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Why Saying “I Know How You Feel” Can Do More Harm Than Good

If a kid comes home crying because she had a fight with her friend, a mother might try to assure her that she’s not alone by saying, “I know how horrible you feel, I had a fight with my own friend once too.” If Rachel tells her best friend Monica that she just got fired, Monica might say, “I know you feel sad, I’ve gotten laid off before too. But look at me now, I have a great job.” But by saying that you understand exactly what they’re going through can sometimes hurt more than it makes them feel better.

We at Bright Side delve into the reasons why we should be careful about saying that we know exactly what other people feel.

We don’t really know how they feel.

We might think we can relate to their situation, but the truth is, even if we have gone through something similar, there’s no way we know 100% how they feel. People experience things differently, and there could be some things that are unique to their situation.

We take the focus away from them.

When people tell us how they feel, they really just want to be heard. By saying “I know how you feel,” we’re likely to continue to talk about why we know what they’re going through. We’d give examples and therefore switch the focus to ourselves instead.

Turning the conversation to be about ourselves is one type of “conversational narcissism.” It comes from the desire to take over the conversation so you can do most of the talking and talk about yourself instead of listening. See the difference in these examples:

Hijacking the conversation

Friend: I’m so tired. I wish I could take a vacation.

Me: Ugh, me too. I haven’t gone on a vacation in like, forever!

Supporting the other person

Friend: I’m so tired. I wish I could take a vacation.

Me: Are you overworked? Maybe you should take a break.

We might sound more insensitive than we think.

Saying “I know how you feel” may come from a good place, we may simply want to show empathy. We may just want to let them know that their feelings are valid. But sometimes, it’s hard to empathize with other people’s suffering, especially when we’re not in the same boat at the same time.

One study found that when participants were exposed to the same unpleasant things, like maggots and stinkbugs, they could easily guess the emotions of their partners. But when they were exposed to pleasant things, like puppies, while their partners were exposed to unpleasant things, they thought their partner’s experience was less severe than it actually was.

Here is an example of how we could sound insensitive while trying to make our friend feel better:

Friend: I had a miscarriage. I don’t know how to deal with this.

Me: It’s okay, I know just how terrible it feels. I had a few miscarriages too. But today, I have 2 beautiful children.

What they need is a listener.

Silence can sometimes be golden. When people are telling us what they’re feeling, using body language, like hugging them, patting them on the back, or just nodding with our eyes looking at them can be enough. We could also try to gently get the story out of them so they know they have a trustworthy confidant to talk to. These gestures could be a thousand times better than telling them you understand their pain completely.

Has anyone ever said they know exactly what you’re going through? If yes, how did that make you feel? Have you yourself said to others that you get what they’re feeling? What was their reaction like?