How to respond when you’re not well

“How are you?” is perhaps one of the most common questions that people ask themselves. Often the default answer is “fine” or some variation of that, even when they’re not doing so well. There are many possible reasons for this. For starters, simone saundersRSW, trauma therapist and founder of The Cognitive Corner, says that people rarely answer the question honestly because it is usually used as a joke rather than an actual question about someone’s well-being. He adds that it’s also a challenge to decide how to respond when it’s really not right, when you’re not sure how your response will be received or if it’s appropriate for the setting.

In addition, the clinical psychologist Tracy DalglieshPhD, says that we are socialized from an early age to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and that we should keep our feelings to ourselves.

The benefits of expressing how you really feel

While it can seem terribly vulnerable to share how you’re really doing, expressing that you’re struggling with something to other people has many benefits, according to mental health experts. One benefit is that talking about what you’re going through helps you understand and process your feelings, Saunders says. Dr. Dalgleish adds that suppressing and minimizing our emotions contributes to stress, burnout, depression, and anxiety. “I use the analogy of a pot of boiling water,” she says. “You have to remove the lid to let the steam out over time. Otherwise the pot boils over. When we hold on to what we’re really doing on the inside, we’re more likely to fight.”

Saunders says that sharing can also help build emotional intimacy in our relationships, helping us build a strong support system. Sharing with others is also a form of co-regulation. “These revelations and the opening of our inner experiences can help regulate the nervous system,” says Dr. Dalgleish. In other words, we feel relieved and calm when we connect with others. She cautions that this applies to sharing and being vulnerable with someone, not taking it out on others.

How to respond when you’re not well

Reflect on what you need from the conversation.

So how exactly should we respond when someone asks how we’re doing if we’re not doing so well? It depends on two things: why you share it and who you share it with. Saunders recommends first asking yourself what you’re looking to get out of the action: maybe it’s support, a listening ear, or you just need to express your feelings. “That will help you gauge the level of vulnerability you might want to express,” she says.

For example, if you just need someone to listen, Dr. Dalgleish suggests starting the conversation with, “I want to share something, but I just need a listening ear.” On the other hand, if she wants help overcoming a challenge, she suggests something like “I’m struggling with X and I really need some solutions.”

Determine if it is safe to share with the person

It’s also important that the person you share your feelings with is trustworthy, empathetic, and provides a safe space, says Dr. Dalgleish. Consider how they responded to his vulnerability in the past and how they made him feel. For example, Dr. Dalgleish says that if the person has criticized or dismissed your feelings before, then it may be best not to share with them.

Saunders also points out that there are different levels of vulnerability depending on who you’re talking to and the level of emotional intimacy in the relationship. “For an acquaintance or someone you’re not close with, one version of the truth may feel more comfortable than a deep dive,” she says. “Whereas a close friend or family member may receive a higher degree of vulnerability.”

For example, Saunders says you can respond to an acquaintance with something like, “I’ve had better days” or “I’m feeling tired.” Or, if you’re in a professional setting and would like to respond authentically but still be light, you might do so with answers like, “This week has felt pretty hectic so I’m looking forward to the weekend” or “The weather is making me a little nervous.”

Whereas with someone with whom you have a close relationship and feel safe sharing, Saunders suggests responses like, “I’m really struggling with X” or “My stress has been keeping me awake for the past few nights.” Or, if you want to dig deeper, she says, try something like: “I’m glad you asked…I’m not doing it right; Do you have a moment today where we can talk more about this?

Regardless of who you’re sharing with, Saunders says the answers above allow the conversation to go deeper if both parties feel open to doing so, while also allowing the vulnerability to stop there if necessary.

Remember, you are not the only one who is struggling.

If you’re still having a hard time sharing, Dr. Dalgleish reminds us that everyone struggles, so you’re not the only one going through something. Bringing compassion to our struggles and sharing our true selves is part of our healing journey, he adds. Reminding yourself of this can help you be more open to sharing.

And practice makes it easier to be vulnerable

From a practical point of view, Saunders says that moving towards more authentic answers can seem less daunting if you try to experiment with different people and answers. “Pick days/places/people you want to be most honest with and test how you feel,” she says. “You can reflect on the questions: Did my vulnerability match the level of security in that relationship? How did I feel after sharing?” With these tips and scripts in mind and a lot of practice, being vulnerable can get easier over time.

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