The Blog

Do You Really Know How Someone Else Feels?

Everyone tries to express empathy, but many times the best way is through asking questions and listening, rather than saying, "I know how you feel."
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For those of you who don't spend time on reddit or 4chan, a "meme" is a behavior, symbol or social idea that is transmitted like a virus from person to person through a culture. The Internet provides the perfect culture medium for a meme to incubate and spread like a virus at epidemic speed. Over the last two years the expression "I know that feel bro," accompanied by an image of two bald men embracing each other, was created in Germany and raced around the globe. It has a Facebook page with more than 161,000 likes and can be found embedded in videos, images and Internet posts, all hoping to convey the sentiment, "I know how you feel." Although well-intentioned, can one person truly understand how another feels?

It is a common expression that often rings hollow. Last week I ate dinner with a friend whose 58-year-old husband survived a stroke. As she and her family struggle to right their life, numerous people try to comfort her by saying, "I can imagine how you feel." She confided that she always wants to scream back at them, "You don't have a clue!"

Worse yet, a physician friend whose daughter died in an automobile accident a number of years ago told me the worst comment I have ever heard. A well-intentioned neighbor rang his doorbell and told my friend and his wife that she could relate to their grief -- "I know that feel bro" -- because she had just lost her favorite dog. It was only my friend's profound grief that controlled his rage.

What Do You Say?

One of the hardest things to do is to think before you speak. Have you ever had to work, raise children and care for a disabled spouse -- all at the same time? Have you ever lost a child or been told that you have cancer? Most people are operating under the best of intentions when they tell someone, "I can only imagine how you must feel," but most of the time they don't have any idea what the other person is going through. Their comments end up making the person angry. She may never show it, but she feels it.

There is a club that forms amongst cancer survivors, people who have lost children and those who have dealt with a whole host of life's events. Don't assume that your experiences equate with your friends'. You may have loved your dog, but few people will agree that losing a pet is the same as losing a child.

As a physician who deals with people with severe disabilities, I find it useful to say, "I have never had to walk in your shoes, but I can imagine you must be feeling a great deal of pain. If you like, I am here to help you." Here are a few others to try on for size:

• "This must be very difficult for you."

• "I imagine that you have been very upset by what has been happening."

• "Although I have never had a similar experience, I would like to help."

Back to the Bro

Everyone tries to express empathy , but many times the best way is through asking questions and listening, rather than saying, "I know how you feel." I might prefer a drawing of two men hugging with the caption, "This must be difficult."

For more by Richard C. Senelick, M.D., click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.