When People Say “I Know How You Feel”

· March 15, 2019
When you say "I know how you feel" to someone who is suffering, you might be invalidating their feelings. After all, you can never truly know what another person is going through.

When someone tells you “I know how you feel,” it might seem like a nice, empathetic gesture. However, from a psychological point of view, it’s not always the best choice. The truth is that you can’t fully understand what another person is going through. Consequently, it’s always better just to listen and let them know they have your support.

One of the reasons why this response is problematic is because you often don’t even know or understand exactly what it is you’re feeling. So when someone almost casually throws out that they know exactly what you’re going through, it’s not really appropriate. Most people aren’t therapists nor psychology experts.

You’re most likely to experience this with those who are closest to you. Parents use this phrase all the time to talk to their kidsTelling a child “I know how you feel” often gets in the way of them telling you exactly what they’re going through in their own words.

You should never forget that every human being is unique and lives in their own universe. Their universe might be chaotic, with planets hurtling every which way and small black holes that no one else can see.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

-Bernard Baruch-

When people say “I know how you feel,” they often don’t

Most of us fall into the bad habit of assuming things instead of actually asking. We do that because it requires less cognitive effort and helps us save time. It’s much easier to assume you know something based on the information you already have.

For example, let’s say a coworker tells you that she had a bad day with her partner. You’re probably inclined to say “I know just how you feel.” That makes you feel like you’re being empathetic and connecting with your coworker. But you actually aren’t. We tend to forget that another person’s emotional framework will never be the same as our own. 

What’s more, in these kinds of situations, saying “I know how you feel” isn’t actually very empathetic. Instead of acknowledging the other person’s feelings and validating them, you’re just validating your own. And that isn’t very helpful.

We’re naturally inclined to connect with others, but we don’t always know how to

During their research for a University of Virginia study, Drs. Lane Beckes and James A. Coan discovered something very interesting. The human brain has a series of neural patterns exclusively dedicated to making connections with other people. We often have such a strong connection with others that we can actually feel their suffering.

That being said, feeling what the other person feels doesn’t always allow us to fully comprehend someone else’s reality. A mother can suffer for her child without knowing what’s happening to them. A friend can feel your pain without understanding exactly what you’re going through. That’s why it’s so important to know how to connect in an appropriate and respectful way.

A brain lit up with blue light saying "I know how you feel."

What’s the best way to connect with someone who’s having a hard time?

Whether it’s a child, a teenager, your best friend, or a stranger, try to avoid resorting to “I know how you feel.” In fact, you shouldn’t assume that two people who are going through the same situation are necessarily experiencing the same emotions.

Here’s an example. Drs. Klaus R. Scherer and Agnes Moors from the University of Geneva did an interesting experiment. They asked 3000 adults the same question: how would you feel if you heard two friends talking bad about you?

Surprisingly, researchers identified up to 14 different types of emotional responses to that prompt. Some people said they would be angry. Others would be embarrassed and disappointed. Some felt guilty, others said they would feel lonely, and some even said they would feel indifferent because anyone who would talk behind their backs simply couldn’t be a friend anymore.

Given the wide range of possible emotional responses to this simple scenario, “I know how you feel” seems less and less appropriate. But what other kinds of responses are there? Well, the most important thing is to know how to really listen. Then, remember that certain phrases and words can make the other person put up walls.

  • Avoid saying things such as “That’s nothing,” “I’ve been there, you’re overreacting,” “This always happens to you,” “You need to focus on something else,” etc.
  • Instead of saying “I know how you feel,” say “Tell me how you feel.”
  • It isn’t always easy to express what you’re feeling. Emotions are complex and chaotic. Accepting them and translating them takes time. So, what someone really needs when they’re dealing with all these emotions is support and security.
Two hands touching each other.

Sometimes, a simple “I’m here for you” is the best response. At the end of the day, the goal is to be present and available. You want to create a feeling of safety and intimacy where nothing is assumed and no one is passing judgment on anyone else or anyone’s feelings.