What do You Mean ‘Fine’ Isn’t a Feeling? It Worked for the Beatles!

John Lennon wrote “I Feel Fine” which was released as a single in 1964. “Fine” may have worked in the 60’s, but it doesn’t work as an emotion in the 2020’s.

Baby’s good to me, you know
She’s happy as can be, you know
She said so
I’m in love with her and I feel fine!

— John Lennon, 1964

When you walk into school, the secretary asks, “How are you?”

You answer, “I’m fine, thank you.”

Very polite and appropriate. The sentence leaps from your tongue without even thinking about it. It’s the social norm. It’s automatic. It sounds like a pretty innocent phrase, and we certainly hear it multiple times every day. But it communicates absolutely nothing. In fact, the other person may not even hear you say it.

The “I’m Fine” study

Social scientists and psychologists pick very strange things to study. So you might not be surprised that there is a 2017 study about “I’m fine” done by the Mental Health Foundation of the UK.

This study of 2,000 adults found that the average adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, though just 19% really mean it. Almost one-third of those surveyed said they often lie about how they are feeling to other people, while 1 in 10 said they always lie about their emotional state. It also revealed that 59% of us expect the answer to be a lie when we ask others “How are you feeling?”

While some of us probably think we’re open to discussing our feelings, these survey results reveal that many of us are really just sticking to a social script. On the surface, we’re routinely checking in with each other, but beneath the surface, many of us feel unable to say exactly how we’re really feeling.

To make this even worse, the study also found that 44% of the participants said that they have regretted asking somebody how they were doing after receiving an answer they weren’t prepared for.

Expressing our thoughts and feelings may be difficult

We have previously discussed the human need for connection (A Sense of Connection is a Core Human Need, Creating a Deeper Connection), that sense of being heard, understood, and felt. It’s this level of communication that facilitates our sincere expression of thoughts and feelings. The expression of your true feelings can quickly build the kind of human connection that we all need.

While openly expressing your thoughts and feelings may sound simple, the reality is that it’s quite hard, especially when we worry that those thoughts and feelings might cause someone discomfort.

For example, imagine a scenario in which you’re disappointed by the actions of a close friend. The feeling of disappointment is uncomfortable — painful, even.

Though you’re keenly aware of your own disappointment, you can’t seem to find a way to share your experience with someone you’re close to. You may conclude that communicating your disappointment is “too messy,” “not worth the trouble,” or “only going to make things worse.”

The desire to avoid the potential discomfort of a difficult conversation can override your desire to be seen and understood. So, rather than take the risk of communicating intimately, you default to superficial communication.

That is, you default to “fine.” “No, no worries, I’m fine.”

Avoiding the potential discomfort of a meaningful conversation is a Band-Aid that simply covers up our feelings and makes us look better. However, the unspoken thoughts and feelings that result from this type of experience may fester into negative behaviors that you act out, often without even realizing it. We say “I’m fine” to avoid feelings, problems, and potential conflicts.

Avoiding painful feelings

Many of us grew up in families where we weren’t allowed to be angry or sad. We were told to stop crying or we were punished when we expressed our feelings, or our feelings were ignored. As a result, we learned to suppress our feelings and numb them with food, alcohol, or other compulsive behaviors.

Some of us also grew up with parents who couldn’t regulate their own emotions. For example, if you had a parent who raged, you may be afraid of anger and want to avoid being angry or angering others. Or if you had a parent who was deeply depressed, you may be unconsciously compelled to avoid your own feelings of sadness, grief, or hopelessness. And after years of suppressing and numbing your feelings, you may not even be aware of them—and may say I’m fine because you don’t know how you feel.

Avoiding conflict

We also pretend to be fine to avoid conflicts. Sharing our true feelings or opinions might cause someone to get angry with us—and that’s scary or at least uncomfortable.

Related to this is our desire to be easy-going or low maintenance. We don’t want to be difficult—which might lead to a conflict—and we don’t want to be a burden or need anything because that might drive people away. A history of dysfunctional relationships and fragile self-esteem may have led us to believe that people won’t like us (and perhaps they’ll abandon or reject us) if we ask for too much or have complicated feelings. It feels safer to pretend we’re fine and be a dependable, cheerful friend or an easy-going daughter who never complains or needs anything.

We want others to think everything is working out great for us because we’re afraid of the shame, embarrassment, and judgment that might come if people knew the truth (that we’re struggling, our lives are unmanageable, our loved ones are troubled, that we’re not perfect, etc.). And if we acknowledge our problems to others, we have to face them and admit to ourselves that we’re not happy, our lives aren’t perfect, or we need help.

So, what to do?

Intimate and truthful conversation is a skill that takes practice. It requires that we be one step outside of our comfort zone. You must dare to take a curious and non-judgmental look at what you’re truly feeling.

Even if you’re not ready to share your true feelings or experiences with others, try to acknowledge them yourself. You can do this through journaling and naming your feelings. Take a few minutes to examine how you’re feeling rather than immediately pushing your feelings away. Remember that feelings aren’t good or bad, so try not to judge them. You might think of your feelings as messengers that are delivering helpful insights. Again, rather than trying to change how you feel, be curious about why you’re feeling a particular way or what your feelings are trying to tell you.

Consider meeting someone at the coffee shop (or the break room!). When they ask you how you’re doing, take a breath, then take a moment to reflect and “check-in with yourself”  to see what you really are feeling right now, in the moment.  Feel free to give them your honest answer.

This will become easier with practice! And you’ll be happier with yourself when you know yourself better and can acknowledge more of your feelings and experiences exposing more of your true self.

Some people may have a hard time with the feelings you’re expressing, but others will be drawn to this more assertive, authentic version of you.



Download the Emotions Wheel in full color for classroom use!
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson
Larry Levenson is the founder of Circle Dynamics Group and a national leader in training educators in emotional intelligence and the use of genuine listening and curiosity in conversations with students. He has a Master's degree in Human Development.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.