The Vulnerability of Answering the Question, “How are you?”

I ran into a friend today.

We bumped into each other at the polling place as I went to cast my vote for school board. She was working the polls as she does each election.

Vulnerability of Asking the Question How Are You

This is a friend I used to work with on occasion in my previous position. I always enjoyed getting the chance to work with her.

Today, she asked me about how I’m doing.  It’s a fair question that people ask when they see me around town. They care. They want to know more. But the fear of answering this question sometimes causes me to turn the other way when I spot a neighbor in the grocery store. It also leads me to walk past an acquaintance in a restaurant, avoiding eye contact and hoping they don’t notice me.

Avoidance behaviors can quickly become my everyday existence if I’m not careful. But having to explain my complex health situation to others adds to the anxiety I’m already trying to get under control.

So I struggle with explaining my current life situation to other people.

They want to know if I’m working. Where I’m living. If I’m getting better. What treatment I’m doing. When I’ll be going back to work. What I’m doing with my time.

They see my outward appearance, which sometimes looks “good” from their perspective. But the problem lies in that I have several conditions that are considered “invisible illnesses.” The conditions I face do not affect my outward appearance to the level people think they should.

I believe the friend I ran into today truly cares. She’s well-meaning and supportive. She also spoke words of encouragement to me, which I appreciated!

But even with someone who is kind and considerate, I am still not quite sure what to say.

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Answering the question of “how are you?” puts me in a vulnerable place.

Should I share that even though I am out voting today, I had to do it this morning because I didn’t know if I would have enough energy later in the afternoon or if anxiety would cause me to stay home?

Should I tell those who ask that I spent all day on the couch before I took a shower and got ready to go out to eat?

Do they need to know that brain fog was so heavy yesterday that when I went to write a blog post I could barely get out a couple sentences?

Should I share about all of the times in the past month where I went downhill to the point of stuttering, then being unable to speak at all? Or how when this happens, I don’t have coordination or strength to walk?

Is it important to share that the past couple weeks have been full of big, ugly tears from the pain – both physical and emotional?

I write openly about the things I have experienced, but the day-to-day ups and downs are hard to explain verbally in just a few minutes of time.

Life with Chronic Lyme Disease is a roller coaster, going up and down in intensity. There’s no consistency, so explaining whether I’m doing better is complicated.

I did my best to explain to my friend that there are ups and downs and that I have been having some good days lately. But “good” is still relative. My “good” is not the “good” of someone who is healthy.

Sharing about life with a chronic illness can put you into a vulnerable place. It’s not easy to explain what you’re going through when the situation is anything but simple. It’s hard to share without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.

The best thing I can do is gauge the situation based on who has asked and what they would like to know, and never leave my house. (Kidding, kind of…) If it seems like they do actually want to know, I’ll share a little bit about the ups and downs in an attempt to help them understand. But if it is a passing “how are you?” I typically don’t get into any of it.

In all of this, it’s important for us to extend grace – to ourselves and to the people we interact with. We’re all human. We may not understand everything. We can call go a little easier on each other and on ourselves.

Now I want to hear from you: How do you handle the question, “How are you?”

If you’re looking for more support in your journey with chronic illness, I’d love to give you a free copy of my eBook, Finding Hope Through the Fog. You don’t have to walk this road alone.

Answering the hard questions with chronic illness


26 thoughts on “The Vulnerability of Answering the Question, “How are you?”

  1. This post really touched home with me. Whenever anyone ever asks how I am, I’ve fallen into the habit of “I’m not too bad, thank you” because I’m afraid of saying anything more meaningful in case they aren’t actually that bothered about my answer. When someone does care enough and wants to know truthfully, my anxiety sky rockets and I feel incredibly vulnerable, often leaving me close to tears because I’ve finally opened up to someone. Most of the time I use the “not too bad” though, it’s easier, less daunting. Whenever my husband hears me say it to someone or to him, he automatically now says “now tell the truth” in his effort to help me open up and tell the truth. It’s a gradual process answering such a simple question of “how are you”. Only those that have chronic illnesses / mental health problems understand. It makes it easier reading fellow spoonies articles, so thank you.

  2. Good Morning! So, I just sent my youngest to her first day of middle school this morning and I’m happy for but at the same time a little sad because my babygirl is growing up. After she got on the bus, I sat down to read some in my Bible and journal my thoughts. I remembered running across this blog/article the other day in Pinterest and I decided to open it and read it. I can so relate to this. I’m a 36 year old who was extremely active up until a year ago. Long story short, after a year of too many specialist and wrong diagnosis, I was officially diagnosed with two unrelated issues. I had a hidden inguinal hernia in my pelvic pressing on nerves and causing extreme pain and two months later I had developed POTS syndrome. 9 months ago I couldn’t walk 10 feet and was short of breath and exhausted, fast forward to today and I am on meds and doing 60% better. I put my makeup on, go out every chance that I feel good enough too. I have really good days and really bad days. But on my half way decent days I don’t want to miss a beat of life. I felt what it was like 9 months ago to not even be able to get up and I never want to take life for granted. Am I better? No! I haven’t felt normal since all of this started. Am I going to make the best out of everyday? Yes, most definitely! I get asked all the time, “When are you going back to work?” “Well your hair makeup look so good, you don’t look sick.” When told these things and asked these questions I almost feel ashamed for having a good day. No one knows the 4 days I woke up with blurred vision, shortness of breath and extreme fatigue and all the time spent in bed and the house not clean. Then one day I feel decent, not normal but decent, and I have a little energy and I push through it, put my makeup on, dress up and try to feel good about myself and hopefully my husband will feel some attraction to me after him seeing me with bed hair for days. You guys are definitely right if it’s something that people can outwardly see such as the use of a cane or a bruise or a cast it seems to be more of a realistic disability to them but with our horrible stuff that we deal with on the inside that people don’t know see unless we tell them, it’s just not understood well. Which makes us feel like we need to explain ourselves daily. Explain why we can’t work, explain why we can’t volunteer for fund raisers in the hot sun. Explain why it’s so hard to get out of bed on some mornings. I’ve finally decided to stop explaining myself. I don’t have to. God knows my situation. My husband and children know my situation and that’s all that matters at this point. I will continue to pray for others and love them because they don’t know better. When the statements of others hurt my heart, I have to remind myself of these things! Thank you for your posts! It’s helping a lot of people. Just to know that we are not alone!❤️🙌

  3. Yes, the question of how you’re doing with a long-term medical condition is altogether awkward and quite frankly, I can’t help but feel like I failed every time I walk away from one of those conversations. I personally feel like I always have to be on the up-in-up and salve people’s worries about me. Of course, this then reduces my ability to truly be transparent. This whole ordeal of what to say and what not to say to such a simple social question can really become overwhelming. Thanks for bringing to light the challenging nature of this question, Emily!

  4. Emily – Thank you for this post and your many others! I slept in this morning until 10:30, and I felt guilty! I immediately saw the e-mail you sent out, and I’ve been reading ever since. I feel a sense of comfort now!! I have several chronic illnesses (MS, fibro, CFS, primary immune deficiency), and I get the usual response from others, “…but you look so good.” I’m 4 weeks out of total hip replacement, and it’s quite amazing the difference in people when they come to my home and see me using a walker or arm crutches!! My usual response to well-meaning people is usually, “I’m having a good day today”, then I shift the focus to the other person. I’m now thinking about writing my own “Bill of Rights” humorously and incorporating some of your “I don’t do’s”. I would refer to you, of course! Thank you again for instilling hope!

  5. I’m thankful for a solid group of friends with whom I can be completely honest about my health. That makes it easier to just respond with “I’m good!” to others who are looking for a more causal, shallow answer.

  6. It was so great to read this as it’s my experience too and I feel validated and not so useless (that I still struggle with it too). Just yesterday met someone I hadn’t seen for a long time who genuinely wanted to know how I was, so I told her (ME/CFIDS and cancer twice) and then had to listen to many well-meaning but unhelpful comments like “Well, you’re still alive” and “If you have any chance of surviving then that’s good” etc. I came home wishing I’d simply said “I’m good”. It’s hard to decide each time whether to be authentic and share (and possibly meet that kind of response) or hide in plain sight by just saying “Fine thanks”! And it takes a lot of energy, both at the time and afterwards getting over it.

  7. The only people I know anymore are from church. I started noticing that when I tell them I’m not doing well, they find a quick way to exit the area! Not many people are seriously asking how you really feel. It makes them uncomfortable I suppose. So I have been practicing different approaches such as when they ask, how are you, I’ll reply, “Good enough to make it here today.” Or perhaps, “God is good!”. The one that I really hate is, “You look good! You must be feeling great!” I’d like to say, “Then I am getting better at acting!” Last Sunday, because I was sitting next to a window with the sun beating on my head I began to get very sick. I moved out of the way of it but nearly had to leave. After we were dismissed a couple people came right up to me and couldn’t see I was crying, (from the pain). So I don’t think my replies are really noticed as long as they are gracious.

  8. If I’m out I usually avoid people if I’m honest. I just don’t have the energy for empty small talk any more. However, if I do have to answer the dreaded ‘How are you?’ I usually reply by saying, ‘I’m still alive!’ The other person usually leaves it there. I let them talk then while I half listen. Sadly, these days socialising needs to be more on my terms for me to cope.

    1. I totally understand that, Cathy! It can be hard to explain to people how things are…And I agree with you on needing socializing to be on terms that are right for you. That’s how I feel as well.

  9. I don’t answer it anymore, actually. When I run into someone and they ask, “How are you?” I respond, “Hey!! How are you?!” With a big smile. And you know what? Nobody notices. Ha! They answer, there’s quick small talk, and we move on. I’ve only had two people catch it and I’ve been doing this for a couple months now. I’ve found that people ask out of habit, like saying hello, and aren’t necessarily listening to the answer.

  10. I also dread the “How are you?”. It’s been about a year since I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and I’m still trying to figure out how to cope. Honestly, I use the avoidance tactic a lot. Especially when it’s a friend from high school that I haven’t seen or really talked to in years. I still hate admitting that I’m not the healthy and active person I used to be. So I never really know what to say. I usually go with the ol’ standby, “Oh I’m ok.” (I’m not.) But I do share some of my struggles with a few close friends that really do want to know. At work though, I have to pretend to be ok. Sometimes I can get away with plastering a fake smile on my face but other times it’s just too hard to mask my pain, fatigue, and anxiety. But when you have no options, you just do the best you can. That’s the main thing I have learned on this journey so far- I can only do so much!
    It really does help to know that I’m not alone though! Thank you all for sharing! :)

    1. Hey Meg! Thank you for reading and for sharing about some of your experience! What you shared about only being able to do so much is spot on. We should all be a little easier on ourselves sometimes. :) I’m glad that it does help to know that you aren’t alone!!

  11. Wow, it’s such a relief to hear that I’m not the only one with this problem! I want to be positive and cheerful, but when someone really wants to know how I’m doing it’s hard to know what to say. “Well gee, I’m exhausted to the point of literal collapse every day by 1:00 pm, but you’re looking at me during the four functional hours I get today. So I guess I’m great?” As others here have said, my response depends on who is asking and how much they want to know, but I try to keep in mind that no one can really understand what every person they meet is going through. I know I’ve unintentionally said insensitive things to others whose circumstances I didn’t understand. We all need as much grace, patience and understanding as possible while we muddle through this crazy life!

    1. Hey Melinda! Oh yes…it’s so hard to explain that the time they see us may just be the only functioning part of that day! It certainly seems to be the consensus that it does depend on who is asking. :) Thanks so much for reading and then sharing your experience!

  12. I appreciated this article because I find that to be the most difficult question. There isn’t an easy answer when you feel unwell all of the time.

  13. I walk in these shoes everyday and I had to learn what to say and when, and of course who we’re speaking with. I know from previous experience who is truly sensitive to fibromyalgia and who is t. The who isn’t part I learned the hard way. As soon as I say “fibromyalgia” I can see in people’s eyes when theyve checked out mentally, so I revise what I really want to say into something upbeat and positive. Even when I’m in excruciating pain.
    I try to live as transparently as possible and the words I say, I mean, but the one thing that people say after I tell the truth that bugs me the most is, “Well, you look good anyway” or my all time fave, “You don’t look sick”. My response is usually just “thank you” and leave it at that.
    Otherwise I could easily pop off with some smart ass response like, “Well, you don’t look stupid, looks can be deceiving”!
    As for the people closest to me, they usually already know how I feel just by how I look, regardless of whether or not I “look sick” or not.
    My typical response is “All things considered, I’m doing just fine”.

    1. Love your spirit about it, Suzee! I completely know what you mean about, “You don’t look sick” and “Well you look good anyway.” I definitely laughed what you may have said if you didn’t just say “thank you.” haha!

  14. I do not like that question either and I don’t really think it’s the persons fault per say but the world has turned that question into this like reflex. This quick thing we say in passing without really like really meaning “how are you?” Sometimes I want to be like are you being for real or are you being for real for real?! And sometimes we can tell by the person or the circumstance or the tone but it’s hard b/c 1. We feel like a broken record (at least I do b/c this is such a long road and things don’t really seem to be changing) and 2. It’s kind of a long complex answer that sometimes when I answer it I end up feeling bad b/c I feel like I just had some kind of stomach virus of the mouth and it all just came spewing out.
    So yeah I just end up avoiding people just like you said and then feeling even more lonely. Feels like a battle I can’t win no matter what I do.

    1. Completely agree, Andrea! It is sad how the question of “how are you?” has often become just a passing greeting instead of one of deeper care. I’m sorry that you also have to avoid people the way I do. It sure can be a lonely battle!

  15. One of the hardest things is looking “normal” on the outside. For months I wore a knee brace because of my swollen knee. That is feeling better, but all of the other symptoms are still there. When people say “you look great”, I want to come back with a smart ass answer. But I know they mean well. I have two answers: I’m ok or I’m hurting today. Unless you’re living with it, no one understands.

  16. I have been living through a nightmare for the past 3-4 years. When you are injured at work, on the job, or have suffered a fall at the Hospital like me, you are never taken seriously. I have been Misdiagnosised, lie to, lied about, denied MRIs, Diagnosis not put in my medical records, medication reactions/side effects were not monitored, infections died, and finally told I was born this way….. I am in severe chronic pain everyday. I can no longer take pain medications, injections or Epidurals that only covered up my true diagnosis & caused other damages. It feels as if no one cares at times. Then the anxiety, depression and PTSD sets in after the chronic long suffering & medical neglect. At times, I think I would be better off dead then to live this way or cause the stress it causes on my family. I have serious health conditions that Disability does not take seriously, or perhaps they are being lied to also by the same professionals. My spine is a mess with multiple Herniated Discs & other things, my Sacrum bulges right with swelling & nerve pain. My head Tremors. My gait is horrible & my left shoulder and pectoral muscle is Permeantly damaged. I have many other things wrong. Liver, bladder Dysfunction, vascular problem and many Others. After my Epidurals, I got worse! After abdominal surgeries & off Pain Meds my pain levels have been 4-8 daily. Doctors often blame mental illness or Fibromyalgia & ignore the conditions causing the pain. I feel they down play the results & make all precautions to avoid law suits or disability when you are truly injured or suffering. Prior to my injuries, I was an above average employee & enjoyed fishing & other hobbies.
    How does it feel to go out in public? It’s embarrassing, hillmilating, painful to exercise or walk, I can’t even sit properly. People are rude, and going to the doctors or physical therapy is the worse because they see my pain & suffering and don’t even open a door or offer a wheelchair. Their focus is on anything they can call an improvement regardless how much pain & swelling it causes. Chronic Pain causes a person to become someone else. I am no longer that positive girl that looked for hope & on the bright side of things. I have seen & experienced first hand just how corrupt & horrible this world can truly be. I advocate just how corrupt Workers Comp, and some in the Medical Field truly are! They will even manipulate records, delete medication Reactions from your records to prescribe the same med under a different name only to have you experience the same reactions. I have sent tons of emails out to advocate against the injustice & exploiting that occurs to some patients. I changed doctors for this reason. But the sad truth is that most doctors will not go against the false misdiagnosis by a previous doctor. So the suffering continues on….. Apparently, my conditions are worsening & many of my doctors have moved away. So I wait to see a new doctor…..again! Meanwhile, I suffer in severe pain & fall deeper and closer to losing the sight that shimmer of hope or light I once had at each appointment hoping to find a cure. The thought of suicide is not a mental illness, it is the reality that I will never enjoy life again. I will never be able to babysit my grandchildren, never go on that deep sea fishing trip I dreamt of doing, never enjoy cooking that Thanksgiving meal for the family I use to be able to do. There’s many things I will never. What I can do is thumb my way onto this page on my iPhone and advocate to those in need. Don’t accept the lies & long Term Pain Meds or you will have Permeant Damage like me!

  17. I just hate getting that question. And I feel guilty that I hate it so much, because it IS normally coming from a well-meaning family member or friend! Finding that balance between sharing to help them understand and oversharing (and making them uncomfortable!) is hard, and I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I think what you said about extending grace to ourselves and those we’re speaking to is so important, and something that I tend to lose sight of more often than I care to admit. Thank you for sharing! It’s good to know I’m not alone in those anxiety-filled moments searching for an answer! Hope you’re feeling well!

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