A few lonely months back, I was having a conversation about how I shed friends like a snake sheds its skin. This reality is largely because I live in New York City, have no plans of leaving, and it seems like no one else I’m friends with in New York City shares my sense of geographic loyalty. As it stands, the majority of my top-tier friends have long left for other cities, and the ones who remain seem to always have half their attention on a one-way plane ticket to Los Angeles. And when I recently tried to express to a friend my sense of isolation as a product of what feels like a scattered social standing, her reply fell short because her attempt at words of empathy didn’t really land.
In response to me waxing poetic about people I love living thousands of miles away, she tried to relate with her personal situation: “I feel like even living 30 minutes south of the city has affected my friendships,” she said.
Yeah, that’s like…not the same.
Admittedly, this is a low-stakes example because it didn’t leave me feeling misunderstood in a dangerous way by any stretch of the imagination. But, it does highlight the reality that words of empathy have their limits. It’s a common knee-jerk reaction to try and share in other people’s pain by offering vignettes of what you perceive to be similar pain. But sometimes, a person’s experience is completely out of our realm of understanding. Bereavement specialist Virginia A. Simpson has previously cautioned me against using phrases like, “I know how you feel” to console a grieving loved one, since you never know how someone feels. Likewise, sometimes offering a casual “Yeah, I get that” can’t possibly cover the depth of communicating that you indeed do understand something.
“Although we often mean well when we make comments such as ‘I know how you’re feeling’ or ‘I totally get you,’ they can seem presumptive or even devoid of genuineness.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD
“Although we often mean well when we make comments such as ‘I know how you’re feeling’ or ‘I totally get you,’ they can seem presumptive or even devoid of genuineness,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “We can only hope to sincerely sympathize or, on a deeper level, empathize with another person’s experience.”
Are there less triggering words of empathy we can sub in for “I know how you’re feeling?”
To recognize what the person is going through, Dr. Manly says it’s both safe and comforting to rely on the senses. A few suggestions:
- “I can see that this is very hard on you.”
- “I hear how difficult this challenge is right now.”
- “Your sorrow/pain is palpable; I am here for you.”
- “That sounds so stressful (sad, and irritating,)”
“Comments such as the above allow the other person to know that we hear and see them,” Dr. Manly says. “In this way, we avoid making judgments or suppositions and simply voice what it is we see or hear—the person’s pain, grief, sorrow, angst—as a witness to the person’s experience.”
People usually just want to be seen and heard, and if they’re really hurting, they may not have the emotional energy to process what you’re going through. Yep, even if you’re only telling them about it to try and relate to them. “[The above examples] of expressing empathy ensures that the focus is on the person’s pain rather than on an experience we might have had,” she adds.
Does that mean that when a friend is hurting you should never, ever, ever share a similar personal experience? Of course not! Sometimes doing so can be a helpful frame for bolstering connectivity between two people and helping both feel less alone.
But before you do this, read the room and listen to what the person in question is actually saying. Because connectivity aside, you probably haven’t walked all the miles any single other person’s shoes.
Helping others is tricky territory; here’s how to care for a friend navigating a mental-health crisis without sacrificing your own wellness. And here, learn how to genuinely connect with other people.
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