The other day a friend of mine posted this meme on her Facebook page. I realized immediately that it kicked up dust from an issue sitting quietly in the shadows on my emotional shelf. Part of me understood the deep wish that someone pay attention so closely and know me well enough to offer comfort at that level. Another part of me got squeamish and felt a little buzz of anxiety.
To tell the truth. After I sat with my discomfort for a while, I left a comment: I would also love it if you’d look me in the eye and tell me when you’re having a hard time!
After a little more thought, I added an explanation: I grew up in a family where I had my radar on all the time trying to figure out how everyone was feeling and what I needed to do about it. It made me pretty unhealthy! So I really appreciate openness among friends who can say how they are feeling and ask for what they need. That feels healthier for me.
Someone else replied: When people ask me it is just easier to say I’m okay than tell the truth. This is a big truth.
How are you? is one of our culture’s most frequently asked questions. It is perhaps one of the most loaded questions, buried under a cargo of invisible rules and preferences, assumptions and expectations. We often ask it as a form of greeting with an accidental question-mark at the end. We ask it and promptly stop listening.
Dying. Years ago I read about a graduate student who conducted a field study. When people asked “how are you?” she answered with a word that sounds similar to what we’re trained to reply. Instead of saying “fine,” she said “dying.” I don’t remember the percentages, but a shocking number of persons said some version of “oh, good…me too.”
A few days after our Facebook interchange, my friend Michelle and I saw each other in person. We are still in the getting-to-know-you phase of relationship and I asked her a few questions so we could find common ground and dig in.
We talked about our secret suspicion that people might not really want to know how we’re doing. She shared that sometimes she withholds the truth because she feels it would be an emotional burden.
I talked about my desire for authentic connection and honest answers. I clarified that I’ve learned it’s not healthy for me to guess at how people are feeling. She pointed out that telling the truth can sometime result in unwanted care-taking; people jump in to try to solve our problems when all we really need is to feel heard.
Isn’t this a gloriously fertile and confusing field of inquiry? What a gift it is to a relationship to choose to get real. I believe it takes trust, understanding and even courage to answer this frequently asked question with greater authenticity. And it takes patience and practice to listen attentively without needing to take on our loved ones’ or friends’ feelings as a personal burden or leaping into problem-solving mode.
A place to start. My friend Bill and I both enjoy practicing the power of positive thinking and conscious language choice. When I ask him how he’s doing, he usually says “excellent” or “outstanding.” He chooses to see the bright side. He sometimes chooses, I assume, to state his highest aspiration rather than an actual assessment of his temporal condition in the moment. I take a similar approach most days.
This may seem falsely positive or pollyannish to some, but I try not to say anything I don’t mean from my heart. Even when circumstances are challenging, I can honestly say “it is well with my soul.” I do, however, strive to be real if things are not so great. Yesterday morning I heard some really sad news about a dear friend of mine whose health is rapidly declining. If someone had asked “how are you?” yesterday morning, I would have said, “I am feeling really sad.” That, I hope, would have been a gift instead of a burden.
I do believe how are you? has the potential to be a more meaningful social ritual. How can that happen? It starts with me caring about your answer. It continues with us taking time to lay a foundation of trust so you can feel comfortable giving me an authentic answer. On that foundation we can choose to build a new vocabulary of caring.
Who is with me? Shall we begin? This will help keep me from relapsing into the unhealthy habit of using my empathy to try to guess at your feelings. Instead, I’ll save my empathy for listening to you when you tell me how you’re really doing.