You don’t know how I feel

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Don’t trivialize others’ sadness and depression with rhetorical comparisons

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. January 20, 2015

Whether I’m feeling good or bad, you won’t understand my emotions. You won’t understand the reason for my elation or the cause of my sadness. You won’t understand how frustrated I am or how much pain I’m going through. Obviously you’ve felt these feelings before, but you do not know how I feel. Even though you think comparing your trials and tribulations, adversities and injustices, and triumphs and errors will cheer me up or make me hopeful, it won’t. It just trivializes my pain, making it virtually irrelevant in your mind, thus not really a problem at all.

A common human response to someone else’s tragedy is to relate it to our own. Sometimes it evokes empathy, like when we watch a movie and we cry. However, sometimes that response can come across as ignorant, self-indulgent, and dismissive.

“I’m sorry your parents passed away. I know how that feels; my dog died when I was 12. It was very hard for me.”

Such a comment, for example, may be designed to offer condolences and a parallel experience of sorrow, but it never comes across as such, especially to the person in grief receiving it. Even though we’re constructed to wince when someone else is in pain, we can never feel the exact pain. The suffering is always channeled through our own body. We can never be someone else; therefore, we will never know how others feel.

Now that we have established that the saying, “I know how you feel…” is a poor response to an open-hearted discussion, what is the proper reply?

Every situation is unique and should be treated as such. Above all else, don’t be an emotionless robot with rehearsed dialogue for emotional situations. I tell you this because I struggle with it. I grew up as an only child, and calming people down or cheering them up have never been inherently strong traits of mine. But see, most people don’t want to be calmed down or cheered up, not in a blatant way at least. They just want someone to listen.

Be attentive and understanding. Understanding means that you don’t know how someone feels, but you get it. You hear their pain, you recognize their anxiety, and you understand their stress. Allow them time to vent. Don’t interrupt with a funny anecdote. It doesn’t matter. Make every question a supportive one that allows them to unload their burden. Don’t give space. Giving space, in the griever’s eyes, appears to be avoidance and may be more hurtful in the long run. Stay. Listen. And respond positively and lovely. It’s not going to be pretty, and it’s not going to be solved in a moment or two, but if the person chose you out of all the people in their lives to express their emotions, you should feel honoured, not encumbered.

Friends and family stand by each other during hard times. They should not trivialize grave matters. They should acknowledge them. Embrace them. Shine the spotlight on them. And then allow the grieving process to move to the last stage of grief. Acceptance.

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