Why Saying "I Know How You Feel" Is the Least Supportive Thing You Can Say
"Yeah, I've been there before, I know how you feel"...
...was what a friend of mine wrote to me recently. We were in a back-and-forth text conversation when I opened up about some painful feelings I was processing.
As her reply popped up on my screen, my face flushed red with anger. I knew she meant well, after all, her heart is as big as a balloon. So why did her reply infuriate me so much?
I sat in deep thought for a moment and considered how this is such a common response. I also wondered how many times I've been guilty of responding this way myself.
And I realised my anger was for a number of reasons...
It shuts the person down
When you say "I know how you feel" it creates an assumption. It basically translates to, "I have already experienced this, I already know what you're feeling".
So we can't expect a friend or our partner to continue sharing their feelings if we tell them we already know what they're feeling.
When I read the message from my buddy, it felt like a door shut in my face. I no longer wanted to be vulnerable and express myself to her in that moment.
It also shifts the focus away from the person suffering
If someone has opened up to you, it's because they simply want to be heard. To then jump in and tell our story takes the attention away from our friend and shines the spotlight directly on us. It can also begin to feel like a competition of "who has it worse".
Of course there are times when we catch up with someone and the conversation is one of sharing and bonding. After all, it's how we connect and feel close to those around us. But as with most things in life, it's all about balance and using our best judgement for each unique situation.
"But I want them to know that they aren't alone..."
Watching someone suffer isn't easy. It's natural to want them to see that they aren't alone in all of this. And saying the old "I totally know how you feel" seems like a simple solution.
On the contrary, listening to a friend and letting them feel your complete presence is a beautiful way to reassure someone that they aren't alone.
So, what can I say instead?
The first thing you can say is actually nothing. Let your friend keep on talking and sharing for as long as they need. Of course, you can express sadness or even shock at what they're telling you, it would be a bit awkward to sit there in complete silence.
But once you can sense that your friend has said what they need to, here are a few things you can respond with:
- "Wow, you're really going through a lot right now!"
- "That sounds so tough."
- "I'm so sorry you're going through this, can I help in any way?"
- "Life can be so unfair, really."
- "You're such a great person, I'm so sorry that you're dealing with this."
And maybe at some point later in the conversation, it might be appropriate for you to tell them about something similar you went through. It's all about timing, context and using your sensitivity. Opening with "I know what you're going through is unique to you, but..." can be a gentle way to bring in your own perspective—but only if you really feel it could help.
As human beings, we're hard-wired to believe that the world revolves around us. This can be a good lesson in stepping back and realising that it isn't always so.
Everyone has their own unique story
Yes, perhaps you lost your father too, but was your friend's relationship with their father exactly the same as yours? Did he die in a different way?
No two lives are the same, so we can never truly know how someone else may be feeling. And the beauty is, we don't have to completely understand.
It's normal to want to relate, we're only human. Sometimes, being present and open is all that a friend needs. All pain is relative to our life experiences.
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© 2018 Violet Redfield