In the Season 6 finale of Mad Men, Pete Campbell learns that his mother has fallen off a cruise ship and is most likely dead. Moments later, he steps into the elevator to find his coworker, Bob Benson. Bob—the office glad-hander who is never not chipper to the point of being annoying (and who introduced Pete’s mother to her now-suspect cruise companion)—brightly asks, “How are you?” Pete looks at him, astonished, and says, “NOT GREAT, BOB.”
I have thought about this moment a lot since the episode first aired in 2013. I think about it every time someone asks me how I am and I say “good” even though I’m extremely not good. In the months following the 2016 election, it popped into my head nearly every day. (I also regularly think about the two runners-up in this genre of amazing honest reactions: Ilana Glazer’s “How ‘am’ I?” and Dorinda Medley’s “Not well, bitch!”) And though I wouldn’t call noted sleazeball Pete Campbell my inspiration, I can say that I’ve finally gotten to a place where I can now answer the question of how I’m doing somewhat honestly. And that honesty has been so beneficial: It’s made my relationships better, and has made a world of difference in how I feel.
As a fairly private and generally upbeat person, I spent most of my life staying silent whenever I was going through a difficult time. I actively avoided telling people—particularly my coworkers and casual friends, but even close friends too—that I wasn’t doing well. But there are two big reasons I’ve started doing it more regularly these days.
First, being honest is a relief. Going through a difficult time can feel a lot like carrying a stack of delicate china while tiptoeing across an iced-over pond. What you don’t need at that moment is to have to hide how much you are struggling to keep everything from falling out of your arms or worse, pretend it’s a breeze. You may not be able to set down the china or step off the icy pond right now, but you can at least admit that what you’re doing is hard.
Second, being honest gives other people an opportunity to show up for you. When you’re in the midst of a crisis or low period, it can be hard to remember how much people care about you, or to believe that their support will actually make you feel better. And hey, maybe sometimes it won’t help! But don’t underestimate the power of a supportive friend or community; even just a heartfelt “I’m so sorry to hear that” or “that sounds really tough, and I’m here for you” can make you feel a lot less alone and less afraid. And sure, there might not be anything they can do to change or fix the situation, but your candor still opens the door for other forms of support, e.g., hugs, cute kitten videos, a few freezer meals, or just extra kindness and grace.
If you struggle with receiving care, consider that when you let people show up for you it's good for you, but it’s good for them too, and in turn could be great for your friendship. As friendship expert Shasta Nelson writes in her excellent book Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, “There are downsides to pretending we don’t have needs: It denies that we’re human, and it robs our friends of the joy of giving. We’re not fun as fun to play with if we only sit at the bottom of the teeter-totter, never giving our friend a chance to push us up.”
And by the way, you don’t have to share your private business with everyone you encounter in order to feel that relief and support; in my experience, it comes from simply telling one or two people a little bit about what’s going on (especially if they are people you see or talk to fairly regularly).
A lot of people take it as indisputable fact that no one who asks “How are you?” wants a real answer. But...is that really always the case? Why have we all decided that this is true? I ask people how they are doing every day, and even if I’m saying it out of habit sometimes, I still want to know. And I’m not unusual in this regard; while there are certainly exceptions to this, it’s likely that the people in your everyday life do actually care on some level. But even if the asker isn’t consciously looking for a more honest answer, they likely won’t recoil in horror when you offer it. In fact, they might even feel relieved that someone is giving them permission to be similarly honest when they need to be.
If you’re worried about burdening someone who just wanted to exchange pleasantries, that can be mitigated by what you share and how you share it (more on this in a moment). But in the age of perfectly curated Instagram stories and relentlessly positive Facebook statuses, a lot of people welcome a conversation with someone who is willing to be vulnerable. If we were all a little more honest in the moments that we’re not doing well, maybe we’d all feel a little better.
How to actually do it
Figure out what and how much to share
When you’re thinking about whether and how to be more honest, consider two things: what you’re comfortable with sharing, and your relationship with the other person. Ideally, what you say should match the level of intimacy you currently have.
Nelson frames this kind of opening up in the context of what she calls the “frientimacy triangle.” I found the framework (and the book!) to be a really helpful tool, so I contacted her to talk more about it. The three sides of the triangle are positivity (which in this context means genuine interest, joy, amusement, humor, and pleasantness); consistency (i.e. spending time together, which establishes confidence and trust in the relationship), and vulnerability (sharing more personal details, being willing to be exposed and honest).
Positivity, because it’s a baseline requirement, forms the base of the triangle. But in this usage, positivity is not about being intractably upbeat. “Positivity does not refer to what we’re talking about,” Nelson tells SELF. Instead positivity refers to the joy, interest, humor, gratitude, and warmth that is present in each conversation, and the relationship as a whole. “Even when we’re hurting, we can be grateful, we can be curious, we can affirm other people. It’s still our job to make sure people leave the conversation feeling valued.”
Once a baseline of positivity is established, Nelson says, consistency and vulnerability (the two arms of the triangle) can move upwards at roughly the same pace. So if the consistency (the amount of time you’ve spent together, the length of the relationship, and so on) is relatively low (think of a 2 on a 1 to 10 scale) the vulnerability you share will probably be relatively low as well. So you can still talk about the realities of your life with people you have met fairly recently, but recognize that a new friend likely isn’t the best audience for every messy detail of your life.
Nelson says you can practice positivity even when you’re down by thanking the other person for listening, giving them permission to be happy about whatever is going on in their own life, being willing to laugh when you can, and remembering to say, “But enough about me; what’s new with you?”
Let’s say you’re going through a divorce. With the friends who are at level 1 to 2 on both consistency and vulnerability, Nelson says, you might say, “I’m going through a divorce and not gonna lie, it’s pretty rough. But I am looking forward to making new friends and keeping busy and trying to remind myself that there is plenty of love and fun to be had in the world.” With a level 9 or 10 person—such as, say, a sibling you’re really tight with or your best friend since age five—you might share the ways it’s affecting your children, your fears about dating again, and the fact that you cry yourself to sleep every night. As for everyone in the middle? Aim to share in a way that gives the other person the information and context you feel is most important (whether that’s “I feel sad” or “I need to take a few days off”), while still making clear that you don’t expect this person to react like a lifelong friend (or a therapist) would. “Share a little and see how the person responds,” Nelson says. “Pay attention to social cues. Are they asking questions? Is it only one-way sharing?”
“It’s always appropriate to share what’s going on in your life,” Nelson says. “But we shouldn’t be processing with the people at the bottom of the triangle.”
If you’re worried that being honest about your feelings will make you seem like a Debbie Downer, I get it. I’ve been there too. But Nelson’s tips have helped me think about my relationships as a whole instead of focusing on every individual interaction. When I zoom out to get that perspective, I can see that it’s perfectly OK for me to be a little more vulnerable and authentic with my friends—in part because we’re all doing our best to bring that genuine positivity, even when things are shit.
What to say
If you’re thinking that being more open would make you feel better but simply have no idea how to respond to “How are you?,” below are some scripts similar to the ones I’ve used in my own life that you can use as a jumping-off point. (Of course, you should feel free to tweak/change them to match your situation, needs, and the person you’re talking to, or to just ignore them entirely!)
Extremely vague approach: “Eh, I’ve been better, honestly! I’d rather not get into it, but I’d appreciate any good vibes you want to send my way right now.”
A little less vague: “Honestly, it’s been a rough few [days/weeks]. I’m dealing with some [fill in this blank or just say "stuff"] and could use some good vibes right now.”
Then fill in that blank with something like:
- stressful stuff in my personal life
- family drama
- family stuff
- health problems
And try not to overthink the phrase you choose to fill in the blank here! “Some stressful stuff in my personal life” can cover pretty much everything, and you don’t owe anyone a full explanation on exactly what’s going on with your latest round of IVF and how it’s affecting your body and your marriage. The point is to convey “I’m not OK and I don’t really want to get into why.” There are no vulnerability police who are going to throw you in jail for not choosing the exact “correct” phrasing for your specific issue.
A little more forthcoming: “Honestly, it’s been a rough few weeks; my mom is having some health problems. But I’m hanging in there!”
Even more forthcoming; can be specific or vague; doesn’t even require being asked “How are you?:” “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that my mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. No need to worry—she has great doctors and I have a good support system in place. I don’t really want to talk about it now, but I wanted you to know in case I seem a little distracted or start taking more PTO than usual.”
(Of course, feel free to skip the “I don't really want to talk about it” if you’re actually comfortable talking about it!)
Bonus: a more forthcoming version to use when shit is really bad/traumatic: “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that my mom was recently diagnosed with cancer, and her prognosis isn’t good. She’ll be moving into hospice care later this week. I’m doing my best to keep it together, but I’m devastated. I don’t really want to talk about it right now, but I wanted you to know in case I seem [distracted/tired/weepy/out of it/down] or start taking more PTO than usual.”
Ultimately, what you choose to share, who you share that information with, and how you communicate it is super personal and completely up to you. Figuring out what level of vulnerability you’re comfortable with in different relationships takes some experimentation and practice—and might change over time, or depending on what exactly you’re dealing with. Sometimes, being honest can feel like self-care; other times, it might feel like a burden. But when I’m struggling, I find it helpful to simply remember that I have a choice, that I’m allowed to give a candid answer to “How are you?," that being vulnerable isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, and that being a little more honest can actually make me feel a lot better.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of Dot Journaling: A Practical Guide and a former senior editor at BuzzFeed. She is currently working on her second book, The Art of Showing Up: A Guide to Taking Care of Yourself and Other People (The Experiment, Spring 2020). You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and read her blog here.
The content of each "A Little Better" column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of SELF or SELF editors.
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