Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Why It's So Easy to Feel Like No One Understands Us

... and why mutual reflection is vital for any relationship.

Key points

  • From the very beginning of our lives, we need another person to reflect back to us that they see us in all of our complexity.
  • We want to know that we can be loved even with our flaws, imperfections, and negative qualities.
  • Mirroring is mutual. The person who reflects to us also needs us to recognize them for their good qualities as well as their negative ones.

Margarita* started a recent session with a litany of complaints about her husband. “He doesn’t do anything around the house,” she said. “He expects me to work a full day at my job and then come home, make dinner, deal with the kids, and have sex with him. I know he works all day, and that he’s tired when he gets home. But really, what does he think I do all day? Lie on the couch and watch tv? I’m at work too.”

Richard* was deeply upset by the fact that his adolescent daughter was always mad at him. “We used to be so close,” he told me. “Now she’s always acting like I’m stupid. She doesn’t like anything about me—how I dress, how I talk, how I eat. I’m sad, but I’m angry, too. I don’t know what to do. I feel like just staying as far away from her as I can get. But I’m worried that she’s going to get into some kind of trouble, so I also feel like I have to keep an eye on her.”

Although there were several reasons for these difficulties, Margarita and Richard were both describing a theme that surfaces repeatedly in my work with individual clients and couples: we humans desperately want to be recognized as a whole, complex person with our own feelings, thoughts, and needs.

From the very beginning of our lives, we need another person to reflect back to us that they see us in all of our complexity and that they care about us, even with our flaws and limitations. Developmental research has shown that children learn to know who they are from the responses of the people who care for and about them. We are apparently wired to need others to mirror us and validate our feelings and thoughts.

Too often, however, we feel that people who are important to us—children, parents, colleagues and supervisors at work, intimate partners, and friends—only see part of us. When they focus on something negative, we start to feel inadequate or like a failure. If someone whose opinion is important to us sees us as bad, we end up feeling like we are bad, and frequently we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove to them—and ourselves—that we are good.

Richard, for example, needed his daughter to let him know that he was a good dad. But she was at a stage of life when she needed him to let her be angry with him and still see her as a good daughter. Neither of them liked the self that was reflected back by the other person, which hurt their feelings and made them angry.

When someone we care about sees us as nothing but an extension of themselves, whose job is to serve their needs, we may spend much of our time trying to please them. At the same time, we also often try, sometimes unsuccessfully, to prove to them that we have needs and feelings of our own. This is part of what was going on with Margarita and her husband.

The thing about this need for acceptance of our whole selves, good and bad, is that it’s a two-way street. At the very same time that someone is doing this for us, we are often also doing it for them. Psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Heinz Kohut called this interaction “mirroring,” by which they meant that we learn to know ourselves based on the reflection of ourselves in the face, actions, and reactions of the people around us. Attachment theorists and researchers found that mutual mirroring goes on between parents and infants from the very beginning of a baby's life.

When a couple comes for therapy, the first thing they want to talk about is the negative or critical feelings they have for each other. While I listen and try to understand what they are unhappy about, I also look and listen to see if they are at all able to acknowledge one another’s positive qualities. Being able to comment on things they appreciate about one another even when they're angry at each other is often a good sign for the relationship.

When I’m working with someone individually, I want to know what ways they get mirrored by others, and what ways they reflect what they think about these same people.

Often, just starting to think about how you are mirroring another person can start to change how they mirror you. That’s what happened with Richard and his daughter. After one particularly obvious eye-roll, Richard said, “Hey, sweetie, I get it that you’re pissed at me for a lot of different reasons. I’m sorry I’m so frustrating. But I want you to know two things. First, most important, I think you're an amazing person, and I love you even when you’re angry and frustrated with me. But second, I want you also to know that I have feelings. And sometimes, even though you are upset with me, I would appreciate it if you’d just let me know that you love me too.”

His daughter burst into tears and threw her arms around him. “I do love you, Dad,” she said. And then she laughed. “Even though you embarrass me all the time.”

Not everyone responds quite so quickly or so well. When Margarita told her husband that she saw that he was frustrated with her, he just nodded and kept playing with their children. But she hung in there, trying to find ways to communicate that she noticed how tired he was, or that he needed her to respond to him in certain ways. Her husband was much more of a doer than a talker, so she was pleased when he quietly started setting the table before dinner. A little at a time, she began to feel seen by him. “Even sex has changed,” she said. “He’s a lot more attentive to my body than ever before. He still doesn’t talk about anything. But I feel like he sees me as a whole person, not just his servant.”

Recognizing that mutual reflection is part of every relationship can lead to significant change in your feelings about yourself and about another person.

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.

Copyright @fdbarth2023.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Alejandro J. Vivas/Shutterstock


Heinz Kohut (1984). How Does Analysis Cure? Ed. Arnold Goldberg with Paul E. Stepansky. University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

D.W. Winnicott (1965). Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (London: Hogarth Press)

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today
More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today