I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my readers were put off by the title of this post. A simplistic sentiment, How Are You? is now commonplace within different aspects of our conversation.
A greeting, another way to say hello, it presents more like a statement of obligation than of actually asking how the other person is doing. It is often said in situations where the inquirer has no means to truly listen to an extended response, especially if the person who is answering isn’t doing very well. Waitresses and telemarketers, concert performers and networking contacts you just met, none of them are prepared for some of our real responses.
Catching up with a friend on the phone after being out of touch for a month or so, that is a context in which we are more likely to be prepared for a lengthy response, and depending on the person, possibly for an intensely emotionally charged response.
I am a grief therapist. I am also someone who has dearly loved ones who are grieving dearly, and I am a griever myself. I am privy to grief, my own and other people’s, and I thought it important to address these three seemingly innocent words.
I truly believe that this question is asked with good intentions.
I also truly, deeply believe that the majority of people are uncomfortable talking about death, seeing someone grieve, and supporting someone who is actively grieving.
Let me make a note, that this is equally true for people going through major life events: illness, illness of a family member, job changes, divorce, etc.
Let me also make note that my approach in counseling is loss-based, and that with every major life change, there are losses that we feel, for what we had before that was familiar, no matter if the changes are perceived as negative or positive.
Sometimes, we are at a loss for what to say when someone we know has hurt in them.
Sometimes, our discomfort in handling these emotionally charged situations navigates our conversation, and since we are lacking words we feel confident saying, we subconsciously put the onus of discussing it on the other person.
To think for a moment, where these people are at: they’ve just lost a spouse, or a child, they just found out they can’t have children, or their hopes and dreams for something they’ve wanted in their lives have come crashing down on them, their divorce is settled, their test results weren’t what they wanted.
Most of their energy is directed at two things: confronting the gigantic thing that is oppressing them and trying to function as close to what normal felt like in their everyday responsibilities despite this gigantic thing that is oppressing them.
How are you?
Well, some say it because that’s what you’re supposed to say. But are you ready for the answer when it’s “I’m shitty, and here’s why”.
It’s a funny thing sometimes, grieving.
Sometimes, there is no energy left for talking about how hard things have
Sometimes, and this is especially true for the people pleasers, there is a need to spare the person who just asked the question, because they don’t want to be a burden.
We don’t realize, that when we ask How Are You? we may be putting a lot of pressure on someone that maybe can’t handle it at the moment. They only have a few seconds to decide how they can answer this. They may be weighing out if they were asked out of politeness, obligation, or genuine compassion, if they have the energy to give an accurate answer, if the person asking can hear or handle their answer, or they may not be ready to face what’s going with it themselves yet.
A little food for thought regarding something that most people gloss over as a colloquial commonplace.
Please understand, I am in no way discouraging anyone from genuinely checking in with someone they care about that is going through something.
I suggest, maybe next time, to give them a choice as to how to respond to you.
By simply rephrasing How Are You? to I’ve been thinking about how you’ve been doing lately, or how things have been for you, they then have the option to simply say “thank you” instead of doing the emotional math equations in their heads.
It’s never a bad thing to follow those statements up with “How Can I Help?” because “Let Me Know If I Can Do Anything” places all of the responsibility on them to contact you when and if they need some support and really, they have enough to deal with right now.
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you peace of heart and overflowing coffee cups.