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The Three Little Words Most Of Us Lie About

The Three Little Words
Most Of Us Lie About

Image: Lali Masriera

How are you?

If you’re like me, regardless of how you’re actually doing the answer to that question is almost always fine.

Why do we do this? Avoiding the honest answer often feels easier but in reality it stops us from accessing the help and support that we need. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, after a comment from a close friend shook my foundations loose.

She told me that by not being honest I was being a bad friend.

I’ve been struggling through some tough stuff lately, but in an effort to avoid unloading my problems onto her I was keeping it all to myself. After the twentieth I’m fine she finally slapped me upside the head. “When you don’t share it makes me feel as if you don’t trust me or have any faith that I might be able to help. Having this one-sided relationship where you’re the only one allowed to offer support makes me feel bad.”


Of course this was the total opposite of what I’d intended. I never saw her problems as a burden but I did see my own that way, so I thought that I was being a super awesome friend by lending an ear without dumping on her in return. It never occurred to me that I was denying her the chance to offer support, and preventing myself from having the opportunity to take it.

So this made me stop and think about the reasons I have a hard time when someone asks me how I’m doing. If I want to give myself the best chance of getting help then I need to figure out how to stop blocking this important source of support.

I also started noticing the responses that my friends give when asked how they are... and you know what? I’m not alone, there are a whole lot of people doing this same thing. We’re all saying we’re fine and we’re all lying. It’s really important that we talk about that, because some of us clearly aren’t doing okay. And it’s those friends who make the least noise who might be the ones who are going under.

So I’m going to talk about the reasons why I find it hard to answer the question, and maybe you’ll relate to them too or come up with some of your own (and even if you’re someone who never has a problem venting, you almost certainly have friends that do).


Why I Find ‘How Are You’ Hard To Answer

A non-answer is expected

In western culture How are you is more of a greeting than a genuine inquiry, and the social convention is to answer with a mindless Good thanks, how are you. So it becomes a knee-jerk reaction to respond this way, and sometimes that habit can be hard to break.

Denial is a safe place to hang out

Sometimes convincing myself that everything is okay is the only thing that keeps me hanging on. Saying stuff out loud makes it real, and I might not be ready to admit that to myself let alone to someone else.

I don’t know how much to say

Any response other than 'fine' comes with the expectation to elaborate, and it’s not easy to know where to go with that. I mean, how interested are you really? Were you just asking to be polite or do you want the truth? Sometimes I find that hard to judge, especially when I’m tired.

I don’t know what to say

When you have several equally big problems (or a whole mess of little ones) it’s hard to know where to begin and how to explain it all. I might not even really know whether or not I’m fine, or have reasons. Sometimes it’s too complicated - often the really difficult stuff can only be understood by others who have walked the same path. Trying to explain to someone who will never get it can seem pointless or exhausting, and weirdly even end up making you feel more alone.

I don’t have time to explain

These days we’re more likely to be checking in with each other online than in person, and that comes with its own built-in limits. Nobody has the time or focus for long and involved conversations anymore, because we interact with each other in snippets whilst simultaneously multi-tasking on ten other activities. As soon as you answer with anything other than fine you’ve committed your friend to asking more questions and yourself to answering them. So opting for the short-cut is letting both of us off the hook.

I don’t want my friends to worry

I feel lucky to have people in my life who care about me, but I never want that to become a burden on them. When your friends are people with whom you share a tough life experience, like special needs parenting or chronic illness, then it becomes even more important to protect them from emotional overload. Long haul struggles make you battle weary, and I’m very mindful of things that might take away energy or add to the worry load of people who already have more than enough to deal with.

I don’t like attention

There are people who enjoy being the centre of someone’s focus, but I am not one of them. I have an almost pathological need to blend into the background, and it’s impossible to do that when the conversation revolves around you.

I don’t like feeling vulnerable

Deciding whether to be open about the things I’m struggling with is like being in a freezing cold pit and having two options for survival - a jacket or a rope. The jacket is the security of keeping to myself and not becoming vulnerable to others. It helps me to survive the pit but not to get out of it, so I have to stay down there longer until I can find a way out on my own. The rope is the support I can get if I open up to others. It gets me out of the pit quicker but in the meantime I might freeze from being exposed. I almost always choose the snugness of the jacket over the rope, even though it means I’m going to have a much harder time getting out of that damn pit.

I don’t want to talk about it

Maybe I’m sick of the whole subject, embarrassed, too tired to go into it or worried about being judged. And you can’t just tell people ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ because that’s some kind of secret code for 'keep asking me lots of questions until I talk about it'. So lying and saying 'fine' is just a much easier way to avoid that whole drama.

I don’t want you to know that I’m not okay

I don’t want to be that friend who only ever has bad, sad, depressing or dramatic stuff to talk about. If people think that I’m tackling my own stuff they won’t let me help them, and helping people makes me forget whatever crap I’m dealing with.


The bottom line

Support isn’t an easy thing to find, but sometimes we’re the ones making it harder than it needs to be to reach out and accept help. I’m learning to be better at choosing the rope instead of the jacket, to be honest when friends ask how I am and more accepting of the support that they offer. But it’s not easy and I think it’s going to take a lot of practice.

We need to make safe spaces for our friends to be honest when they’re struggling too, and that conversation starts by acknowledging that for some people ‘how are you’ might be a really hard question to answer.

This article was first published on 24 March 2014

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