Sunday, April 8, 2012

Experience

"I know how you feel."

Many people say this to show empathy and support to someone who is going through a difficult time. This sentence has bothered me for years because it oversimplifies a person's experience and is often an inappropriate thing to say.


Experience is very complex. It is unique to every person. Going through something like a death, illness or financial issue does not mean you can fully identify with someone else who is going through or has gone through those things.

Any experience is based on many factors like your emotional state, your background, your support system, your socio-economic status and much more. It isn't really measurable. You can't quantify it with a number and any number would not help someone understand either.

You can't determine the severity or type of experience and compare that to your own. Experience is also subjective and perceptive. One person's perception of severe may be another's version of mild. This is all dependent on the unique, unmeasurable factors I described earlier.

I do understand why people are so ready to claim "knowing" your experience. Recognizing a shared experience is powerful. It can make you feel less alone and can motivate movements to change things. That's great. But to be truly supportive, we must also acknowledge our differences. Otherwise, especially if the empathy is incorrect and someone really doesn't "get it" or if that person's experience is completely different, claiming to "know" is offensive and ignorant and can actually make the person feel even more alone.

3 comments :

  1. Yup.

    But it is hard sometimes to know WHAT to say to someone who is having a rough go of things.

    Usually all I can do is listen, making occasional placeholder statements where needed.

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  2. Hmm. I've never known anyone to be offended by that statement. Most people just want someone who will really listen to them and not brush off how they feel. There is nothing wrong with letting someone know you've been through something similar and that you're willing to listen and help them (in my opinion anyway). Thanks for sharing your point of view though . . . makes me wonder if people who are offended don't usually say anything . . .

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  3. Katy - Yes, it is hard to know what to say and I don't think most people would be offended by that. I agree listening is the best idea. No assumptions. No judgment.

    Achieve - Please don't misunderstand: I'm not suggesting there is something wrong with identifying with someone; I am merely asking that people understand and respect their differences. Yes, people want to be listened to, but my point is that that "listening" so often comes with ignorant, insensitive judgment. It may be unintentional, but it's still wrong and there's no excuse for it.

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