No, You Don’t Know How I Feel

You don't truly know how others feel.

“Look…I know how you feel, I’ve been there before!”

Wrong. The above statement is inaccurate 99.99% of the time.

That was pretty judgmental of me to say, right? Let me elaborate for a couple of minutes.

The part about “being there before” may be totally true. Imagine you’re going through an ugly breakup or divorce. Your friend, Jack, went through his own ugly divorce a year ago. You can make a plausible argument here that Jack has been where you’re at right now.

Your other friend, Michelle, is going through a bad breakup of her own. As it turns out, her boyfriend is hooking up with your soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend! Now it’s almost like the two of you are sharing the same experience together! 😲

But here’s where things deviate…

Everyone’s interpretation is unique

Although you consider Michelle your friend, you feel she hadn’t been all that emotionally available to her boyfriend, Ray. Michelle, on the other hand, believes that Ray had had his eyes on your girlfriend, Christine, for ages.

Ray sleeps with Christine. This is an event.

You feel like Michelle had this coming to her after months of not being fully engaged with Ray.

Michelle is blaming Ray for being unfaithful and seeking an intimate connection with Christine.

Ray sleeps with Christine. Remember, this is an event.

Your opinion of Michelle, and Michelle’s opinion of Ray are based on how you both view the event. How you view the event is your interpretation.

You have your interpretation, and Michelle has hers. They’re clearly different, yet the event is the same.

This is the first reason why it’s nearly impossible to accurately tell someone that “you know how they feel.” Although you may have lived through similar events, your interpretations of those events are almost certainly very different.

But there’s another key layer of nuance that further divides people who’ve shared similar experiences.

Responses to interpretations are also unique

You’re driving along a rural highway with your buddy, Ralph, when you notice a smoking car pulled off to the shoulder a few hundred meters ahead. You both realize the same thing: whoever’s in the car may be in trouble!

Here you have a shared event with a similar interpretation between two people. Seeing as how the road is pretty quiet, there’s a good chance you’re the first passing car to see this accident. You’re at the wheel and decide to pull off the road and see if you can help. Ralph, your passenger, agrees with the move.

Same shared event. Very similar interpretation. Here’s the twist…

You pull off quickly, jump out of your car and run up the highway shoulder to see if everyone’s OK. You hope no one is stuck in the smoking vehicle. As you approach the car, you realize that Ralph isn’t with you. You look back at the car…Ralph’s still in his seat!

He froze. Although Ralph shared your viewpoint that action needed to be taken, a primitive fear of fire caught him at the point of decision, and kept him stuck in the car.

What’s happened here?

Although you’re both thinking the same thing, your feelings about the situation are different.

You feel a sense of urgency to act (and do so), while Ralph feels a sense of fear and doesn’t move.

Same event. Similar interpretations. Different feelings. Different actions.

So many options

This is why it’s virtually impossible to live the exact same experience in the exact same way as someone else. From one event comes countless combinations of interpretations and emotions. And this is what makes our experiences in life so unique to us.

What you can say instead

If you’re willing to play along with me and accept the idea that the phrase “I know how you feel” is untrue, then it makes sense to look at what might be true. Here are some statements that are probably a lot more accurate, and hopefully just as empathetic:

  • I can imagine how you feel.
  • I’ve lived through a similar experience, and remember how it felt for me.
  • I can appreciate what you might be feeling right now.
  • It makes sense that you feel sad/upset/angry/guilty/anxious right now, given what you’ve just said.

That final line is a validating statement. I’ll expand on this in a future post, but demonstrating your acceptance for how someone feels is a powerful way for them to feel heard and understood.

Throughout the post, I’ve argued that you can’t truly know how another person is feeling. If empathizing with someone is your goal, however, you don’t have to know their feelings to a T. By simply imagining yourself in their shoes, you can begin to authentically show that you care about them and where they’re at.

At the end of the day, isn’t that your real goal?

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2 thoughts on “No, You Don’t Know How I Feel

  1. Thanks, Mike, for this insight. Too often when we hear of another’s trouble, we “empathize” (I.e. “I know how you feel.”) and then take advantage of the opportunity to talk about ourself. We need to listen more, ask questions (eg. Help me understand how you are feeling.”), talk less. Another appropriate response could be, “I’m so sorry to have to deal with this.”.

    1. Thanks for reading, Angela! Absolutely, bringing the focus to yourself can be a big trap to fall into when empathizing. Personally, I’m always on the lookout to make sure I’m not being sympathetic when I mean to be empathetic. Just found this Brené Brown video that explains this so much better than I can in words:

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