My youthful age was filled with maxims that were rammed into our juvenile brains by the elders. Because in sub-Saharan Africa, we see elders as the best don we could have, so believing their speeches with no iota of skepticism was never a problem. Therefore, whatever information shoved from the elder, we accept it hook, line and sinker on most occasions.
However, as much as these axioms, some faded slowly into an unending pit as smoke vanishes into thin air. Nevertheless, amongst all, I could vividly remember one, which is still a mundane to date.
When people with anguish come around to narrate their story, the receptor replies by saying “if I were in your shoes” in a bid to launch advice or “I know how you feel”, narrating their own similar story thinking it is the best way to empathize.
Typically, I used to have no problem with it because they were our elders and we grew up knowing that elders are never wrong and do not tell lies.
As an adage says if lie prevails for years, the truth will never seize from denouncing it one day, likewise, the understanding of a kid sometimes surpasses the peak of an elder’s knowledge. As if these two proverbs were made for me, I began to kindle my disbelieve for the saying “.
The whole thing started on a particular day I was sited in a gathering, the gathering of my friends. While jesting and discussing, a distressed friend came along to narrate the tale his worries so that we could repress him through sympathy.
We started to express series of empathy like sorry, don’t feel too sad, it going to be well, we are here for you and more. Nevertheless, this seemed to have only a prickle effect on him as he continued to sob.
We decided to step up our sympathy by sharing our own stories that are similar to his, to make him realize that he is not alone and we know how he feels because we had a similar experience or worse.
At first, it seemed like it worked, as he kept mute staring at the sky. However, a friend amongst us who did not join in telling the tales cautioned us and said;
“You can never be in one’s shoe with the same experience, even if we wear the same size, the way it looks on me is quite different from yours”.
“The anguished is the best speaker of his/her troubles; he knows best how deep his nerves are hit, and how painful/sorrowful the case might have been”.
As if that was not enough, the statement triggered the guy. He said, you might have experienced something similar or worse but in a different condition, situation and time. Comparing it to mine seems ridiculous. We can never react the same way to a particular action not to talk about a different scenario.
Feeling are meant and best described by its possessor; we cannot share the same feeling. Come to talk of it, how much I value my loose is different from yours, he said with great dismay.
We felt disappointed and sad more importantly because we had good intention and it all ended terribly.
From that moment, I took his statement important, “feelings are best described by its possessor”. Therefore, you cannot know how exactly someone feels.
Afterwards, I promised to deter from the saying: “if I were in your shoes” or “I know what you feel”.
Celeste Headlee, a contributor to in her article, “What to say instead of ‘I know how you feel’ to a person struggling” gave a similar perspective regarding the matter.
She said that when you express your own similar story in an attempt empathize mainly when the person is speaking, it always like you shifted the attention from that person to yourself.
Also, sociologist Charles Derber, in his book, The Pursuit of Attention described it as a conversational narcissism which can also be regarded as Shift Response.
An empathizing situation can be best managed through Support Response, Derber added.
Note: conversational narcissism may not only destroy conversation but can exacerbate to ending a relationship.