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Recovering From the Damage of Saying ‘I’m Fine’ When You’re Really Not

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How are you?

I’m fine.

We all know this modern urban myth — the one where a stranger or acquaintance or a loved one asks you how you are and you respond with couldn’t-be-further-from-the-truth pleasantries. Sound familiar? (Scans the crowd for raised hands.)

I will be the first to admit that I am wholly guilty of this seemingly innocent act. I almost feel like I need a support group to help me break my habit, because the emotional toll of a decade of saying “I am fine,” when I wanted to say something like, “My body hurts so bad” or “This outing will cost me about nine precious days of cognitive and physical energy,” has carved a valley in my heart so deep that I’m not sure how to repair it. You too? Cool. Let’s be friends.

This is a habit I really tried to chip away at over the past year. At the beginning of the year, when someone asked how I was doing, I started with subtle variations like “I’ve been better,” or “I’m hanging in there,” which got me through some situations with a slight tinge of honesty and a shred of my dignity to chew on. But nothing that really made me glow from the inside.

And you know what happened? As the year continued, and as I faced tumultuous bouts of tug-of-war with my health, I eventually got to the point where I didn’t have the energy to lie. So when someone asked me how I was, I answered truthfully. I said things like, “My migraine feels like a small group of toddlers took up residence in my brain stem,” or “My nausea is terrible. I actually don’t feel up to eating. Rain check?”

The responses I got were varied. Some people changed the subject so fast that it was almost as if the fleeting feeling of discomfort or guilt would completely implode their own balloon of personal joy. Others grumbled back with, “That sucks. I’m sorry,” before launching into their own diatribe which felt nice but not nearly enough for that aforementioned valley in my heart. And the good ones, the people who truly hold my humble soul together, said things like, “Tell me more,” or “The sounds like a lot to handle. What can I do?” And so I did. And it made me feel like my problems mattered. Like it wasn’t my fault.

What I have learned about saying “I’m fine,” when it is not an accurate depiction of the truth, is that it feeds into an illusion of safety but impacts us in a largely unhealthy way. What it does is deflect deep and necessary conversation that our inner selves crave. A conversation that could potentially make us feel valued or understood.

But don’t get me wrong; a white lie here or there, especially in a public setting rife with small talk (insert: grocery store, library, or coffee shop), is perfectly acceptable. Let’s face it, the here-and-now is not always the best place to crack open our wounds. We don’t need to be forthcoming with those who don’t deserve our story. We should get to choose who can see our struggles. I still believe there’s power and protection in that type of surface-level interaction and we just need to be more selective in who we unlock the vault for.

By the end of the year, as I was wrapping up my experiment which was privately entitled “all the feels,” I knew I had officially sowed the right type of seeds when a holiday party conversation pivoted from family cookie recipes to each person’s woes. You could see the light turn on behind someone’s eyes when I encouraged them to tell me more about they were facing. They felt seen. They felt less alone. And it encouraged me to do the same.

So my challenge to you is this: when someone asks you how you are, if you feel grounded and secure in that relationship, go ahead and answer honestly. You might just find that the valley in your heart becomes a little less heavy, and you may inspire others to follow suit — and my, what a world that would be to live in.

Photo by Eduardo Kowska on Unsplash

Originally published: January 8, 2019
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