We say it continuously. It is a short phrase. Nice. Firming. It allows us to move to the next point in the conversation without dwelling too long on ourselves. Without picking at the wounds. Without giving the note.
The problem is that often it is not true. The problem is pretending that everything is fine, when everything is bad.
Pretending everything is fine, an implicit social rule
When we say that we are fine or that everything is fine, but it is not, we deny our emotions and experiences. Sometimes we say it without thinking too much, because it has become an implicit social rule, a rule that forces us to fake a positive attitude.
We say that we are fine because it is a social rule that we learned from childhood, because we assume that when the other asks us how we are in reality it is a question of courtesy, so that we deploy the “automatic script” that governs many of our social relationships .
In other cases we pretend that everything is fine to avoid conflicts. Sometimes expressing our true feelings or opinions – especially if we don’t do it assertively – can make someone angry with us or even lead to a discussion.
Deep down, we all want our social interactions to be as fluid as possible, we don’t want to become that “difficult person” or add a burden to others with our worries and problems, so we prefer to hide that we are not well and maintain conversation within conventional channels.
At other times we pretend to be okay simply because we feel uncomfortable acknowledging that we are wrong, because we are not used to freely expressing our internal states. If everyone admits of being okay, we feel like the black sheep recognizing that we are bad.
Pretending that we do not have problems or conflicts is a facade. It is an image that we want to project to the rest of the world, because we want them to think that everything is going well for us. We want to avoid embarrassment or judgment. It can also be a shield to avoid showing our vulnerability to the world.
People who grew up in an environment where they have been taught that their emotions and problems are intimate and should not be shared, are more likely to repress them. It is also common in those who have grown up in families where anger or sadness had no place.
The need to convince ourselves that everything is fine
Sometimes that reluctance to acknowledge that we are not okay, even with those closest to us, can come from the desire to convince ourselves that everything is really fine. Sometimes we deny our feelings and problems because they are too overwhelming, we do not know how to manage them and we try to ignore them, in the secret hope that they will disappear as if by magic.
Acknowledging our problems in front of the others, we force ourselves to face them and acknowledge that we are not happy, that our lives are not as perfect as we would like, or that we need help. In that context, denial is understandable. Although it is not the long-term solution because generally the more we ignore the problems, the more they will grow.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Arizona revealed that people who pretend to be fine with their co-workers end up feeling emotionally drained and less authentic in their relationships.
In other cases, that “I’m fine” does not respond to denial but to an attempt to protect ourselves from painful feelings. Sometimes, when the problem is really big, we prefer to talk about it as little as possible to avoid the psychological discomfort activated by that situation. It usually happens, for example, when we lose a loved one, especially during the early days. In those cases, denial is a defense mechanism we use to protect ourselves until we are ready to address the loss or problem.
Recognizing that we are not fine
If we have denied and concealed our feelings and problems for years, it is not easy to begin to peer into that mess below the surface. However, pretending that we are happy and that everything is going well, does not make much sense because it ends up generating a great emotional drain.
Psychologists at Michigan State University, for example, found that the more we fake smiles, the worse our mood will be at the end of the day, and the more likely it is to be marked by irritability, anger and sadness.
Sometimes we just have to give ourselves permission not to smile when we don’t feel like it. Do not try to please everyone. Don’t pressure ourselves to look perfect. Allowing ourselves not to be well all the time. And express it. Ask for help, if we need it. In reality, there are many more people willing to give us a hand than we suppose.
When we are more authentic we can create more solid and satisfying relationships, real connections.
But for this, we need to recognize that we are not well, that we are struggling, hurt, scared or angry. It is not about turning the others into the reservoir of our sorrows and throwing a string of complaints at them, it is about expressing our feelings honestly.
The funny thing is that this change usually generates a snowball effect. When we show our vulnerability, the others also feel liberated and are more likely to talk about their fears and problems. In reality, we are not the only ones who say that everything is fine when it is not. It is a habit. But that habit can be broken when we start to think and act differently. When we validate our feelings and needs. This will take a great burden off our shoulders and, in the long run, we will be able to deal much better with our problems.
Allison, S. et. Al. (2020) Are coworkers getting into the act? An examination of emotion regulation in coworker exchanges. Journal of Applied Psychology; 105(8): 907–929.
Scott, B. A. & Barnes, C. M. (2011) A Multilevel Field Investigation of Emotional Labor, Affect, Work Withdrawal, and Gender. Academy of Management Journal; 54(1): 116-136.