Monday, November 17, 2008

November 17, 2008 - Do You Really Know How I'm Feeling?

This evening I attend the monthly blood cancers support group at The Wellness Community, sponsored by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It’s our usual gathering of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma survivors, plus a couple of new faces.

One statement that elicits a strong response from the group is the line, “I know just what you’re feeling.” One of the group members is sharing how he hates to hear that line from friends and family members who don’t themselves have cancer. Several other group members chime in: they don’t especially like hearing that statement, either.

Just talking about it brings one of the group members to tears. Whenever she hears that line, she takes it as a sign that the other person is minimizing her feelings.

“She’s right,” I think to myself. “That surely is an insensitive thing to say to someone with cancer.” But then, I remind myself that I do pastoral counseling as part of my work. Lots of people out there haven’t had the benefit of clinical counseling training. They just don’t get it. One of the first things our professors taught us in our seminary counseling courses was how phony and superficial that sort of statement sounds to the recipient.

Do we ever truly understand what another person is feeling? Even at our most empathetic, we only get partway there. In order to have a truly honest and open exchange, we need to allow room for listening to what the other is saying – especially about feelings that go beyond our own, limited experience.

No, we never fully know what another person is feeling. But we can listen. And that’s a great start.


Ronni Gordon said...

Love the photos!!!!!
I've been lucky in that most of my friends, family and casual acquaintances have not really said "I know how you feel." They might say, "I hear you," or, "I'm sorry you're going through this..." and then they might add a positive note such as how they have confidence in my great doctors (and in modern medicine) or point out something specifically encouraging depending on whatever it is I'm going through at that time...even if it's, "Gee, that rash that was covering your whole body looks a lot better today!"

brooke said...

i appreciate your post. i struggle with a pretty severe form of depression and i get that a lot when people here that i'm depressed. then they start recommending things for me to try. unless they have a similar awful experience and really know what it's like to struggle with severe depression (different than just the blues) what i really want to hear instead is "goodness, i'm sorry you are going through a sucky time" or "i'm sorry you struggle with that" or even better just a warm hand on my shoulder or a hug.

btw, i've been lurking on your site for awhile now. i just joined the first presbyterian church here in logan, utah (in fact, our pastor moved here from long branch, nj in feb/march of 07) and i've been reading your blog, along with other blogs written by other presbyterian (pcusa) bloggers to try to get a feel of the denomination outside my church. i've appreciated your words a lot, both as a pastor but someone with cancer as my dad has stage 4 metastatic prostate cancer (reading about other's journey's helps me process my own father's journey). thank you for writing.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Dear Pastor,
You might enjoy a column I wrote in a professional oncology journal about this topic:;jsessionid=JmQT8v9RgXNwpR8SgF1tvnMt0tGN1mPs157JB1cQpY9zS0Gwr4h2!1173332523!181195629!8091!-1

If the link doesn't work, you can access it by googling "Misunderstanding Physicians" and Oncology Times.

With hope,

Carl said...

Ronni, all those responses you cite indicate some degree of listening on the part of the other person. "I know just how you feel" is an attempt to switch the focus to the speaker (whose next step in the conversational give-and-take will likely be to say, "Now, let me tell you about my feelings that are so similar to yours.

I'm glad you haven't had too many friends approach in this sort of way.

Neither have I, actually, but evidently lots of others in my support group have.


Carl said...


Yes, problem-solving is another style of responding that's often less than helpful. It's actually a sort of running away from empathic listening: "Let me solve your problem for you, so I don't have to deal with my anxiety about listening to it."

BTW, I'm interested to hear that Paul Heins is your pastor. He's a friend of mine from our presbytery here in NJ. Please give him my best.


brooke said...

Carl - I will give Paul your best. He's been a blessing to me since I walked into his church. I hope you don't mind if I point him to this blog.


Carl said...

No, I don't mind at all. Please do point him this way.