These three words, in that specific order, constitute one of the most commonly spoken sentences in the English language. If ‘hello’ forms the foundation of social interaction, ‘how are you’ traditionally constitutes the next layer up from that foundation.
But, I have come to develop something of a problem with this phrase in recent months, mainly owing to the lack of sincerity with which it is often being used. I have bought into this too; my observation and thoughts here derive from both a first and second person perspective.
If you are one of a large number of people in this world who lives with depression, or other issues relating to mental and emotional health, ‘how are you?’ may become more and more torturous as the years go by. It has for me, and I recently reached the limit of my patience for it being asked without any expectation of an honest reply.
Here is my advice to all reading this: never, NEVER ask someone how they are if you have already decided what you want the answer to be. It is literally better to say nothing at all than to mentally define what you want the parameters of a conversation to be before you go into it. If you ask someone how they are, but have already decided that you want the answer to be ‘good’ or ‘fine’, there is a strong chance, unless you have a decent understanding of the defence mechanisms of suppression and denial, that you will respond negatively if the person you are asking responds by telling you they are experiencing negative emotion.
I have had my emotions abused so many times in the space of my lifetime I have lost count. It has run into the thousands. These instances range from the innocuous and non-premeditated to the deeply calculated. I have seen it all.
Coming from a family of people who have the emotional literacy of a dustbin has primed me well for encountering an endless succession of people who treat my emotions and feelings like faeces. This in turn causes me to introspect and look at the relationship I have with my own feelings; how I treat them. It turns out that the answer is: “not very well”. I would like to improve this, but when your own family taught you as a small child that emotions are something to be shunned and shamed, acceptance of one’s own feelings can be challenging. In my own experience, it has been excruciating to the point of agony.
So, I decided recently to make a commitment to handling “How are you?” differently, and it was to answer the question honestly. From my current perspective, I do not anticipate a particularly positive response to this. The few friends I have are not the kind of people whom have an interest in emotional honesty. My family are not the kind of people who are able to handle this without defaulting to invalidation. The test for me will be to stand my ground, and admit to feelings of depression even in the face of this invalidation. It is not self loving to lie and say that you are fine if you are not fine. Deep down, everyone knows this, but accepts blindly that we have created a culture in which emotional inauthenticity is not just the norm, but rewarded.
From a personal perspective, I have seen the terrible damage my fakery has wrought, so could easily argue I have little to lose. As a person with little to no sense of self, I have only the small number of insights I have gained, and some inner strength to accompany me as I speak plainly to those who would seek to punish me for doing so. This is a lonely path, irrespective of whether it is the ‘right’ one.
I would like to see our culture prioritize emotional authenticity in social interaction. I would like every person who lives with depression to stop feeling as though they need to lie to people when asked how they are. You DO NOT have to say you are fine if you are not. You are a human being, you were designed to feel. If other people cannot handle the fact that sadness and anger are naturally occurring human emotions, that is their shadow to integrate, and therefore, their problem – not yours.