The Saying ‘I Know How You Feel’ is Flawed, From a Psychologist’s Perspective

I feel angry

Is this girl angry or sad? It’s hard to tell.

Have you ever said to someone, “I know how you feel“? Well, I think most of us have at some point, but do we truly know how others feel, or is it just a saying that we use for better or worse?

When we use the saying ‘I know how you feel’, we do it to show our empathy with someone. We say it with a good intention to support someone in a difficult situation. From this perspective, it’s a beautiful manifestation of empathy.

But the meaning of the saying is flawed, anyway. How can we know what someone truly feels? The consequence of saying “I know how you feel” is to lie because what we actually know, and are capable of knowing, is which emotions we get from seeing someone being emotional.

The point is that the nature of two people’s emotions can never be the same. In line with this, I argue that we don’t pick up other people’s emotions, we pick up our own.

When we see someone who is sad, we, too, may begin to feel this way. This is because the human brain is wired to connect with others, research shows, but how can we know whether this feeling of sadness feels the same in two unique individuals? It’s possible it does, but I think it’s unlikely. I think you have got my point by now.

So, what is the alternative to saying “I know how you feel?”? Here are just a few examples: “To me, it sounds like you are in situation that really drains you“, or “from what you’re saying, it must have been really difficult“. These examples illustrate a more correct way to respond emphatically to what a person says.

All in all, don’t assume that you know what others feel – listen to what they say, and remember to listen closely. Thanks for your interest.

Photo: Jeyheich
  • Andy

    Saying, “I know how you feel” is also very ambiguous. The phrase could apply to any number of conversations, which makes it a reliable expression to fall back on. If you are not relying on this cookie-cutter phrase, I think you will be forced to think more deeply about what the other person thought and experienced in their distress in order to respond.

    Having understood that, I will probably still use the phrase “I know how you feel” in situations where I am not willing to empathize too deeply.

    • Hi Andy!
      Thanks for your comment. In my opinion, it’s always better to explore and try to understand a person’s thoughts and feelings instead of assuming and reacting to those assumptions. The reason is that as human beings we experience things very differently.

      Best regards,
      Simon