Why Saying 'I Know How You Feel' Isn't as Helpful as It Seems
When a friend is going through a difficult time, empathy can be a powerful tool for healing.
You might think that telling them you know how they feel would be the caring thing, putting them at ease and letting them know they have a friend, when in reality, the statement can do the opposite. But why? Keep reading to find out why simply being there for them, listening and lending your support can do a lot more good than saying "I know how you feel."
It Diminishes Their Pain
When someone is struggling with a tough situation, the last thing they want to hear is that the pain they're feeling isn't so bad, or that others have felt the same way in the past. While intended to cheer them up, the statement will only make them feel worse—especially if they start feeling like they should have a better handle on their emotions. It doesn't allow them to properly feel and work through their most difficult emotions, stunting their progress through the stages of grief. Plus, if someone has lost someone or something special to them, it robs them of the uniqueness of their relationship when you tell them what they feel is not unique, because you've experienced it already.
It Makes Their Loss About You
"I know how you feel," might sound like an empathetic statement on the surface, but it actually takes the focus away from the grieving person when they need that care and attention most and puts the focus on you. By offering up the opportunity to discuss your "similar" situation, you're making it all about yourself. To someone who's in pain, this might feel like you're devaluing the grief around their own situation, when it's the most crucial thing in the world to them at that moment.
Even if you went through a situation that's practically identical to the one your friend is facing, it's important to remember that everyone is different and the way people react in the face of different challenges is never the same. Maybe they're struggling with a part of their experience that you never considered, while they're doing okay with something that kept you down for weeks. Any number of small things might be making their situation harder, or just different, than yours, and their path to getting back to normal might not resemble yours in the slightest.
It Makes Challenges Even Worse
Even when the words themselves don't hurt someone, they can still give rise to problems. When you give someone the impression you know exactly how they feel, they expect a certain amount of empathy from you. They might think you understand precisely what they need to heal and move on, and when you can't give that to them, they might feel betrayed or abandoned. If you know how they feel, why did you fail to do everything you could to make them feel better? Instead, don't assume anything. Ask what the person needs. Even if they don't know for themself, you can work from there to figure it out together and help them heal.
You Don't Know How They Feel
Even if you did somehow go through the exact same experience as someone else, you still wouldn't know exactly how someone feels because that's not how pain works. Emotional wounds heal with time, and even if the situation is still challenging to you, your memory of what you felt is never going to compare with the fresh reality that your friend is currently going through in the moment. The hurt you can recall is just a fraction of what it feels like in real time, so don't presume you know anything about their feelings.
Trying to help a friend cope with a loss? Click HERE for an expert breakdown on the five stages of grieving.