“I know exactly how you feel.”
Have you ever said that to someone to help them feel better? If someone has ever said that to you, did it make YOU feel better? Or did it make you feel like you didn’t have a right to be miserable?
When people say “I know exactly how you feel” it is with the best of intentions. Someone is hurting. They are sad, fighting despair, dealing with sorrow. You want to offer them words of encouragement and let them know that all is not lost. So you say, “I know exactly how you feel.” But sometimes that is the last thing you should say to them. And I’ll tell you why.
First, pain has a purpose. It hurts, but that’s why it is called pain. Someday they will need to hear, “There is nothing new under the sun. You are not unique.” But today all they know is their own sorrow or sadness. They must figure out a way to emerge from under their cloud and move forward with their lives. That takes time and anything that sends the message “You’re not as bad off as you think,” even if spoken with good intentions, should be avoided.
Second, it might have the opposite effect of what you intend. Instead of providing comfort, it may actually devalue their own pain. You mean to say “Your pain is real and I can empathize with you.” But what they might hear is more like “Why are you wallowing in your own mess? The same thing happened to me and I’m fine.” You might think that they won’t hear a message that you have no intention of sending, but you cannot assume that they are thinking clearly at this point in their lives. What they need to hear is “You have a good reason to be so miserable and I want to help.” What they don’t want or need is anything that to them sounds like, “Suck it up!”
Third, you really DON’T know exactly how anyone else feels. Maybe the best you can do is to say something like, “I won’t presume to tell you how you feel, but I have gone through something similar. And here is how it made me feel ….” Pay attention to them as you speak and look for indications that they can identify with your feelings about your own despair or rejection or sorrow. They might nod or look thoughtful or pensive. But let them be the one to tell you that you really do have an idea about how they feel. Once they draw their own conclusions that there are others who have experienced bad things and have emerged intact, then they can draw strength to carry on. And that really is helpful.
Fourth, people who are hurting often need someone to listen to them. It validates them and tells them that they are worth listening to. You can’t listen very well if you are busy launching into a monologue about your own life. When you listen to someone who is hurting, you are demonstrating to them that their pain is authentic and they are doing nothing wrong to feel as they do. You are telling them without words that they are worth something. As you listen, you can decide if offering advice is helpful, or if it is best just to be empathetic and keep listening. Some problems cannot be fixed. But if you are there to journey with them, you have helped immeasurably. Sometimes just being present and interested is enough.
So the next time you are tempted to say “I know exactly how you feel,” don’t. The message you really want to convey is “I care about you and I am here to help.”
– Guest Post by Mike Goethe. Mike is a husband, dad, and grandad who leads the Barnabas initiative for our church. The Barnabas Initiative connects young couples into mentoring relationships designed to strengthen and encourage them on life’s journey.