Saturday, 25 January 2014

Probably my least favourite phrase in the whole world is...

... "I know exactly how you feel." (I wonder what you thought it was going to be when you read that title?!)

It's a phrase that I really don't like, because it simply can't ever be true, and yet people say it all the time. Sometimes they say it without thinking, just as a throwaway comment, a phrase which fills a gap in a conversation. Sometimes they say it because they want to jump into whatever it is that they're saying and make it about them instead (because, ultimately, most of us human beings are fairly self centred!). Sometimes they say it because they are genuinely sorry for you and don't know quite what the right thing is to say.

Often they say it for all the right reasons - because they care; because they're sympathetic; because they're sorry you're going through whatever it is; because words are never really enough, and because they want to say something that somehow conveys all of that.

I get all that - I understand that very often the words "I know exactly how you feel" are meant in a good way. And yet I still wish people wouldn't say them! Maybe it's just me. Maybe I need to forget the actual words, and the fact that (whatever the person intends) they're simply not ever true, and instead hear behind them the love which the person is trying to convey. And of course, most of the time, that's what I do. It's not as if every time someone says that sentence in my presence I immediately inform them that they do not, in actual fact, have the first idea (although, I have to be honest, I do *sometimes* do that!!).

Maybe when someone says that phrase to you, you're able to hear it how they may well have meant it - "I understand. You're not alone. I've been there." If so, great. The problem, though, is that that's not how I generally hear it - and I wonder whether others feel the same? (If not, this has just been a big diary splurge of a blog post. Feel free to ignore it and carry on with what you were doing before I interrupted...)

The problem, I think, is that this phrase, often intended to convey the sentiment of "I understand," in fact can convey quite the opposite. Because when someone says "I know exactly how you feel" what can be heard is something like this - "I've been there and I'm fine now so what are you moaning about?" or "It really wasn't as bad as all that. Stop making such a fuss." or "My experience was worse than yours. Let me tell you about it..."

Maybe that's a bit extreme. But you know what I mean. I think the phrase conveys an undermining of the feelings of the person who's speaking - which is a shame, because I'm sure that usually quite the opposite is what's meant.

And of course, the major problem with  "I know exactly how you feel" is that it isn't true. It can't be true. For instance - I've written a book on singleness. I'm a 35 year old female vicar who has always been single. But even if I were to come across another 35 year old female vicar who has always been single, I wouldn't know exactly how she felt. My life is different from her life. The way I experience the things that happen to me are different from the way she experiences the things that happen to her. Her hopes and dreams and fears and anxieties and insecurities are different from mine.

I might hope that saying "I know exactly how you feel" will make her see that I understand and empathise (and again, maybe it would for some people - but it doesn't for me, and I've heard enough people express frustration at hearing this phrase that I don't think I'm totally alone!).

I wonder, then, whether we might try a couple of other phrases out instead? Often I think we say things like this (or any of the other daft, well-meaning things we're all prone to say) because, in the face of someone else's pain or difficulty or upset, we don't know how to respond. We want to help, and to say the right thing, but we don't know what that is. How about "I'm so sorry, that's awful." or "That sounds really hard." or "I'm here for you whatever happens." Those all seem to me to work pretty well - and they have one major advantage over "I know exactly how you feel" - they can actually be true!

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