We all do it. Here’s what we need to learn to do instead.
When something bad happens to someone you know, what’s your first impulse?
If it’s to imagine how you’d feel if that same thing happened to you, you’re not alone. Most of us can only filter things that happen to others through our own lens. Our brains scramble to make sense of whatever’s occurred by trying to fit it into our own experience, finding a comparable event to latch on to.
That’s why, when your friend’s grandfather dies, you think about how sad you were when your dog died, or when your partner is depressed, you remember how you felt when you were depressed. And often, that’s what leads us to utter these problematic words: “I know just how you feel.”
The problem is, you don’t know how they feel. You’re just trying to imagine, and you don’t know what else to say. You’re afraid of being on unsteady conversational ground, so you commit what sociologist Charles Derber calls “conversational narcissism” – trying to direct the conversation back to yourself, so you can control the situation.
Conversational narcissism isn’t malicious. It’s almost always an unconscious response, born out of nervousness and a wish to connect. But, explains Derber, it is indicative of what he calls “the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.” This is the way we tend to shift attention to ourselves, and support what the other person is saying. These two responses – shifting and supporting – make up our main conversational techniques.
The shift response is narcissistic – wanting to talk about yourself – but the support response is more altruistic. It’s how we let people know we’re listening, and we want them to keep talking.
If you’ve ever been told “I know how you feel,” you probably already know that, while it may be well-intentioned, it’s not very helpful. But even knowing it’s not helpful may not be enough to keep you from dropping the phrase yourself the next time your friend bemoans her toxic relationship, or your coworker loses a parent.
It’s not that we’re jerks; it’s just that we’re hardwired to talk about ourselves. A classic study on conversational behavior, published in a 1997 issue of Human Nature, found that “most social conversation time is devoted to statements about the speaker’s own emotional experiences.”
Pay attention to your conversations over the next few days, and you’ll see that it’s true: we love to talk about ourselves.
So, how do we overcome this inborn tendency to turn the conversation to ourselves and talk about our own experiences? And, what do we say instead?
It’s not so much what we should say, as much as what we shouldn’t say. When someone is suffering, we struggle to find the right words to say. But the truth is, we don’t have to say anything at all. Author and theologian Parker Palmer has written extensively about depression, and talked to On Being‘s Krista Tippett about what helped him most when he was going through a terrible bout of depression.
The friends who dropped by to try to cheer him up or commiserate with him weren’t the ones who ended up helping him, said Palmer. Rather, they made him feel worse. But one friend came every afternoon, sat quietly beside him, and rubbed his feet. “He hardly ever said anything,” Parker told Tippett. “From time to time would say a very brief word like, ‘I can feel your struggle today.'” In this way, says Palmer, his friend was “present to me in my suffering.”
What we can do for people who are in pain, explains Palmer, is simply be with them, and be quiet. By resisting our impulse to talk about ourselves or offer advice, we can be, as Palmer says, “neither invasive of the mystery nor evasive of the suffering but…willing to hold people in a space, a sacred space of relationship, where somehow this person who is on the dark side of the moon can get a little confidence that they can come around to the other side.”
So next time you’re in a situation where you’re trying to figure out what to do or what to say to someone going through a hard time, consider that just your presence is enough. A hand on their shoulder, an offer to listen, and simply being there without judging or commenting is worth a lot to someone going through a difficult time.
If you think this is hard, I know how you feel. But with practice, anyone can manage to remove those irritating words from their vocabulary and learn to be a calming presence to their friends in distress – instead of the narcissists we’re born to be.
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Comment: Are you guilty of telling people you know how they feel?