Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

The Difference Between Knowing And Understanding


“I know what you are feeling.”

“I know what you are going through.”

“I know what it is like.”

A simple statement capable of setting of an emotional shitstorm of a reaction.  Of course the expression is meant to show someone care and empathy, but instead the result is usually inciting anger and resentment from the recipient.

“You have no idea what I am feeling!”

“You have no idea what I am going through!”

“You have no idea what it is like!”


No one, other than the individual involved can have any concept of what is going on can ever have any knowledge of what is happening at that particular time.  We can only see what we see, hear what we hear.  And the rest is up to perception.


Of course, we mean well when we try to extend out a hand, especially to someone who is going through a difficult time in their life.  But the misunderstandings that are created all because of the misuse of a simple phrase, “I know…” can leave hurt and devastation, often insurmountable to overcome.


But when we put a little more thought into our well-intended outreach, we show those that we are trying to support, not that we personally know their angst, but we let them know that we understand the problems that they are facing.  I will never be able to know what it is like to have been adopted and being the parent of two adopted children does not give me the ability to know their life experiences.  All that I can do is offer them understanding.

Even in an area that I consider myself well-versed in, the world of cancer, I will never claim to know what another cancer patient is going through because each person going through their own cancer struggle, is unique to their experience.  When I write stories, I never claim to know what every other cancer survivor experiences, even those who have battled the cancer that I dealt with, Hodgkin’s Lyphoma.  Every case is unique.


And the same goes when it comes to marriage.  I will never claim to know everything about marriage.  I cannot.  My first two marriages, and there will be no more, have only revealed that I entered into both with false expectations that did not seem like a big deal at the time.  But for the most part, I have left the dissolution of both of my marriages between myself and my exes private and between just the two of us.  No one will never know everything that I have been dealing with.

Why is it such a big deal to recognize a difference between “knowing” and “understanding?”  Because “knowing” is personal.  The only one who can truly “know” what is happening, or how it feels, is the one that is experiencing the event.  It is extremely personal and regardless if it is a happy event or tragedy, it is something that only the person experiencing the event can know what it is like.

When a person going through any event, good or bad, reaches out, they are looking for understanding from others.  It is not necessary for someone to hear how bad someone else’s experience was, when the one seeking support is looking for a way to deal with and get through such an event.  A person struggling is not looking to be told to be appreciative that their situation is not as bad as someone else’s situation.  Most often, all that is being sought, is just the ability to vent to someone who will understand what they are going through.

Understanding does not require the tongue to move.  Understanding provides support that is being sought.  “Knowing” implies that the recipient should expect a certain sequence of events which may or may never happen.  And if those events might cause even more trauma than what is currently being experienced, that is not support.  Expression of “knowing” is a form of narcissism.  And the person seeking support usually does not need any more issues placed upon them.

I am far from being a politically correct person, nor do I have a desire to be one, but this is one particular situation that I will agree that it is important to differentiate the difference between “knowing” what someone is going through, and “understanding” what someone is going through.  When someone reaches out, they are not looking to be made to feel worse, they just want to know that someone understands.

I am an adoptive parent.  I have no idea what it is like to be adopted.  I have an understanding of what my children have gone through, and what to expect.  But only each of my daughters will know themselves, and it will only be each of their own experiences.  And their experiences will be different from even the other children that they were adopted with.  They will only know their own experience, but will be able to understand what their travel mates have gone through, as well as anyone else that they meet.

I am a cancer survivor.  I know only what it took for me to get to this point in my life.  But I have an understanding of the struggles that others face from the disease itself, and the many societal issues that come from that battle.  My survival guilt will be different from others.  Everyone’s cancer experience is unique, even when it is the same cancer, same typing, same treatment, same side effects, and so on, the experience will still be unique.  I will never know what someone else is going through, or has gone through when it comes to cancer, but I will be able to understand.

I am an adult child of divorce (ACOD – great movie by the way dealing with issues of children having grown up in a split home).  My experience of having been a child of divorced parents will be different than what my children will experience.  I cannot know what they are going through, but I can definitely understand.

I am a father in the middle of his second divorce.  I do know that the proceedings of my second divorce are far different from my first divorce.  I know what led up to me filing for both.  But only one of my former spouses had any exposure to the procedure of divorce and that was through a sibling’s divorce.  The circumstances that led to both are not unique, one being children, the other money.  And while divorce is not something anyone plans to expect when getting married, is to divorce, the process itself for both, must be kept between the two individuals.  And that will be the difference between my two divorces.  If you look at both of my divorces processes they both began with an act between both of us.  The problem was between both the husband and the wife.  And when dealing with a divorce, it is when outsiders are allowed input, especially those who have no interest or business being involved in the process, and also have no idea the aftermath that occurs with a bitterly-directed revenge-guided divorce, that the whole reason for the divorce ends up not even being dealt with.  Only the two individuals who are involved will ever truly “know” what led to the divorce and how the divorce should end.

Do you understand?

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