‘Not getting it’ is something I’ve been aware of as long as I can remember, although I would not have articulated it like that when I was a child – it was more a felt sense that just didn’t feel very nice, a bit left out or like something was always just beyond my reach. This concept is a cousin to the now more commonly expressed FOMO. My experience as the youngest of a four of siblings, meant I was always playing catch up and one page behind everyone else. It was easy to fall prey to the humiliation of not quite getting what was being said and so in danger of saying the wrong thing. There’s a lot of pressure to be part of the group and ‘getting it’, is probably something we’re all familiar with from our earliest days in families and schooling. My experience of ‘getting it’ has often been in connection with relationship, however, I can also identify times when the ‘it’ might have been not getting something I wanted or not achieving/attaining something – maybe even an unexpressed dream.
In his book ‘Missing Out – in praise of an unlived life’ Adam Phillips encourages the reader to reflect on whether there can be any pleasure in ‘not getting it’? Whether we have to limit ourselves to thinking in terms of either ‘getting it’ or ‘not getting it’ and what life would be like if instead, we dropped the need to always try to ‘get it’ and to have our needs met. This sparked my curiosity and prompted me to reflect more about needs and meeting our needs.
When I work with clients, after they have explained a troubling situation, I will often ask them ‘what do you need?’. This could be something directly from me that I can offer in the session (many of my clients find it very hard to ask for something from someone else and the therapy relationship offers good experimentation ground to explore). Alternatively, it could be identifying a deeper longing that they haven’t given voice to before and are often unaware of. It’s not uncommon for clients (myself included) to habitually have no understanding of how someone else could meet their needs and in many ways even deny having needs. My experience of Nonviolent Communication (as developed by Marshall Rosenburg) and my own journey into deeper self-awareness has led to some profound moments of coming to understand what my needs are, feeling OK with having needs and seeing how someone else might fit in that picture. Previously I didn’t realise how powerful the unspoken messages of not being a burden and self-sufficiency were in my mental script.
As a consequence of my personal positive experience of articulating needs, I felt curiously challenged by Philips. He highlights Andre Green (a French psychoanalyst) who suggests that we can’t always risk recognising our needs because of the suffering that would entail; because truly recognising our needs would reveal us as conflicted and unacceptable to ourselves and that fundamentally we need to create a sense of ourselves that it bearable. For example, if I’m strong or capable I might be more acceptable to my caregivers and hence to myself. However, I think the real work lies in how to be OK with the bits that feel unacceptable. My personal journey and work with clients indicates it is an ongoing, moveable, challenging, rewarding, exciting and actually quite workable situation, at least it’s not fixed and rigid. I know that accepting the bits that felt most unacceptable has had the most profound effect on my self-concept.
Another advantage Philips highlights of not getting it is that keeps situations and our relationship to them more open. As soon as we ‘get’ something there is a tendency to close down, to think that’s it. However, often our lives and the concepts we are juggling with are far more complex than a binary ‘get it’ or ‘not get it’. This could also apply to our needs, what’s it like to sit with a feeling we need something, but not quite sure what?
That sense of closing down has happened sometimes when I have what feels like a deep insight into some aspect of my life. In that moment of deep insight, I can see with upmost clarity a direction or action to take, it’s like I completely ‘get it’. But what’s curious is a week later (or even later that day) that complete sense of having got something feels remote, like it happened to someone else! I think in many ways it does, that’s because we have so many aspects to ourselves that to reduce them to one ‘got it’ is too limiting – it doesn’t reflect my lived experience.
I also notice with my clients there can be a strong urge to really understand some aspect of themselves. I watch as clients knit their brows, they focus and concentrate, in fact it looks more akin to solving a sudoku problem than anything else. Clients will then even apologise for not being clear as they grapple on the edge of their awareness. It’s like they should ‘get it’ and there is an almost painful, shameful and elusive sense that if I could just get this and understand why I’m like that, then I could move on. But maybe that’s too restrictive and reduces possibility, complexity and so potential. Adams asks whether we can live with the courage of not getting it. In sessions I offer reassurance to my clients, that it’s those moments when it feels like there’s the most uncertainty in what’s being expressed, the greatest feeling of not ‘getting it’, that this is the most exciting time. It’s the moments when we experience not getting it and surprise ourselves that we get to re-write our scripts and stories. But as Philips suggests that takes courage!