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There’s a meme that’s made the rounds over the years on social media of a cartoon dog in a burning room, sitting at a table with a coffee mug. The frame is captioned, “This is fine.” The meme is actually part of a longer comic. The flames lick closer and closer and begin to injure the dog. He continues to sit at the table with his coffee mug and claim that things are fine, despite the evident reality—things are not fine.

When I was involved in community education, “I’m fine” was one of the first phrases my English language learners mastered in response to the question, “How are you?” It’s a question they quickly learned requires a pat response, asked more out of politeness than a desire to truly know how someone’s doing. We may even get a bit annoyed when acquaintances take “How are you?” as an invitation to detail their mood or their day.

But what I’ve noticed is that “I’m fine” is also a way to shield my friends and acquaintances from my feelings, to place a little emotional distance between them and having to engage with me—especially when I’ve displayed distressed emotions, like sadness, fear, or anger.

Often, even when we attempt to be open with our emotions, we’ll end any revelation from “I’m feeling a little off today” to “I was just in a car crash” with “but I’m fine.” It’s an escape hatch that says, “Hey, though I just shared this distressing feeling, you don’t have to respond to my suffering. I’ll be okay eventually.” Another form of politeness gone wrong.

Lately, I’ve caught myself in the midst of saying some version of “it’s fine” or “I’ll be fine,” and have noticed that these particular words actually cause me stress. With these words, I set the burden of working through difficult feelings squarely on myself. The result is that I lock my feelings inside of me instead of asking those I love to help me.

The dangers of ignoring our emotions

The detrimental effects of bottling up our emotions are well-documented. In a 2018 Time article, psychotherapist Hilary Jacobs Hendel explains the mind-body connection when it comes to ignoring negative emotion: “Emotional stress, like that from blocked emotions, has not only been linked to mental ills, but also to physical problems like heart disease, intestinal problems, headaches, insomnia and autoimmune disorders.” There’s a heavy toll on the whole body when emotion is not acknowledged.

What’s more, ignoring negative emotion makes us less “emotionally diverse” individuals. A 2014 study that brought the idea of “emodiversity” to the public indicates that experiencing a range of emotions—both positive and negative—is actually more beneficial for us overall: “Emodiversity, whether positive, negative, or global, was associated with better mental and physical health across two large cross-sectional studies of over 37,000 respondents.” The study also suggests that experiencing both negative and positive emotions can lead to greater resilience and adaptivity:

Experiencing many different specific emotional states (e.g., anger, shame, and sadness) may have more adaptive value than experiencing fewer and/or more global states (e.g., feeling bad), as these specific emotions provide richer information about which behavior in one’s repertoire is more suited for dealing with a given affective situation.

Unlike “fine,” which is not connected with a particular emotional state, more particular feelings like “homesick” or “joyful” are not only more honest, but allow us to give ourselves and others a better read on how we’re really doing.

Why we claim we’re “fine”

People use “fine” as a response for a number of reasons. For example, a 2016 survey conducted by the British Mental Health Foundation found that among the surveyed who said they were “fine,” “34 percent use ‘I’m fine’ as a response because it is more convenient than explaining how they really feel, while 23 percent say it because they think the person asking isn’t really interested.”

In the video that accompanies the survey results, a couple of the people discussing their feelings about the use of “fine” touch on not wanting to burden other people with their problems. As one woman shares, “I feel that how I feel affects other people in my life. And . . . I’d rather temporarily give them an answer that would be more uplifting.”

But the fact is, “I’m fine” is often a woefully inadequate summary of—and sometimes an outright lie about—how many of us are actually doing. Especially in a year when a pandemic has taken a toll on our livelihoods and mental health, why do we still say it? Why, even with my friends, do I feel like I have to answer “How are you?” with some variation of “I’m fine” before I can get to how I’m actually not?

Megan Garber’s March 2020 Atlantic piece sheds some light on the subject: “Americans have a well-known bias toward optimism . . . and it is a habit of mind so deeply ingrained that it is present at the basic level of language. Pleasantries themselves are optimistic things; they insist on seeing the bright side of any situation.”

Saying that we are fine is a scripted part of normal small talk, and when we say it we show we know the expected answer.

Facing trauma and loneliness and acknowledging we’re not fine

Though the vagueness—and sometimes, insincerity—of “I’m fine” is something that I think about from time to time, it was reading Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine that finally revealed to me just how problematic that phrase can be. The novel’s protagonist, Eleanor, is, despite the book’s title, completely not fine. Her life has been one of trauma, abuse, and isolation. That is, until she slowly begins to open her world to a coworker, and learns how life-giving friendship can be.

In addition to this book’s intelligent handling of mental breakdown, therapy, and the process of healing, Honeyman masterfully navigates Eleanor’s transition from using “fine” to blanket pain to acknowledging both pain and joy more honestly. At the beginning of the book, Eleanor describes an all-too-familiar attitude: “If someone asks how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person in two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.” As I read this, I keenly felt Eleanor’s pain. Saying we’re “fine,” especially if it’s because we think no one wants to go deeper than “How are you?” can lead to profound loneliness.

Through friendship, Eleanor learns that the “fine” she’s been using to cover up her aching loneliness is not what her friend Raymond wants to hear. He calls her out when, after finding her in the midst of a breakdown and helping her to begin taking care of herself, Eleanor responds to his “How’re you feeling?” with, “Fine, thanks.” He knows she’s been anything but fine and pushes back on the expected answer, inviting her honesty: “Look, I know you’re a very private person, and that’s fine, but we’re pals, you know? You can talk to me about stuff. Don’t bottle things up.”

Raymond’s acceptance that Eleanor is not fine helps Eleanor open up to get professional care for her depression, while also being able to lean on Raymond as a friend throughout her healing journey. They meet daily for lunch, and she becomes more comfortable sharing life with him while making progress in therapy as well.

The best part of this story is that the change in Eleanor’s language actually makes her more herself than she was before. She’s able to examine her feelings more deeply, and now realizes there are people in her life who really want to know how she’s doing. She doesn’t need to “keep it together” for others; she’s free to feel her feelings and her feelings are not a burden to others. When, later in the book, her boss asks how she’s doing, Eleanor is able to respond with greater honesty: “I’m fine . . . that’s to say, I’m much better . . . It’s been difficult, but I’ve been making good progress.”

Learning to be more honest

So, how can we be a bit more honest, both in sharing how we’re doing and in seeking out how others are doing? Garber suggests changing up the question a bit:

I try to find ways—linguistic hacks, really—to emphasize that I don’t mean the inquiry in the typical, perfunctory way, but instead in a way that is calibrated to this terrible moment [COVID-19]: No, really, how are you? I find myself doing the same thing a lot of people have been doing with me: modifying the standard question to make clear that it really is a question. How are you . . . considering? How are you doing . . . with all this?

Garber’s encouragement to pay attention to how we’re talking about our feelings is mirrored in the 2014 study about emodiversity as well, which references “emotional granularity” as “the degree to which a person can verbally characterize emotional experiences with precision.” The ability to name our feelings accurately—and to see the usefulness of all our emotions—is helpful for good mental health.

I like the idea of linguistically trying to get past the pleasantry of “I’m fine,” especially with those I know well. I also like the idea of responding more honestly to those I know want to hear how I am. Though it may still take me a moment to access my feelings, I want to acknowledge for myself and for others that things don’t have to simply be fine for our relationship to flourish, that our feelings will be honored, and that I truly want to know about the ups and downs of others’ lives and share my own.