How Are You? When “I’m Okay” Means Not Okay At All

How are you? What do you say when you're not okay at all? I'm okay? I'm fine?

I suspect that many of us living with mental illness, or any other chronic illness, for that matter, have a standard set of responses that we sometimes draw on when answering questions about how we are and what we do. “Not okay” just isn’t something most people want to hear.

For me, these standard responses may come out if there’s an expectation of judgment, but also if I know the person isn’t actually interested in the real answer, if I don’t like the person sufficiently for them to get a genuine answer, or if I just don’t have a short but still accurate answer for how I’m doing.

Here are some examples from my repertoire.

How are you?

  • “Great” = anywhere from good to great
  • “Good” = okay
  • “Okay” = not okay
  • “Alright” = not very good, but there’s no point getting into it now
  • “Um… ok, I guess” = really not okay, but I don’t have the words/energy to describe it

It’s been a long time since I’ve come out with the first two responses, but they were standard practice when I was well.

What have you been up to lately?

  • “not much” = I’m doing my usual thing, but I have no interest in telling you what that is
  • “Um……. not much” = a) I’ve literally done nothing, or b) I don’t remember

Work-related questions

I don’t have enough contact with people to run into this situation anymore, but this is something I’ve struggled with in the past. Mostly, I tried to keep the word count below five. “Where are you working right now?” “I’m not.” End of story. People seem to feel very entitled to ask about work. But, as I said, I don’t deal with that much now because I’m not around annoying people enough to have to put up with it. Plus now it takes me an extended period of time to even get five words out of my mouth, so that shuts things down rather well.

Smiling versus not-smiling

I sometimes try to smile to be polite. Psychomotor retardation doesn’t always leave that as an option, though. The slower I get, the less I’m physically able to move my face into expressions. Even if I wanted to smile, I couldn’t; it’s like my face just doesn’t move that way. And really, forced politeness is pretty low on the list of things that matter to me, so I can’t be bothered wasting energy on people I don’t care about.

It should be okay to not be okay

One in four people will deal with mental illness at some point. That’s a lot of not okay people, and it really should be okay to talk about it. Maybe to create change we should consider answering honestly rather than turning to our stock phrases. That’s definitely easier said than done, but maybe

Do you have any preferred go-to responses to “how are you?” when you’re not okay?

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

52 thoughts on “How Are You? When “I’m Okay” Means Not Okay At All”

  1. I struggle with this. I don’t like to lie (and am a bad liar anyway), but often the truth is not what other people want to hear, or what I want to say, or I can’t think of the right words even if I wanted to say them. I usually just tell people I’m “OK” or “Fine” or leave it at that.

    Also, being long-term unemployed is socially awkward to admit to enough even without added mental health elements.

  2. I love this.

    I think we say Okay even when we aren’t because its so much easier than trying to explain to someone else exactly how we feel and what is going on in our mind. Especially when you know the other person doesn’t have a clue or understand what you are going through.

    I tend to reply with “im fine”

  3. I usually answer with just basic information–work and such–but then end it with ‘other than that, life is pretty much a disaster 🙂 or a chuckle ‘

    the happy face/chuckle makes them think I’m kidding but in reality I’m saying ‘nopes, not okay at all and life actually does feel like a total disaster’. The only one who gets my sarcastic sense of humor in these instances is T.

  4. I love this!! It’s important for people to know that just because someone says they’re okay doesn’t always mean they actually are. It’s also important to understand that those struggling, don’t have to talk about if they don’t want to. My best friend struggles with severe anxiety, I know her well enough to read her body language now, but I have no problem sitting in silence with her when she needs it. She’s admitted that sometimes that’s the best thing I can do for her, just to sit by her side and not speak. Thank you for sharing!

  5. As people who despise small talk, we focus on a specific, big-picture event. We thought about this a lot in summer because Spouse wanted to go for walks with us, and Spouse is outgoing and well-liked.

    So if it’s someone we haven’t seen/communicated with in a long time, we’ll say, “COVID has disrupted our mental health therapy, so we’re consumed with seeking resources.” If they give a fuck, that leads to a conversation. If they don’t, we have been honest and left them something to chew on if they have other contacts who may be struggling with similar challenges to us.

    If Older Child is coming home from college, we might say that we’re excited to see Older Child soon, and that leads often to non-threatening conversation about having kids in college.

  6. My favorite response is the last one on your list, “okay, I guess”. Just recently I said that to my best friend. He called me on the carpet and asked, “no, how are you really doing”. His response caught me off guard. I am thankful though for him saying that for it let me know he really wanted to hear how I was feeling.

  7. My husband and one or two friends has decoded my canned responses, and at the time it was unnerving. Now it’s kind of nice being able to say what I mean without meaning what I say.

  8. “Same old” and “the usual” work for me, since they aren’t lies but aren’t fake cheerful either. Lots of times I give a positive reply though because I try to keep an optimistic mindset going. If I feel really bad I will say meh or bleh or blah or HORRIBLE! But usually only to my girls or a close friend 🎃

  9. I have lots of stock responses, and I use them to “sidestep.” This has come up before among people who know me closely, in that I seem more extroverted than introverted to many at first, but this is only because of the many “stock responses” I’ve developed. A lot of the time, it doesn’t matter whether I like or care about the person or who they are really, I just practice the stock response in order to minimize the amount of space the interaction is going to take place in my psyche. Most people are pretty cool with that, as long as (as someone else suggested) I keep it on the upbeat.

    Generally, it connotes: “I’ve got something going on, yes, you don’t need to know what it is right now, but it will all come out into the open in good time, and then you’ll be glad you spelled my name right.” Or something in that area — just so long as I somehow convey that I’m at least as important as the other person is in the interaction, it does a good deal for me at those moments.

  10. Melanie Bee Cee

    My go-to is “Fine and you?” ‘cleverly’ deflecting the nosy question back to them. If they press the matter, I might just say “Not that great actually, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to hear about my troubles.” Usually makes the most inquisitive back off.

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