How To Use Misundestandings As Opportunities For Growth

Solving the puzzle of misunderstanding can replace incremental growth with expontial growth.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | November 10, 2023

We've all experienced those moments when we desperately want to be understood. It's human nature to seek connection, empathy and validation from those around us. Yet, in our pursuit of understanding, have we overlooked the paradoxical power of being misunderstood? A conversation with Marie-Catherine Mignault, a researcher in organizational behavior at Cornell University, uncovered an intriguing perspective on the dynamics of emotional understanding.

Mignault's study highlights the significance of emotional understanding in relationships. She emphasizes that feeling understood by someone is a powerful force that fosters trust, connection and emotional support. "When you feel understood by someone, you feel that this person 'gets' you in some fundamental way," Mignault notes. "It's a comforting feeling, and it's a crucial element in building healthy and fulfilling relationships."

Misunderstanding As A Catalyst

While feeling understood is always desired, being misunderstood is an opportunity that can lead to personal growth and creativity. It's a paradoxical idea, yet history is replete with examples of individuals who found their uniqueness and creativity in moments of profound misunderstanding.

When we're misunderstood, we're pushed out of our comfort zones and forced to confront our own uniqueness. In the words of Mignault, "We feel understood when others view how our emotions are normal and even desirable." The paradox lies in the tension created by being misunderstood. Mignault's research raises an intriguing question: Could embracing this discomfort be a catalyst for personal transformation?

A study published in Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience highlights the various emotional responses that humans naturally feel in response to rejection and misunderstanding, including feelings of hurt, jealousy, loneliness, guilt, anxiety and sadness.

When life hands us the bitter fruit of misunderstanding, it's not just a moment of discomfort; it's an opportunity for transformation. The emotions that arise in response to being misunderstood serve as potent catalysts for personal growth:

  • Hurt feelings when our connections seem undervalued compel us to pause and reflect. It's a chance for us to improve our interactions, ensuring that our relationships are truly appreciated and nurtured.
  • Jealousy can be a powerful force for self-improvement. It motivates us to protect and safeguard our relationships, ensuring they remain strong and secure, especially when threatened by external forces.
  • Loneliness, while unsettling, serves as a catalyst for social re-engagement. It's a gentle nudge, reminding us to reach out to make new friends or reconnect with old ones. These connections, in turn, fuel our personal growth.
  • Guilt and shame, though uncomfortable, are potent catalysts for moral reflection. They make us ponder our actions, encouraging us to make amends and maintain the connections we cherish.
  • Social anxiety and embarrassment can act as drivers of personal improvement. They inspire us to make the best possible impressions and go the extra mile to be our finest selves.
  • Sadness can compel us to act. It prompts us to regain agency over our life and give other emotions like happiness, joy and curiosity a fair chance.

Consider a scenario in which you feel passionately about a new idea, but those around you don't quite "get it." As Mignault said on feeling misunderstood, "Perhaps this can provide a guide to the types of relationships to seek and invest in; ones in which others perceive your emotions with a softer, more positive outlook."

Misunderstanding doesn't have to be a setback, but can rather serve as a motivation to delve deeper into your own perspective and discover fresh insights and innovative solutions in the process.

Balancing Understanding And Misunderstanding

As Mignault explains, "We do believe that feeling understood does not happen in a vacuum; it must—at least on some level—be anchored in how we are actually understood by others." Achieving a harmonious coexistence between moments of understanding and misunderstanding can lead to a richer, more dynamic life.

In the grand scheme of things, emotional understanding and occasional misunderstanding are two sides of the same coin. Emotional understanding provides the foundation for trust and connection in our relationships. It helps us navigate the complexities of human interaction. But it's equally important to recognize the value of moments when we're misunderstood, acknowledging that gap that exists between ourselves and others, to better understand and hone our skills to bridge it.


The next time you find yourself in a situation where others don't quite understand you, consider the possibility that it might be a blessing in disguise. Embracing the paradox of misunderstanding fuel, and even propel, your journey of self-discovery. It challenges us to explore the depths of our uniqueness, navigate discomfort and emerge on the other side with a richer sense of self.

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