Why “I’m Fine” Hurts Us (A Creative Way to Connect Instead)

walk alone or true connection

Quick quiz: You’re greeted by someone at work, the supermarket or church with, “How are you?” You respond: _______.

Raise your hand if the words “I’m fine” filled the blank before you could even think twice. Yeah, me too.

Don’t worry. We’re not alone. Grief recovery experts John W. James and Russell Friedman share that over 20 years helping people heal from loss ranging from death to unemployment, divorce or relocation, the answer they almost always get from hurting people when asked how they’re doing is “I’m fine.”

I’m fine.

Possibly the lamest response we can give one another. Ever.

None of us like being lied to. None of us wants to be a liar. So why do we so easily say “I’m fine” when we’re not? { <== Tweet this}

Why is it so easy to let ourselves and others get away with the lie when we’re actually in the middle of a crisis, death, emotional struggle or giant bout of PMS?

James and Friedman explain why “I’m fine” is not only unhelpful, it’s damaging:

“The danger of ‘I’m fine’ is that it does not help the broken heart. Saying ‘I’m fine’ merely distracts us and others, while pain and loneliness persist on the inside. The net effect is to create a scab over an infection, leaving a mess underneath.” — The Grief Recovery Handbook, p. 56

The thing is, we’re not fine in those tough moments. Neither are they. But we do need someone to listen—for another human to see us, even in the unlovely moments.

Recently, when I was at Starbucks (don’t judge. I love corporate coffee!), I asked my barista, Rose, “How are you today?” Out tumbled her autopilot, “I’m fine,” and out popped this question from me:

“Is fine okay for today?”

She smiled and said, yes, it was. She was a little tired and was working hard on schoolwork lately, but it was sunny and she likes sunshine so, yes. That was good enough.

Someone who’d been standing next to me in line approached me a little while later and said the question to my barista surprised her. And that she liked it. Because, like me, she’d grown tired of hearing people say “I’m fine” when she knew good and well they often weren’t. That they needed love and to be visible in a busy world.

Honestly, I didn’t go into Starbucks trying to change the world of social interactions. I was actually thinking, “I’m really glad I was even coherent before my coffee!”

But this other customer and I left that day feeling like maybe there was hope for those little interactions with other human beings that can feel so scripted they almost hurt when we’re already in the middle of challenges. As someone working on grief recovery in a key area of my own life right now, this idea has immediacy to it.

What might our communities—our world—be like if we dug a bit deeper. . . if we took time to move past canned pleasantries to real interaction, even in the little Starbucksy moments of life?


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  1. mammabear says

    This is something that drives me crazy about church. You could ask someone how they are to have them answer “I’m fine” then find out the next week they’re in the middle of a divorce. How do we get real without scaring people off? Do we take a chance and start with “I’ve been better?” and see what the asker says next? But then there’s the whole canned reply “I’ll pray for you.” This is definitely a place where Christians to start showing that love of Christ by checking back later or a kind note. But first you have to get beyond “I’m fine….”

    • says

      Church is the WORST about this sometimes! I think people don’t know how faith and pain can coexist, so those with untested faith assume they can’t. That’s been one of the main vibes or outright responses I’ve gotten when the going is tough. In a way, I’m thankful I’ve had to be the one getting the blank “OMG why is she telling me the whole 4 minute version of her trauma!?” stares…. it’s helped me become a crusader for investing in real relationship!

  2. says

    My pastor-husband and I lead emotional healing groups at our church. In those groups, “fine” is referred to humorously as the Christian “f” word. It helps break down barriers to sharing honestly how we are doing.

  3. Elizabeth Jones says

    I am actually pretty good at NOT saying “I’m fine”. I actually have a hard time with that because my feelings are almost always at the surface. I like to connect and if I am struggling I usually just say it. The other day at the baseball field another Mama (who I have met and talked with a few times but not about anything serious) asked me this question and I said, “I am kind of bummed today. Lincoln (my oldest) had a real attitude this morning and then again after school and I am just trying to work through it.” I then proceeded to have a very encouraging conversation with her as we discussed the various stages our boys are in and how we deal with them and how they hurt and whatnot. I felt SO much better after that. BUT there are some much deeper issues, mostly marriage stuff (I am with Laurie on the grieving and asking for better journey), that I may not be so quick to be honest about. People don’t want to hear about my issues, most of the time because there is nothing they can do about it. Lately I did open up to sister in Christ about my husband, anxious about her response which was to tell me they would be praying and then to point out some positive things she had seen in him, which was super encouraging. Thanks Laurie!

    • says

      I’m sorry for how that recent brave step to connect panned out the way it did. Lame. :/ In that person’s place, may I say thank you for being open and taking a risk to share? And that I’m right here if you need to chat/email? <3 (Also, have you checked out the Grief Recovery Handbook? I think that might be our next book study! 🙂

  4. says

    Once again you’re hitting me right where I live. As usual you make me think. Your last two posts will be rolling around in my mind for awhile. Why? Because of a tough situation that I desire to hope for something better for yet feel afraid to even though I know I should/must. And this because “I’m fine” is my mantra. Well, most of the time and lately way too often.

    Regarding that, I have a dilemma. Even if people suspect that I’m going through something they want to hear “I’m fine” from me so that they can move on to sharing their issues and problems instead. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe I set that dynamic in relationships without realizing it? I suppose since I’m a “helper” they expect me to give. And I don’t mind doing so. I really don’t. I just wish things worked both ways. I’m alone with some very tough situations right now and I wonder if anyone besides God cares.

    I can’t believe I just said that out loud.

    Anyway, this post also reminds me to look past the shiny veneer and put more effort into connecting with people in my daily encounters. It’s true “I’m fine” is a common default. Maybe I’ll try something like you did and see how that works. Lots of hurting people in the world and all they really want is to know that someone cares the tiniest bit.

    Good post friend. I think I need to add “The Grief Recovery Handbook” to my reading list.

    • says

      I’m glad you did say that out loud. 🙂 So grateful for you, a fellow idea-wrestler. Definitely add that book to the reading list, and have a pen handy when you do. It’s amazing how much half-digested grief is sitting around in our over-busy minds and hearts. On your out loud thought: as you said on the FB page, yes, let’s talk. It’s amazing how us helpers pull the rug out from under our own need for connection!

  5. says

    I usually say I’m doing well, when I am. Occasionally I’ll let someone know I’m struggling. I think the problem is many of our stories take more time than most people are willing to invest. I like your approach, it opens the door to letting someone know we’re willing to listen.

    Another problem is many of us are concerned about being judged or getting a negative reaction. Especially if that’s been our experience in the past. With our society constantly in a hurry . . . it takes time to make connections. Thanks for pointing us in that direction.

  6. Nicco says

    My answer these days is, “living through it”. People sense I’m going thru something and sometimes change their canned responses. I always ask them when they engage, “Is there anything i can pray about for you?” I have more quality friendships now because they know i seriously care.

  7. tina says

    What’s worse than I’m fine? “Good enough.” You hit me where I live today and I thank you. Working to trade “good enough” for the day’s truth. Good enough will get my dreams buried with me and I want to come out into the land of the living. Thank you for your encouragement and transparency. God bless you!