not good. When we rely on our understanding of someone to explain their actions it can be an extremely limiting thing to do to someone even if your understanding is charitable. What you perceive as a mental health issue may not be what you think. Relying on understanding to avoid having to listen to people or pay attention to what they are doing versus saying sets us up for failure.
How many times have I run into people that have an entirely different understanding of someone I know than I do? Many many times. Sometimes I know this person well. Sometimes I don’t. More often I find that for myself, I have used ‘understanding’ someone to take the place of communication, boundaries and healthy relating.
If I do this, others may too and I’ve seen situations between people and myself and people and other people go down because something fundamentally changes their understanding of someone. How often has my mother told me to keep many parts of myself to myself for fear they be used against me? Often. How hard did I rail against this thinking that if I could just explain it right I could MAKE people understand me? Very. How many times have I used the words to describe my life and understood that the person I was hoping to understand me only understands what they can understand from their own life perspective and rarely more? … on some level? Almost always.
I can only speak to how I perceive the world.
I used to think that understanding was a necessary component of any relationship that a human could have. Subsequently I spent six years with someone who fundamentally could not understand me and refused to try for the painful work it might take them to do so. Instead we spent years using the same language to describe different things and feeling a false understanding that laid the foundations for a shit castle when it became clear that there would never be understanding on either part. That I would always feel trapped and they would always feel abandoned.
The work that was required for me to stay with them would have been entirely self serving, I was better off with them than without them. I would have been settling, to my own benefit. They are happier without me and I am a more whole person without them. Which is what I wanted regardless of how hard it has been.
I think we have the option to understand ourselves. Being open to outside perspectives that don’t fly with your own understanding and being able to reconcile them into a new understanding is fundamental and often lacking in humans. It is often extremely beneficial to avoid this hard work because the benefits of knowing ourselves intimately are so ephemeral and useful in all skills but unattributable as a specific skill.
But outside perspectives are externally based and almost always lack the necessary information to be fully rounded. Most external perspectives on my life at this point are “why can’t you just get a job and work hard at it and only it and see where that takes you?” and to fill them in on the reason why gives them a whole lot of other things I need to explain in order for them not to take the significant words (mental health, life stability, personal choices) and construct their own sentence about my life that isn’t exactly true.
I do think that strangers have one of the clearest views on us. I’m highly personally invested in this because I met a lady randomly in a vaguely rough area of town (we’d seen a dude get sucker punched and then kicked out the night before) and she told me I must be doing something wonderful with my life because just from the way I spoke I was so intelligent and my voice was so calming and that everything was going to be ok.
Super invested in that outside opinion.
But the reality is that I present well until stress comes and I create a lot of that myself because I’m unable to let go the flawed coping skills I learned as a child for dealing with a reality on two different fronts that not everyone had to deal with. I perceive reality quite differently from day to day and sussing out what’s in reality and what’s not is incredibly hard for me.
And as to outside opinions I feel I cannot trust them. People want to create a narrative of you they understand. Even if they don’t have all the facts… I had always prided myself on being explicit about the things about me so that people could form the right opinion.
But symbolic interaction (as a sociological thing which is still as close to religion as I get) is where humans can observe the same thing differently. Is a beer can on the side of the road a sign of irresponsible drinking or a sign of a good night out? Depends on the viewer. In this way I can tell people about my life and they won’t understand about my life…. they will understand my life based on their experiences of what I describe. NOT what I describe. I feel it’s rare that people will listen and attempt to reconcile what is described with what they think of first.
I now believe that the idea that we can understand others and understand symbols (anything, a thing, a concept, a house, a famous person, a piece of writing) in any objective single way is harmful to our society and our brains.
But I do believe that we can connect with people. And that connection isn’t based on understanding. For me connection is noticing the flavour someone adds to a room and loving it. Not all flavours of person are for all people but some are more palatable than others. Some flavours interact well and others do not.
I feel like the assumption that connection does not require understanding explains vague “i hate this person even though I don’t know them” feelings for people that cannot reconcile connection without understanding and the people who mistake understanding for connection.
And if that’s the beginnings of hated, it’s also the beginnings of love as we come to understand the people we are connected to.