What To Say to Someone Who Asks if You’re Okay When You’re Not Okay

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“How are you?” is perhaps one of the most common questions people ask each other. Often, the default response is “good” or some variation of that, even when they’re not doing that well. There are many possible reasons for this. For starters, Simone Saunders, RSW, a trauma therapist and founder of The Cognitive Corner, says people rarely answer the question honestly because it’s typically used as a pleasantry rather than an actual inquiry into someone’s well-being. She adds that it’s also challenging to decide how to respond when you're not okay genuinely when you’re unsure how your answer will be received or if it’s appropriate for the scenario.

Experts In This Article

Moreover, clinical psychologist Tracy Dalgleish, PhD, says we are socialized from a young age to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness and we should keep our feelings to ourselves. 

The benefits of expressing how you really feel

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

Saunders says 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 disclosures and opening up of our internal experiences can help to regulate the nervous system,” Dr. Dalgleish says. In other words, we feel soothed and calmed when we connect with others. She cautions that this applies to sharing and being vulnerable with someone, not dumping or venting on others

How to respond when you’re not okay

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 great? It depends on two things: why you’re sharing and who you’re sharing it with. Saunders recommends first asking yourself what you’re looking to get out of the share—maybe it’s support, a listening ear, or you just need to express your feelings. “That will help you gauge the level of vulnerability that you may 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 you’d like support with navigating a challenge, she suggests something like, "I'm struggling with X, and I really need some solutions." 

Determine if it’s safe to share with the person

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

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

For instance, Saunders says you may respond to an acquaintance with something like: “I’ve had better days” or “I’m feeling tired.” Or, if you’re in a professional environment and would like to respond authentically but still keep it light, you can do so with responses like: “This week has felt pretty hectic, so I’m looking forward to the weekend” or “The weather kind of puts me in a bit of a funk.”

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

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

Remember, you’re not the only one struggling

If you still find it challenging to share, 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, she adds. Reminding yourself of this may help you be more open to sharing.  

And practice makes it easier to be vulnerable

From a practical sense, Saunders says moving toward more authentic responses can feel less daunting if you try experimenting with different people and responses. “Choose days/places/people that you want to be more honest with and test out how it feels,” she says. “You can reflect on the questions: Did my vulnerability match the level of safety in that relationship? How did I feel after sharing?” With these tips and scripts in mind and a hefty dose of practice, being vulnerable can become easier over time. 

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