Why the Words, “I Know Exactly How You Feel,” Can Do More Harm Than Good

My brothers casket

When my 34-year-old brother died, an unknown middle-aged woman approached me at his viewing. She tenderly gave me a huge hug and with tears in her eyes, told me, “I know exactly how you feel sweetie.”

Immediately, my heartstrings were pulled. How sad for this stranger and that she had to go through the same pain as I was going through at the loss of her closest sibling. How sad that another soul had lost their life to cancer leaving behind a wife and four small children all under the age of 12. Oh, how very sad.

But what followed after her first spoken words, I️ wasn’t quite ready for.

For her words were immediately followed up with the story of how she recently lost her 92-year-old great-aunt Margie to cancer.

I listened to her story of loss, gave my condolences and then graciously aborted this well-intended conversation. Other than the cancer, I wasn’t sure how our two tragedies were even remotely the same.

Why were her words so hard to swallow?

What this woman unknowingly did, was invalidate my grief. I was grateful for her reaching out to me and even though I️ don’t agree with her choice of words, I️ appreciate the love that came behind them. I️ sincerely feel for this woman, for most deaths are difficult and I do not doubt that the death of her great-aunt was hard for her, but she made equivalent the loss of a 92 year-old-woman who had lead a long, fulfilling life here on this earth, to that of a young father who had just begun to start his journey. She compared a distant relative of hers, to that of my closest brother and friend.

Again, yes, she was well-intending, but man, oh man, how insensitive those words were.

My brother and I ~1984

Right then and there, I made a mental note when it comes to empathizing or sympathizing. I’ve gone through my fair share of trials in this life, but when it comes down to it, no two trials are the same. They are all as unique as the person that is experiencing them.

I know what it feels like to lose my brother. When he died, he took with him the heartbeat of our family unit. He was the guy that everyone thought was their best friend. He was the guy that fidgeted nonstop, always had crumbs in his bed, and taught me how to do a back-hand-spring in one long, devoted afternoon. He was my best friend.

Did you lose your brother too? Tell me about it, because I don’t know exactly what it feels like to lose your brother. Nor should I assume that I do, just because I lost my brother too. While there might be similar feelings and the grieving process might be alive inside us both, we’ll both experience it in different ways. We can be there for each other as an empathetic shoulder to cry on, but in no way, should either of us assume that our situations are the same.

Fast forward to the present day and this same concept has started to resurface it’s ugly head. This time, exposing it’s platitudes towards my mental illness.

Four years ago, when my therapist told me that she suspects that I might have bipolar 2, my whole world turned upside down. I had one of those outer body moments where I wasn’t quite sure she was talking to me. Yet, no one else was in the room. Ah man, she was talking to me.

So many frightening thoughts and feelings immediately raced through my head. Now what do I do? Say what?… there’s not a cure?! Wait?… Medication?! No, that’s not for me. Lifelong therapy? Ok, I guess that’s doable. I need to let my close family and friends know? Well crap on a cracker, that’s as scary as hell! Ok, you’re right, I am a strong person. I’ll do what it takes to manage this.

So manage I did (and am still doing). Little by little, I have let family and friends in on this horrid monster that hides inside my brain. After that went well, I became more brave and empowered and have felt the need to branch out and share my story on a larger scale so that other’s can know that they are not alone. And in following suit with my close family and friends, my big reveal has been mostly met with kindness and love.

I use the word mostly because through my experience of sharing my bipolar story, for every 5 people I tell, there’s at least 1 person that says those dreaded words, “I know exactly how you feel… I get super sad some days and then really happy on others. I must be bipolar too,” or “ I know exactly how you feel. I’ve felt those same things and I’m not bipolar, so maybe you’re not bipolar after all.”

Why are these acclamations of knowing how I feel harmful in this scenario?

Bipolar is not PMS. It is not a stressful day, week, or month at work. It is not a mood swing.

When describing my symptoms to others, I agree, bipolar symptoms sound like anyone of these issues. But education on bipolar makes all the difference in the world. And if you are not educated in mental illness’, you should not be saying whether someone is or is not bipolar, or whether you do or do not have this same illness.

When those words of “I know how you feel” are carelessly thrown out, it’s demeaning to the blood, sweat and tears that I have experienced day in and day out, month after month, year after year, all in efforts just to keep my head above water.

I’ve learned that there is a time and place for everything. There is a time when the words, “I know how you feel” are appropriate. Those times are when the situation is lighthearted and jovial. The times it’s not acceptable are when the recipient of your words is grieving or discussing sensitive or heartbreaking matters.

I have 3 other brothers that lost the same brother that I did. But not one of us had the same relationship with him or grieve in the exact same way.

I have also had conversations with other bipolars. But not one of us have the exact same symptoms or take the same course of action when it comes to getting help.

What makes these conversations more meaningful than those that know how I feel, is the mutual understanding that we are same same but different. We can cry, grieve, vent and then build each other up over our individual experiences in life.

Instead of the well-intended, yet unmindful words of “I know how you feel,” trying to be truly empathetic can do so much more good. Put yourself in their shoes. When you’re in another person’s shoes, you can see the struggles, the ups and downs, and many of the aspects of what is going on behind closed doors that are completely unique to that person.

In turn, if you can connect with any of those feelings or circumstances, feel free to share. The last thing I’m saying is for anyone to keep their mouth shut if they feel like they can relate. But maybe instead of “I know how you feel,” try saying something like, “Dang, I can only imagine how hard that is for you. Thank you so much for sharing that with me. I’ve struggled with ______ and experienced ______ and your willingness to be open about your trials is comforting.” That statement alone lets the receiver know that you listened, that their struggles aren’t invalid, and at the same time lets them feel like they truly aren’t alone because you too have your own hardships and trials.

If you don’t have the emotional capacity to be empathetic, all you have to do is just simply listen. That in and of itself is a form of empathy. Don’t feel like you need to say something to make them feel better. Don’t give easy answers and platitudes. A listening ear and a comforting hug is as healing as any words could ever be.

Good old Atticus Finch said it best, “You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”