Anatomy of a Misunderstanding

“I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen.  I am COMPLETELY misunderstood.  And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”

The above quote is my sister’s response to an email I sent to my family when I first entered therapy back in 2010. I became interested in the insights from therapy models (like the DBT Skills Group I was enrolled in at the time). I applied these skills daily and found them very beneficial. I also was fascinated by the results of some MBTI assessments of myself and immediate family members. It presented an honest reflection of everyone’s temperaments, and was useful in understanding areas of miscommunication in our relationships. With this in mind, I reflected on these results in order to gain perspective on unresolved misunderstandings. At some point during all this I wrote an email describing my insights to my parents and sister. The following is a quote which produced the above response:


Missing Pieces & Triggers

65681With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight it’s clear that our misunderstandings were never what they “appeared to be” about.  Instead, they reflected something much deeper. This email reflects an attempt to examine “missing pieces”, (i.e. holes) in my own self-understanding.  As I have since learned, missing pieces are shame-based minefields of insight regarding how we are in relation to others.  They reflect our unwanted identities.  For this reason, addressing “missing pieces” is a bit of a double-edged sword. While facing the full truth of our life story empowers us with a unique and transformative self-understanding – it also forces you to face the unresolved hurts that come with it.  I guess what I failed to realize is my sister wasn’t as prepared to handle these honest realities as I had been.  I am at fault for failing to get this fact.

For both of us, underlying this misunderstanding are temperament-based coping mechanisms. Her methods of coping in childhood produced missing pieces that were reflected of the personal narrative I created in childhood. In other words, I lived in a reality that reflected those things she overlooked and ignored.  They pertained to hurtful pieces of information regarding who she was in relation to others.  Additionally, in a mirror-like fashion, her childhood narrative was rich with trigger-producing elements I hated to face, but needed to understand for the sake of personal growth.  Her perspectives on our childhood experiences have forced me to acknowledge those missing pieces in my own understanding.   It is for this reason, that I often marvel at how divergent our perspectives are on various childhood events.  How is it we could have experienced the same thing and yet each interpreted things so differently?  I have since come to the conclusion that there is much we can learn from one another. Allow me to explain…

“Dorene is afraid to open up to me because I’m unable to take criticism….”

“It seems as though all I’ve managed to do is cause you more hurt. I believe that the loving thing to do is to step back and give you space. I don’t feel it is a good idea to continue our relationship in the same way.. The truth is, the only way I can see of interacting with you without hurting you is to simply sit and passively listen until you are done sharing. That’s not a relationship.” – Dorene

This quote was pulled from an email my sister sent me a few years after I sent the above email. In the interim between these two exchanges we struggled – and mostly faltered – in our interactions. In fact, I now realize there are times in which her assessment of matters is correct.

Relationships require us to accept people as they are and not expect them to change to suit your needs. I failed to understand this and was wrong to expect what she was unwilling to give. As a pragmatic individual she is very direct states things as she sees them. As she had also admitted in this email, “I cannot be the source of validation for you. I will fail.” While I will touch upon this in greater length at a later point, I feel it is worthy of mention here. Interacting with my sister means taking things as she intends them, brushing aside misunderstandings, and clarifying my perspective only when absolutely necessary.  There are many respects in which her words provide useful insight into my own traumas and their pervasive effect over my entire life, ((More on this later)).

For now, I wish to make it clear that my goal is to utilize a “wise-mind” as described by D.B.T.  Wise-mindedness is a “decision-making process that balances the reasoning of your thoughts with the needs of your emotions”. (McKay, et al. 2010, p. 75). It is for this reason, I’m using this post to sort out and clarify my role in our past misunderstandings. I’m trying to remain diplomatic and am wary of the usage of sentences that include “buts” – since this conjunction creates a comparison out of two connected statements. For this reason a “but statement” implies an inherent oppositional negation of everything which lies before it.  Instead, I feel comfortable saying that my sister states things as I see them, and I have difficulty coping when verifiable proof is present that I still have “missing pieces” to resolve.   In this respect, the resulting emotions are evidence of an unresolved trauma and not the immediate event.  It appears that “claiming ownership of my story” is a lifelong struggle and not “end goal”.  It is my hope that I can learn to let go of what isn’t offered, and instead focus on myself.

I’m afraid to open up to her because she represents what I try to avoid – the potential judgments of others.”

“I have been afraid to open up to her because Dorene has represented for me through our childhood, everything that I’ve rebelled against.  She was convention and I was nonconformity.” – Kathleen.

I believe it is this statement in my initial email that yielded my sisters response:  “I am extremely hurt by this labeling Kathleen. I am COMPLETELY misunderstood. And I don’t think there is anything that I can do about it”. Naturally, hindsight is 20/20. There are some things better left unsaid.  We were both guilty of making statements that appeared neutral at the time, but brought up old hurts in the other. Sometimes there are truths that slap us in the face and cause a full-on rush of emotions, once a specific comment is brought to the forefront in a conversation. At the time this email was written (over 5 years ago), there was much I didn’t know about PTSD, and it’s pervasive effects. Its surprising how much the symptomatology associated with this issue became “my normal”. I didn’t know anything else. It is for this reason I had difficulty explaining what I was experiencing and the needs that result from this. In her latest book, “Rising Strong”, Brene Brown describes chandeliering as exquisite and unbearable pain:

“[Chandeliering is] used to describe the kind of pain that somebody can’t hide even if they’re trying their best to be stoic…chandelier pain…hurts so much to the touch that people jump as high as a chandelier…one of the outcomes of attempting to ignore emotional pain is chandeliering. We think we’ve packed the hurt so far down that it can’t possibly resurface, yet all of a sudden, a seemingly innocuous comment sends us into a rage or crying fit. (Brown, 2015, p. 60).

Time and time again, my interactions with my family have yielded emotive chandeliering.  Throughout the course of our get-togethers with my family of origin, events and/or comments would trigger a huge unresolved well of emotions. The comment might be something seemingly innocuous, regarding my childhood, yet it would produce a well of anxiety and pain I could not dissociate or numb my way thru. At the core of these comments was a realization of the extent of my family’s emotional absence.  Unaware of my childhood experiences due to an emotional absence they can only conceive of these events according to their own memory of things.  What’s more, since the “majority rules” notion is in effect, I’m understood to be the one who has the misunderstanding – not them.

What I’m sure they still do not realize is, the problem wasn’t what was said, but their inability to acknowledge my feelings.   The response, “I didn’t mean it that way” always came up.  Family events, where I had to “fake normal” also became a struggle, since my unique history made this impossible.  In the end, during this difficult time, my therapist warned me things get worse before they get better. (If you’re wondering, things are much better now). However, this time was a crazy-making experience.  I endured much exquisite chandelier pain in my interactions with them.  Their responses to my feelings mirrored experiences of childhood bullying and an emotionally abusive relationship. In both cases, when I was hurting, their reaction was either ignore me or utilize those “but” statements to indicate I implicity caused my own pain.  This was too much to bear with family. While not intentional, it was still exquisitely painful.  What follows is an email I sent to my family which summarizes my feelings during this time period:


and the plot thickens….


With the above as the relational backdrop, I’d like to share how the misunderstanding referenced in these emails came to a conclusion. Things quickly got ugly for me when my mother sent me an email that included the above quote. I felt an immediate rush of anger at the fact that my mother required an apology from me when it seemed we were both saying things “that weren’t meant”. In my response to my mother’s request for an apology, I responded in email by describing events just prior to this whole exchange.  Interestingly enough, a similar “misunderstanding” came up between Dorene and I during Josiah’s B-Day just prior to this series of email exchanges. It was as a result of similar innocent comment – like the one in my email.  I was talking about the childhood bullying Josiah was going thru and how it reminded me of my own experiences. I shared my concerns since it triggered some old unresolved hurts and I was having difficulty coping.  Trying to get through my day meant attempting to keep chandelier emotions at bay. When I shared this, Dorene said what she felt was an innocent reflective observation – and mentioned how what happened was a byproduct of my own doing.  Stating, that I chose to be a victim, she believed I could have made more efforts to make friends.   In sum “I just needed to get over it.”  Mind you – like my email – it was intended as a casual observation regarding events in our childhood. This comment – while not intentionally hurtful, lacked compassion. What’s more, my emotions were glossed over, leaving me with the triggery blow of unacknowledge hurts to work thru as the evening dragged on.

As the day progressed I tried to shake it off. I tried to enjoy Josiah’s birthday – (and did for the most part). However, my emotions became overwhelming in the final hours of our get-together. My husband pulled me aside and asked me what was wrong.  As the pain kept building up, I reached a point where I could no longer ignore my feelings.  I quietly bawled like a baby with him for 30 minutes before returning to enjoy the ongoing festivities. Concerned, Kelly told me I should talk to my parents – because he thought it would be a good way for them to understand where I’m coming from. I then talked with them about it, simply to help them understand my hurt – and the nature of it.  They listened quietly and attentively, but chose to “stay out of it”.  No need for apology from my sister arose in the conversation.  With this in mind, what follows is an excerpt of my email response to my mother’s request for apology:

“You see I’ve buried it so deep, I’m not sure the family knows the extent of it. I’m also able to hide it from myself – so I’m assure I’m not aware of the extent of it either. Nonetheless, while hiding it from you guys, causes less drama – it hurts me. I need to get beyond it and heal it. This means speak my truth, owning it, and understanding how I created it that way.”

Now What???

Sometimes misunderstandings must be managed if they cannot be resolved. This series of events is reflective of an ongoing dynamic in my family of origin which I’ve learned to manage, (so it doesn’t drive me crazy). You see, these events aren’t just about a series of incidental occurrences.  Underlying these occurrences are repetitive patterns set at auto replay. By asking me to apologize for a comment made in an email, my mother is expressing acknowledgement of Dorene’s feelings. By responding to my own hurt feelings with a “just get over it” sentiment, I am left feeling like my emotions don’t matter.  This response of “get over it” implies a negative judgment of my feelings – as unworthy of compassion.  Jumping to my sisters aid when our misunderstandings cause her hurt feelings pains me to see.  Why is it I get the stoic and observational approach that expresses a desire to “stay out of it” – at those moments I needed them most???

By asking me to apologize to my sister in this email, I felt like I was asked to respect her perceptions of reality, when she was unwilling to do the same.   Keep in mind underlying these hurts are missing pieces we both need to resolve in order to achieve clarity.  In this respect, both perceived narratives of childhood events warrant examination. What’s so frustrating about repetitive experiences like these woven thru the familial dynamics, are the baggage they leave me with.  When my emotions are treated with a stoicism and implicit assertion that “no one can truly understand anyone else’s feelings” this really stings.  My other favorite is the family’s claim that “If valid means true, why should I acknowledge feelings based on misunderstanding (i.e. incorrect info)?”   Given the nature of the traumas woven throughout my childhood, listening with an intent to understand and provide a compassionate ear is essential.  I can only interpret refusal to do so as matters of unwillingness rather than incapability.  What follows is my final response to my mother’s request for apology:

“SHOULD I HAVE APOLOGIZED? if it means being made to feel I’m denying my reality – NO!!!. Sadly, I hate to say it but since you are all very ignorantly unaware of my reality that’s how the apology feels – to me.”


Brown, B. (2015).  Rising strong.  Random House:  New York.
McKay, M., Wood, J., & Brantley, J. (2007).  The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook: Practical DBT exercises for learning mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation & distress tolerance. New Harbinger: Oakland, CA.

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