It’s been said that the definition of “dangerous” is the act of giving a bottle of methamphetamines, a jet-pack and a machete to a grizzly bear. Evidently they never faced an irate partner who uttered the phrase, “I’m fine.”
The manner in which that fearsome phrase rolls off the tongue – like a barrel going over Niagara Falls after an extended drought – strikes fear in the heart of men and women alike, but for quite different reasons.
Ladies and Gentlemen
“If you’re a woman, chances are you’ve been very familiar with this thought: “Why won’t he just talk to me.” If you’re a man reading this, you’ve probably got some familiarity with “Why does she always want me talking about my feelings (accompanied by a semi-disgusted look on your face)?”
Ladies, passive-aggressive behavior has never really helped anyone. First, you miss an opportunity to actually address what’s bothering you. You also internalize your frustrations and, in the process, create yet more problems. By the time you’re ready to discuss the original problem you’re stewing over a thousand new ones, both real and perceived.
Gentlemen, the days of the “real men don’t cry” brigade are over. Utilizing “I’m fine” for every occasion in which emotional or physical pain is punishing you is akin to creating a false reality, a cozy, safe little man-cave whose fellow members gain entrance only after similarly denying reality.
For both genders, it’s good to remember one of the more pithy definitions of F.I.N.E. – “F’d-up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”.
The Science of “I’m Fine”
To be fair, using the sword-and-shield of “I’m fine” isn’t always directly our fault. Humans are hard-wired to ignore the bad and emphasize the good in order to increase our hope and decrease anxiety. But don’t be too quick to blame “I’m fine” on your great-great-grandparents: this theory of psychic defense doesn’t allow for the angry undercurrents contained within most modern-day usages, nor does it take into account the martyr-like high that so many derive from its utterance.
Confirmational bias2) is a ten-dollar word that simply means a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. This bias can play strongly into the modern usage of “I’m fine”, allowing the speaker to confirm their belief that they are persecuted and long-suffering without assuming the burden of seeking out what the real problem is.
It’s a game player’s trump card. A short-cut for the crazy-stupid. A cheap trick performed by an even cheaper magician.
But it can also be a weapon.
A Weapon and A Tool
“I’m fine” can make your partner reel from the inflicted wounds. They become unsure of themselves, their motivations and the depth of their love. They begin to see themselves as the coiled-mustache villain of the relationship, without taking the time to think things through, to see the reality of the situation, the hidden motivations, and the petty attempts at mood manipulation and anger-displacement.
“I’m fine” can be a grief-processing tool. From early childhood, we were taught “laugh and the world laughs with you … cry and you cry alone”. We’ve taken this to heart and make it a practice to isolate ourselves in times of grief, imagining that no one wants to share our burden.
But we’re wrong. Friends, family, loved ones, all are there to share and ease the pain, if only you let them in by NOT using “I’m fine”.
Morality and Therapy
From a moral standpoint, “I’m fine” is a lie – a big one, one we use all the time, sometimes not even being aware of the frequency of our usage. Russel Friedman, executive director of the Grief Recovery Institute and co-author of The Grief Recovery Handbook3), makes an interesting point in his story about “I’m fine” –
“When we make public appearances we often ask large audiences this question: “Do you like being lied to?” Of course no one says yes. Our next question is: “How many of you have ever said ‘I’M FINE’ when you were feeling terrible?” Every single hand in the audience goes up. Conclusion: Nobody likes being lied to…and everybody lies about their feelings. If this were a physical illness it would be an epidemic and the Center for Disease Control would be granted billions of dollars to find a cure.”
Non-native English speakers have even been advised not to use this phrase, causing a bit of confusion for what was seen as an honest reply to an innocent question. Learning English can be a daunting task; this only confuses it further.
“I’m fine” is a phrase guaranteed to keep therapists and counselors in business. Gazed upon with a psychologically-oriented eye, “I’m fine” is a cry for help. It can be a mask used to cover anxiety, which is itself often used to ward off feelings. You may never have thought of anxiety as an active strategy, a creative act. But when you can step back and see yourself using anxiety to ward off feelings, you find you can direct your attention to the world and what is going on (reality), and to the feelings you were warding off; you just might see that your head will not explode if you just let those feelings come and that things are basically OK minute-to-minute in spite of whatever feelings are washing over you.
Why lie to yourself and to others? If you care for them, you shouldn’t be lying to them. And if they’re nobody to you, who are THEY that you have to make the effort? How about this: if you’re feeling a little bit less than perfect (and which of us isn’t?), try answering “I’ve had better days, but thanks for asking”. This simultaneously acknowledges the person’s interest yet shows you don’t want to invite any help or advice, all in a gracious manner. It shows you’re not 100% and allows the other party to act accordingly, all without lies and hurtful emotions being invoked.
Let me know about your failures or successes using these ideas. Or don’t.
Either way, I’m fine.