Tuesday 10 April 2018

3 Reasons Why We Say "I'm Fine" When We're Not

Grace discusses the importance of being open about our mental health with those close to us.

When one replies with the phrase “I’m fine”, it’s undoubtedly one of the biggest (white) lies ever spoken – probably somewhere up there with “I have read the terms and conditions” and “there are sexy singles in your area”.

So, let’s be honest. How many times have you been guilty of saying “I’m fine” when really you’re not? A few? Quite often? Too many times to count? In fact, a survey of 2000 adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) found the average adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, although just 19% actually mean it. 

So why do we feel this need to falsify that all is dandy, rather than just admitting we have a problem? What impact does this non-committal exchange have on our mental wellbeing and what can we do about it? For this, I propose three theories.

Theory 1: They’re just being polite.

The simple exchange initiated by asking “how are you?” is ritualistic; a social norm learned from a young age, whereby violating it is like prolonged eye-contact while eating a banana – you just don’t do it. It’s an automatic script of sorts, whereby we’ve rehearsed our parts so well, we’re basically Meryl Streep.

While acting out this well-mannered illusion of checking in on one another, we’re actually gaining as much insight into each other’s state of mind as simply saying “hello.” Unsurprisingly, such superficial – almost-reflexive – questioning and answering means we’re less likely to speak openly and honestly about our mental health, since it is implicit that the other person isn’t actually intent on finding out (or perhaps prepared for) a real answer.

Now, of course saying “I’m fine” can just be convenient. We liberally douse this phrase on one another, especially in lectures or in the library. I guess we must choose our moments with those with whom we can allow our conversations to become more substantive. By returning meaning behind our words, we can seize vital opportunities to both seek and offer support.

Theory 2: You’ve got this! (You really haven’t got this)

My wonderful Grandma says “you can either sink or swim… and I choose to swim”. Whilst there’s something impressive about a person who adamantly solves their own problems, I think we’re fooled by the misconception that if self-reliance is a virtue and that requiring help is a weakness. So, we present a “brave face”. We hide our vulnerabilities. We act like dogs that get stuck in things but pretend everything is ok. We precipitate a culture whereby we won’t discuss our own mental health for fear of judgement.

“Am I the only one who feels this way?” Such self-doubt clouds the reality that we often have common struggles. When I first acknowledged I was struggling with my mental health with my uni personal supervisor, it kind of felt like that moment when someone asks the question in class you thought was too stupid to say out loud. Suddenly you realise you’re not alone, and the question wasn’t silly at all.

Those asking for support are incredibly brave. But sometimes you can’t quite initiate this first step alone. It was after noticing I fell off the uni treadmill following traumatic events that a friend first contacted my personal supervisor on my behalf. Sometimes it’s not “sink or swim”; sometimes you need a lifeboat and she was just that.

Theory 3: We don’t want to burden others

The phrase “I’m fine” can also act as the conversational equivalent of Crocs; swiftly able to shut down any chance of further discussion. Quite often, this defensive action results from a fear of worrying, burdening, or annoying the listener.

Personally, by insisting “I’m fine”, I force myself to be the person I, and others, expect me to be (I’d LIKE to think humorous and enthusiastic…). However, simulating these qualities and engaging in societies whilst depressed is gruelling – sometimes I’d rather just hide away. Exhaustion and isolation is a high price to pay to think (mistakenly) I’m ‘pleasing’ or ‘protecting’ others. It took me a long time to realise that neither have to be an option if you can have an honest conversation. People are more understanding than mental illness lets you believe.

As listeners, as friends, you may not always have the solution or the ability to fully relate – but that’s okay! There are so many services available on campus that are incredibly willing to offer professional support and advice e.g. counselling, student support, supervisors, campus GPs. But what friends do have is time, care and compassion. You hold the ability to reassure each other you can be open and listened to. You also have the capacity to learn what the other may want but won’t ask for, and what they need but didn’t know. Open ear? Cup of tea? It’s the little things too.

Overall, we must push for cultural change in terms of discussing our mental health. Speaking openly and honestly can begin by asking simply, and genuinely, how someone is. As humans, we experience a spectrum of emotions – chances are, you’re probably not just “fine”. It’s okay to say we’re not okay.

Hi, I’m Grace. I’m a final year student studying Psychology at the University of York. This post is the first time I’ve opened up and wrote about my own mental health. After sharing it with my friends, I received lots of love and support and also realised that I'm not alone - hopefully this post can encourage others to do the same!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for starting this important topic. It's so difficult to many people to share their emotions and feelings openly.