The question is ubiquitous, often innocent, and generally well-meaning. In the middle of or after a personal crisis, it can become nearly unanswerable. Although those words often simply mean “hello,” I don’t hear them that way anymore. I hear the question in all of its truth, and responses come to my mind in all of their intensity.
Then I have to choose an answer. Occasionally I’m actually feeling good and the choice is straightforward. Most of the time however, as the saying goes, “it’s complicated.”
Yes, often I give a quick answer:
Or a tip-of-the-iceberg answer:
Hanging in there…
I’ve had better days…
Or occasionally a full-blown negative report:
But what does anyone mean, really, with how they respond to this question? Each one of these responses has so many potential meanings, depending on the person asked, the amount of time available for a conversation, the person asking, the situation, the context…when I start to dig into meanings in my mind, the pit gets deep pretty quickly.
For example, “Doing well” could mean that I’m actually feeling pretty good that particular ten minutes. Or that I’m feeling good relative to yesterday when I repeatedly fell apart crying. Or that I managed to accomplish one thing on my list of 20 things that are important to take care of. It’s completely relative, and the chances are slim that what I mean by “doing well” is the same as what the other person imagines I mean, or the same as what someone else means when they say the exact same thing.
Or, “Okay” could mean it took everything I have just to get out of bed, or it could mean that I haven’t thought much about how I feel at the moment, or it could be shorthand for “I can’t figure out how to answer this question,” or it could just reflect an exchange that is time-limited to a few words.
What can keep me from going too deep into this pit of meanings and interpretations? I’ve been wondering that myself, as I look up from the bottom, breathe, and try to find handholds and footholds. It seems the only things that help me climb out – that feel truthful to say – are objective descriptions of actions. What I am doing and what is happening, rather than how I am feeling. That’s it. As in, “I did the laundry.” Or “I cry every time I get in the car alone.” Or “I got everyone to school.” Or “I paid three late bills today.” Or “I’m here,” or “I’m standing up.” Or even more simply, “I’m doing.”
The truth of what you are doing and what is happening is a powerful truth. It may not be practical or wise to go around sharing our most raw truth at every moment, but perhaps we can benefit from doing so a little more often, if we pay attention to when we feel a strong need to take the walls down.
One time a while back – post-cancer-treatment, pre-mourning – things were particularly crappy for me. I wasn’t actively hiding it, but I wasn’t sharing either, and what I was not sharing was feeling increasingly toxic. I decided to write a few friends of mine an e-mail entitled “What sucks for me” that basically listed all of that moment’s sucky happenings. I didn’t want pity, and I didn’t want problem solving. I just wanted to lay my whole truth down on the table to be acknowledged. So I did. And I got a bunch of responses back regarding what sucks for them too. Stuff I didn’t know. Stuff that helped me know them even better, stuff that increased my sympathy and empathy, stuff that highlighted our shared humanity. Stuff that got me out of the “other people are more together, more calm, more focused, more successful, more motivated, more everything than me” space and made me feel understood. The truth cards went down on the table and we all came out winners – winners of connection, acceptance, and support.
On a blog post of mine a few weeks ago, a reader posted a story about a New Year’s meeting of her scrapbook group. Over the course of the evening, as she reports, they moved from “glossy smiles and positive affirmations” to sharing the truth of what was happening for them. Finding in that moment that they needed to take the walls down, they came away changed and with a deeper connection.
How am I doing today?
Well, I got this blog post out after several days of tweaking and rewriting and pondering.
How are you doing?
When I ask you that question, I accept any answer you want to, or can, give. But I hope you notice when it feels toxic to keep what’s happening behind the walls, and that in those moments you consider sharing more of your truth than usual. Something you need may come of it.