Pain and The Anxiety of Those 3 Little Words: “How Are You?”
Reminder: You are a human being. So whether you’re experiencing overwhelming grief, fear or pain, a well-meaning “How are you?” can seem like the dumbest—or at least the most awkward—question you’ve ever heard. The truthful answer could be anything, but just coming up with that reply might stir up all kinds of feelings. You might find yourself in a mental flurry or fog. Some of the things you might wonder include:
How can you possibly ask me that!?
Do you really want to know?
Even if you do, did you really think I’d spill my guts next to the copy machine?
If I tell you, will you be able to handle it?
If you handle it, am I going to like your response?
Will I feel worse?
Will you feel worse?
Can someone please get me the hell out of here?
Then, after a grueling micro-second or three, with no real idea what you should say and no real plan to say what’s really on your mind, you just blurt out:
When we’re in pain, this question can seem insensitive and off-putting: “If that’s all you can come up with, then you’re either an unfeeling robot, or you simply don’t care enough to deal with my feelings.” Either way, the invalidation can be overwhelming and often encourages us to protect ourselves by pulling away from others. Better to be alone than to play the game of niceties with no real connection.
Understanding the Question
The key to navigating, “How are you?” is understanding that people often ask it because they don’t have any idea what else to say. It’s filler talk for when you have to say something, but you’ve got nothing. Also, it’s universal, so you’ll probably hear it from everyone—co-workers you see once a week and close friends you’ve known for years.
So, how do you answer the “How are you” question when dealing with something so sensitive?
Answers That May Work for You
Before you respond, you need to know that it is not selfish to think about and protect your own wellbeing. You don’t have to give a thoughtful answer. In fact, if your goal is to exit the situation as quickly as possible, simple responses, such as “I’m fine,” or “It’s been difficult,” may actually be effective. Adding “Thanks for asking” to any of those phrases provides a natural end to the conversation that won’t invite deeper inquiry, and it conveniently offers a brief pause where you can take the opportunity to get the hell out of there. If that kind of exchange feels a bit too hollow for you in the moment, then you can choose to add a dollop of actual truth to your response: “I’ve been better,” “I’m really struggling,” or even a straight up “This truly sucks,” could be just the thing.
When it’s A Friend Asking
If the question is coming from someone you care about (and whose support you would welcome), give them a break. Despite how random it may seem, “How are you?” is often a synonym for “I’m uncomfortable with/weirded out by/terrified at the idea of talking about this subject.” We’re not encouraged or conditioned to talk about really difficult things, and so when coming face to face with sensitive subjects, well, we’ve often got nothing. And that includes those who really love you.
At the thought of talking about illness, loss or dying, people freeze up. A hug may be replaced with a wave, eye contact disappears; and then, of course, those three little words: How are you. In total, the package may be interpreted as, “I don’t want to be bothered by your emotions,” but in reality, there’s an equal chance that the message is, “I have no idea how to help,” or “I really don’t want to upset you even more.” That’s why those who have shared a similar experience often tend to be more prepared. They’ve been there. They know how it feels. And they’re not afraid because they’ve already been through it.
While the thought of teaching someone how to engage with you may feel overwhelming and unfair given all that you’re already shouldering, offering close friends and family the opportunity to learn HOW to engage —and more importantly what you need from them—may pay off in the long-run. They receive clarity, you get what you actually need, and it greatly reduces the risk of opening the gulf that is created when “I’m terrified of saying the wrong thing so I’ll just say nothing” is met with “If you cared, you’d know what to say.”
Prepare Some Answers in Advance
A little preparation can go a long way, so spending some time thinking about this in advance can be really helpful. Examples might include:
I’m not doing so well today, but knowing you’re there means a lot. Please feel free to keep asking.
I’m not sure how I feel right now, but I would love some company in the next few days.
This week has been really difficult, but please keep inviting me out. I may not accept for a while, but it helps to know that you’re still thinking of me.
Offering this kind of clarity can be a gift—for your friends, for your family, and for yourself.
Grace Y. Lin is a mom, wife and Licensed Behavioral Therapist living and practicing in New York.