If someone uses these 8 phrases, they’re only pretending to be empathetic

by Gemma Clarke | February 8, 2024, 12:39 am

Did you know that robots are capable of showing (fake) empathy? 

Artificial empathy is an AI technology used in companion robots and virtual agents. These robots are trained to detect emotions in humans and respond to them empathetically. 

So, if robots can easily fake empathy, what does it say about humans?

Unfortunately, when people come across as empathetic, there is a good chance they are just pretending.

But wait, there is a sliver of hope here…

Detecting fake empathy is not too difficult. Someone who is pretending to be kind and understanding will likely use the following phrases…

1) “I know what you’re going through”

This is a default phrase we often use when someone tells us about a problem or hard time they’re dealing with. We say it because we want to show that we understand and emphasize, but the statement is untrue.

Here’s why…

We cannot ever know completely how another person feels.  Even if we have been through something similar, their experience is unique. 

We all react differently to things. 

For exactly, you cannot assume that the way you felt when your parents died is the same as how your friend is now feeling after losing theirs. 

Many people (myself included) say this phrase when they don’t know what else to say.

But honestly, it’s better to say nothing at all.

Telling someone you know how they feel is usually not comforting at all. It actually prevents the other person from opening up about it because you shift the conversation onto you.

This is known as a “shift response,” a term used by sociologist Charles Derber in his book “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life.”

Derber suggests that instead, we use a “support response,” which keeps the conversation focused on the other person.

For example, when someone tells you a loved one died, instead of saying, “I know how you feel,” say, “Do you want to talk about it?”

2) “I’m sorry you feel that way”

This is the ultimate fake apology.

People use this phrase when they realize they have upset someone but do not want to accept responsibility. 

Instead of saying, “I’m sorry I hurt you,” they are basically saying, “I’m sorry my harsh words/bad actions hurt you.”

When someone uses this phrase with you, it can make you feel like you’re overreacting. 

It diminishes their role in the situation, subtly shifting the blame onto you.

This is a common phrase used by a narcissist who cannot accept responsibility for their actions and so chooses to shut down the conversation rather than resolve the issue.

Here’s another phrase a narcissist will use to pretend they are empathetic…

3) “I’m only saying it because I care”

When someone uses this phrase, they are trying to justify the harmful words they just said.

In truth, they know what they said was hurtful. But they don’t want to admit they were wrong and apologize, so instead, they try to hide their insult behind their so-called love for you.

Here’s some examples…

  • Your partner” suggests” you go on a diet as you’ve recently gained weight
  • Your friend says your dress doesn’t suit you as soon as you arrive at a party
  • Your co-worker tells you your presentation sucks right before you’re about to present it to the boss

In all of these cases, it would have been much kinder for the person to keep quiet.

So don’t be fooled when someone follows up an insult with this phrase because their true intention is to make you feel bad. 

4) “I just don’t want to see you get hurt”

People use this phrase when they’re trying to hide their judgment or disapproval towards something you’re doing.

For example…

If a parent disapproves of your partner, they may point out their flaws, explaining they are doing so because they don’t want you to get hurt.

Of course, no one wants to see those they love get hurt. It’s so evident that there is no need to say it.

So, really, people use this phrase to hide their judgment behind love and empathy rather than admit it outright.

It’s also a way to try to influence your decision. They believe their love for you entitles them to have a say in what you do in your life. 

However, studies have found that overbearing behaviors like this from parents can have long-term effects on the child, impacting their relationships well into adulthood. 

When someone loves us, they should respect that we are adults capable of making our own decisions. Even if they don’t agree or approve, they should support us without making us feel like we’ll regret our choice.

5) “I know you’re not feeling good, but…”

I’ve been on the receiving end of this one many times before. If you’ve ever had an insensitive boss, you likely have to!

This is common in the workplace when an employee is dealing with a personal issue or recovering from a sickness.

A toxic boss will typically use this phrase when:

  • They want to ask you to do something “extra,” and they feel bad about it because they know you’re having a hard time.
  • They want to complain about your lack of productivity, poor results, or attitude.

So, they try to sound empathetic by acknowledging how the employee feels beforehand. However, in reality, it shows they don’t care at all.

If they did care about you, they would not pile extra requests on you when you’re already struggling.

Essentially, it is a more flowery way to say, “Suck it up and get on with it.”

6) “Do you need any help?”

While you can ask this as a genuine question, most people use this phrase to make themselves look polite and empathetic.

For example, if you see a colleague who looks stressed and overwhelmed, you may ask if they need help simply because you know it is the right thing to do.

But the truth is, you don’t want to help them.

If you really wanted to help, there would be no need to ask. You would just find a way to help.

A similar but less severe example is when you go to the office kitchen to make a coffee and ask your colleagues if they want one.

You don’t want to make coffee for everyone (in fact, you hope they will all say no), but you ask to look kind and considerate. 

7) “You shouldn’t feel that way”

This is an interesting one. People often use this phrase when trying to tell someone they’re not at fault.

For example, if someone is going through the guilt stage of grief, you might want to tell them that they shouldn’t feel guilty because they did not cause the person’s death. 

The intention is good, but this phrase totally distorts what you’re trying to say.

This is because telling someone they should not feel a certain emotion invalidates their feelings.

It may seem ridiculous that they feel guilty for something that clearly wasn’t their fault. But to them, the emotion is real. 

Using this phrase gives off a sense of contempt and superiority and can make the other person shut down.

Here’s a similar one: “You shouldn’t let it bother you.”

While you may be right, we do not have the right to tell someone they shouldn’t feel a certain way.

8) “That’s not like you! How could you let that happen?”

This phrase is a double-edged sword. 

The first part is kind of a compliment, as the person expresses surprise at your mistake or failure. This shows that they view you highly in that skill or ability.

But then they immediately make you feel bad by scolding you.


In some instances, it could just be a bad choice of words. They are intrigued by how it happened but imply it’s your fault.

Or, it could be pure passive aggression. They see this as an opportunity to feel better about themselves by belittling you.

Either way, anyone who uses this phrase has zero empathy!

Final thoughts

While all these phrases indicate that someone is not as genuine as they make out, you can also ‘sense’ their fakeness. 

You might get an uneasy feeling from this person in question. Perhaps you feel they never listen to you and only talk about themselves. 

Another indicator is the consistency of their behavior. Someone who appears overly lovely one day and then rude the next is likely not genuinely empathetic. Because while empathy is easy to fake, it’s not so easy to keep up the facade!

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