This week I came across an excellent article titled “Why We Should All Stop Saying, ‘I Know Exactly How You Feel’“. In it Celeste Headlee discusses “conversational narcissism”: the tendency we humans have to direct a conversation back towards ourselves. She opens with a lengthy example of her own propensity to respond to other’s stories of loss with a story about how her own life relates.
She then goes on to say,
“I started to notice how often I responded to stories of loss and struggle with stories of my own experiences. My son would tell me about clashing with a kid in Boy Scouts, and I would talk about a girl I fell out with in college. When a coworker got laid off, I told her about how much I struggled to find a job after I had been laid off years earlier. But when I began to pay more attention, I realized the effect of sharing my experiences was never as I intended. What all of these people needed was for me to hear them and acknowledge what they were going through. Instead, I forced them to listen to me.”
Now, I suspect this quote will appeal to a lot of us in the chronic illness community because we so often wish that people would give less advice and instead ask compassionate questions. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s natural. But I really think we need to turn around and apply this idea to how we interact with each other.
The article challenged me personally because I see this tendency so clearly in myself. It actually hurt to read it because I realized I said something awfully similar to “I know exactly how you feel” to a friend just the other day. I think the fact that I have suffered so much can actually make the problem worse. My story of suffering can lead me to assume that I understand other people’s experiences of suffering when I actually don’t.
I do think that my struggle with chronic illness gives me the potential to understand chronic illness sufferers better than I would otherwise. But it’s not a given. My own experiences could just as well lead me to become a worse listener and a conversational narcissist. At least most healthy people are aware that they do NOT know exactly how a chronic illness sufferer feels. They don’t have a related story to tell when they hear of the unrelenting pain, the frightening ER visits and near death experiences. I do have a story that relates and it’s going to take some self-control to instead be quiet and ask questions.
Now, I’m not saying there’s never a time to share our stories of surviving or recovering. I’m not saying those stories can’t be a genuine encouragement to other sufferers. This blog wouldn’t exist if I believed that. However, I don’t think sharing a story about our own lives should be our first response to someone else’s suffering and vulnerability.
The response is often well-meaning. We want people to know they are not alone but forget that people in the throes of pain don’t typically find comfort in hearing about someone else’s similar pain. I know I didn’t. Perhaps a better way to help someone feel less alone is simply to acknowledge their pain and ask questions that communicate a genuine interest in their situation and heart.
I’m ashamed to think of all the times I’ve failed to do this. It is my sincere hope that someday I will be known as someone who asks the right questions, listens well, and loves deeply. It might take me a while to get there but I’m going to start practicing right away.
By the way, Brett and I made a beautiful PDF of my favorite resources for suffering souls. I created the content and he made it look fancy with his superduper graphic design skills. It’s available for free to my email subscribers. Click here to sign up and receive 5 Resources for the Suffering Soul.
This is a great, and challenging, post! I just want to thank you for all the times you’ve listened well to me, and apologise for all the times I’ve failed fo listen well to you. Love you ❤November 8, 2017 at 12:19 pm
Aww… Thank you Laura! You’re so sweet! 💕November 8, 2017 at 9:53 pm
Much wisdom here…definitely something to take to heart!November 8, 2017 at 8:01 pm
Thanks Carolyn! 💕November 8, 2017 at 9:54 pm
Thank you for this, Ana! I needed to read it, for sure. <3 That quote stung for me as well, but I'm so grateful you shared it. From now on, I am going to try to be a compassionate listener.November 8, 2017 at 9:07 pm
You’re welcome Moriah! I’m glad it resonated. 💕November 8, 2017 at 9:54 pm
DEAR ANA, THANK YOU SOO MUCH FOR SHARING THIS, FOR I TOO NEEDED TO READ IT!! I HOPE MY PAST BLOG REPLIES TO YOU HAVE NEVER MADE YOU FEEL THAT I THOUGHT MY SITUATIONS WERE EQUAL OR WORSE, THEY PROBABLY DID!! FROM NOW ON I WILL GUARD MY HEART N’ THE WORDS THAT STREAM FROM IT! YOU ARE A SPECIAL YOUNG LADY WHO HAS ENDURED SOOO MUCH, YET YOU WITH THE LORD’S HELP, HE HAS LEAD YOU THROUGH DOORS OF BREAKTHROUGH, FOR HE IS THE ONE THAT BURSTS THROUGH DOORS OF BRONZE, CUTS THROUGH BARS OF IRON, BECAUSE YOU BELONG TO HIM, JESUS CHRIST FIGHTS FOR YOU!! YOU DESERVE TEN THOUSAND CROWNS OR MORE, THAN ANYONE I KNOW… THEN FOR ALL TEN THOUSAND TO BE CAST AT THE FEET OF JESUS. ANA, IF I HAVE NOT LISTENED DEEP ENOUGH, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. I SEE YOU AS A CHAMPION, A DAVID IN YOUR OWN LIFE AS A SEVANT OF THE LORD, FOR THE GOLIATH’S HAVE WALKED OUT ALONG YOUR JOURNEYS TO TRY AND DEFEAT YOU, THEY ALL CAME IN THEIR OWN NAME LABELED UNDER GRUELLING-GRUELLING AILMENTS OF ATTACK, YET YOU HAVE SLAYED THEM ONE BY ONE ALONG THE WAY, IN THE NAME OF THE LORD!! YOU ARE UNDOUBTEDLY ON MY LIST IN BEING A HEROINE!! 💜 KEEP SLAYING THE GOLATH’S IN JESUS NAME!! YOU & BRETT ARE LOVED BY ME!! 💙November 9, 2017 at 1:14 pm
Thank you for leaving this kind comment John. Please don’t apologize. I never felt that way about your messages and comments. I always felt very supported by you and so grateful for your prayers and encouragement. God bless you brother! 🙂November 9, 2017 at 1:41 pm
Wow, what a great reminder for all us, as I think we have all been guilty of this at some time. Thank you for sharing dear sister!November 10, 2017 at 10:49 am
Yes, it’s so natural!November 11, 2017 at 10:55 am
Thank you for sharing this, Ana! It’s something I think about more and more when I’m wanting to comfort others, but also wanting to dwell on my own problems. I’m striving to be a better listener, and keep my word when I promise to pray for someone or be there for them. Do I really treat others as I would want others to treat me in each situation? Sobering thought for me.November 10, 2017 at 11:44 pm
That’s great Ruth! It really is sobering because we all do it so much. ❤️November 11, 2017 at 10:56 am
This is so so true. Thank you for writing!November 11, 2017 at 2:33 pm
Thank you Sara! 🙂November 14, 2017 at 6:51 pm
Wow…thank you for sharing this, Ana. This is definitely something I am guilty of, and I needed this reminder to be a compassionate listener. Thank you, and God bless you! <3November 11, 2017 at 8:58 pm
Thanks Savannah! I think we’re all guilty of it. 💕November 14, 2017 at 6:51 pm
An excellent reminder for all of us, whether a chronic illness sufferer, past sufferer or relatively healthy person. Thanks for sharing.November 12, 2017 at 3:18 am
Thank you Samantha! 😊November 14, 2017 at 6:51 pm
How are you feeling? and Brett? I love to read your stories, I keep thinking on seeing you and the family some day, and hugg you guys.November 13, 2017 at 5:57 am
I’ll keep praying and also glorifying God for all the things He’s done with you.!!
We’re doing well. Thanks for asking. So far things are going great with the apartment. I would love to see you someday! Thank you for the prayers. God bless you! 😊November 14, 2017 at 6:52 pm
This convicted me as well….thank you for sharing. <3November 14, 2017 at 10:12 am
Thanks for reading Monica! 💕November 14, 2017 at 6:53 pm
“Perhaps a better way to help someone feel less alone is simply to acknowledge their pain and ask questions that communicate a genuine interest in their situation and heart.
I’m ashamed to think of all the times I’ve failed to do this. It is my sincere hope that someday I will be known as someone who asks the right questions, listens well, and loves deeply. It might take me a while to get there but I’m going to start practicing right away.”
AMEN! This was beautifully stated. Definitely going to use this as daily self-check!November 26, 2017 at 5:44 pm