How often do we hear or say those words, “I know how you feel” when speaking to someone about a life challenge they or we are currently dealing with? It could be the loss of a loved one, a job, a relationship or any number of life events. Used in the correct context those words can be a powerful emotional panacea. They can create a sense of connection and understanding when an individual realises someone understands their pain. It becomes a problem when used out of context or it is based on an assumption. Let me give an example. How often have you heard or even been involved in a conversation like this?
“Yeh, I am having a really tough time at the moment. I lost my job a few months ago and if I don’t find a new one soon I may not have anywhere to live”
“I know how you feel, they cut my overtime at work and I may have to sell one of my investment properties”
Or this classic:
“I am really sad because one of my closest friends died yesterday”
“I know how you feel, my dog died last year “
The second one is in no way meant to minimise the loss of a beloved pet, but it does highlight how assumptions can be made. Loss and grief can have varying degrees of intensity given an individual’s resilience and life situation. Losing a pet may well be as traumatic for some people as losing a close friend but to include it in a conversation with someone who is grieving the loss of a human being is, in my opinion, not helpful.
While the two examples are extreme, have we not all at some time been guilty of doing that to varying degrees. I know I have at times made inappropriate comparisons or assumptions about how someone is feeling or what a life event means for them. Case in point, many years ago a lady told me she was pregnant. My reaction was, “that is great news”. Turns out it wasn’t. Her and her husband were not ready financially or emotionally to have a child. I made an assumption about how she felt.
Looking back at that example and other similar interactions I have learnt albeit slowly, not to assume “I know how you feel” but to instead ask something like, “that’s big news, how are you feeling about it “. That gives the opportunity to find out exactly how they feel rather than assuming I already know.
So why is this important? It has been said that life is about relationships and I believe at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is people. Being able to engage with someone and truly understand them is not only powerful in enhancing connection but also great therapy for our own mental health. To be there for someone in spite of your own issues and to focus outward instead of inward can be very healing. I remember listening to a taped A.A recording quite a while ago where the speaker said “everyone tells you when you are emotionally unwell, get with your feelings, I say get with someone else’s feelings, yours will fall right into place”.
I know how it feels to grieve, to experience pain or loss as well as the myriad of emotions we all experience as human beings. I know how it affects me and what I think may be helpful. However, I don’t know how you feel, why don’t you tell me?
Wishing you all the best in your journey