What I Really Mean When I Say 'I'm Fine'

“How are you feeling?” I would be a millionaire if I had received a quid every time someone asked me this question and my answer was, “I’m fine”.

This is an acceptable answer in today’s modern world, and it takes the pressure off both people. You can almost sense the inner signs of relief ripple, ‘Thank God I don’t have to explain what is actually going on physically or emotionally’ or ‘Thank God, they aren’t going into any detail’. This small white lie takes the pressure of everyone involved.

However, 'I’m fine' paints over what we really want to say and does not even begin to reflect how we are truly feeling and what life is like for us in reality. The real answer might be scary to share and complex to explain. So instead, I smile and say, “I’m fine”, I adjust my mask and play my role – this has become the new norm for me. Sometimes, the mask feels like it fits and at times I start to believe it myself - that I am fine.

However, the interaction ends, the other person leaves, the mask tugs at my skin and I remember, no, I am actually not fine at all. I am screaming inside as they turn to walk away, “I AM NOT FINE”. Questions pop into my head; "Do you really hear me?"; "Do you really see me?" and "Does anything I say to you actually matter?

Who wants to really hear the true story? Do they want to hear it over and over? How many times can I explain to someone that I do not feel well, and I am not always fine? Although, sometimes I am fine, for periods of time, the crazy slows down and she settles herself, life has purpose and meaning and lightness. Mindfully I move through life, alert to when things start to tilt into the “I am no longer fine” zone. 'I’m fine' was my old comfort blanket, something to wrap myself up in at times of uncertainty, like trying to hide the barking black dog in a cupboard, easy to manage for a while.

This is what I really mean or am feeling, when I answer with “I’m fine” –
  • I am fine some days mean, I’m up, I’m washed, I’m dressed and now I’m fighting to manage my day best way I can.
  • Inside, I’m screaming in pain, anguish and I just want to crawl away, curl up and wait for it all to settle down.
  • I am finding life really hard, struggling to stay focused and together, but I don’t want you to know because it makes me feel weak.
  • I am not fine, but it’s so much easier to say and takes less energy than to explain how I am really feeling. I’m too tired to respond in any other way.
  • I am falling apart, my brain is overloaded and overwhelmed, but I’m here looking at you and talking to you, so I actually must be fine.
  • I need to focus on staying positive, nothing has changed so rather than bring you into my world and bringing us both down – I’m fine works.
  • It’s the wrong time and place for me to talk about how I really feel today.
  • I do not need any more judgement or pity, as in my experience there is already judgement and you will want to fix me in some way.
  • I already talked with you before about my feelings and it didn’t go well.

In this moment, I am actually fine, right now, my mood is balanced, my thoughts are slower and I’m not feeling overwhelmed. I’m not okay, but it means in this one moment, I’ve a little energy, I can smile and try to manage my day. I really want to be fine and if I say it enough times it should come true.

“What is wrong with you” or “Are you sick again” are not responses I feel like hearing AGAIN. I’m too tired to respond in any other way. It’s become a habit; it’s said before I’ve had time to hear the question and then it’s too late to back track.

If you are going to ask the question, we both need to be ready.

Caroline Boyle (Key Worker, Engage Women)