Wendy's Blog

Why We Pretend We’re OK Now – and What to Do About It

by Wendy Keller

My dear old friend is going through divorce after 20+ years.  She’s got four teenagers and her soon-to-be-ex is being shady about the money.  When I call her, she uses a fake chirpy voice to tell me everything is “going just great!” and then, within a few minutes, she remembers it’s me – and she starts telling the truth.

My friend Larry’s mother died suddenly in late February.  Two weeks later, he was telling people, “Yeah, that was a rough couple days but I’m OK now.”  That was a lie.

People like you and me who have stared down some awful thing in life – a death, a loss, being victimized, extreme illness or injury, financial devastation, some kind of major suffering – often keep a secret from the world.  We tell people we’re “fine”. We lie that “things are OK now” when really, they are NOT.  And they aren’t going back to “normal” or “before” or “the same” ever again. There’s enormous pressure in society to “fit in”.  To be “OK”,  to be “strong” for others.  We’re pressured subtly to act like it’s OK.

Here’s a news flash:  It’s NOT OK now.

We are trained to lie because that’s what is expected.  People want us to be OK because our NOT being OK makes them uncomfortable. I say: tough luck. This is life.  Join in or sit it out. 

We MUST stop the lies if we hope to create a more compassionate world!

I’m not talking about the routine, “Fine, thanks. You?” we all say to the cashier at the grocery store or that one woman we often see in the elevator at work.  I’m talking about people whose names we know.

When we lie, we are all complicit in this Big Cover-Up.  If you lie now, while you’re going through hell, when it is your friend’s turn, he or she will be forced to lie to you, to keep the ball rolling.  That way, everyone will feel isolated, alone, unsupported and afraid.  That way, everyone who suffers will feel like they are the only one in the history of the world to carry such a burden.

“A burden shared is a burden halved.”  — Unknown

I’m not suggesting you toss all your problems on the conveyor belt at the the supermarket.  I’m suggesting that judiciously testing the waters will increase the number of people who can be present to support, comfort and love you through this time.  One of the biggest surprises of my life when my children died was this: that some people I thought were “friends” disappeared; and some people I barely knew helped carry me through the worst days with more love, compassion and tenderness than I had assumed existed in the entire  human race.

Want more support?  Try this!

When next asked how you’re feeling, use one of these phrases to respond:

“Well, better than last week.  How nice of you to ask.”

“It gets easier to bear as the days pass.”

“Thanks for asking.  We’re so grateful for everyone’s concern.”

“Today has been one of my harder days, but I guess that’s to be expected.”

Test these or ones you create yourself.

What do answers like these do? If the person IS a compassionate person, and they ARE the kind of person who wants to help others, they will immediately ask you another question.  It may even be, “What do you mean?”  or “What happened?”  People WANT to help one another. They WANT to be supportive. It’s ingrained in our DNA from living as hunter-gatherers.  If the person is NOT likely to be compassionate, their own warning signals will go up in their head.  They will “un-select” themselves.  They’ll either unconsciously respond with, “Great!” (because they “didn’t hear you”) or “I’m so sorry” and then slap some stupid platitude on you.  Like, “Time heals” or “He’s with Jesus now.”  Whatever. You don’t have to worry that you are “burdening” those people.  Those people can be skipped. They can’t be on your support team, and you need a support team. Not to dump on, but to hold up your spirits when you’re feeling low.  That’s part of the human social system, and it’s your turn to receive.

Here’s a fluke I’ve noticed:  when you bump into the Compassionate People, they will often tell you the most surprisingly candid things about themselves – things you’d never know if the Wall of Social Lies hadn’t been breached.   I can’t begin to count how many times someone said to me, “Oh! My son died too when he was…”  or “I got divorced last year.  Is your ex being good to your daughter?”

Even among guys, there are many people of both genders who can and will offer support if you’re brave enough to give those who are compassionate a peek into your truth.

Let yourself risk being loved, supported, encouraged, helped by almost-strangers by telling the truth about your feelings whenever it is appropriate.  Watch and see it change not just your place in the world, but how you feel about humanity in general.  Your day to support and love someone else will come soon enough.  For now, let yourself float on a whole planet full of love, kindness and compassion.  I promise you it is there if you open yourself up to seeing it.

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  1. So true!! I think one of things we all need to learn is how to listen. When someone is going through a crisis they dont expect us to solve their problem or help take away their pain. Most often they simply want their feelings to be acknowleged and heard. It’s okay to be angry, to grieve, to struggle and to have doubt. I have an old friend who seems to find the need to respond to difficulties of those around her with the old “think your life sucks….well mine is…blah…blah…blah…”. She is unable to be supportive to others because she can not look beyond her own experiences to see anyone elses. Supportive relationships are a two way street and it is one of the reasons i rarely seek her out in times of trouble.

    • Wow, Andrea, I have two “friends” like that! I don’t tell either of them anything at all. One of them is a life-long bachelor in his 50s. I suspect he just never learned how to connect with other human beings. I feel sorry for him, I’ve tried to explain how it makes other people feel when he does that (to me and to mutual friends) and he just can’t get the hang of it.

      I love your comment about “all need to learn is how to listen”. True! True! True!

      All the best to you and your family,

  2. I have found that over the years I have distanced myself form the “non listeners” that are so consumed with their own situations that they really don’t hear anyone else. I meet new people all the time that have great compassion and an ability to share their personal experiences as well as listen to mine. Life is too short to spend time with people who “just don’t get it”..People who “do get it” enrich your life and make you want to be a better person also.

    • You’re right Ellie…as we get older we move away from the negative people in our lives and embrace those who enrich us. We also stop worrying about offending people by expressing our feelings. True friends and family accept us as we are..in whatever stage we are at. We all suffer some kind of pain. While each persons losses may be different they should be able to find a common bond in reaching out to share their experience. This is what helps us heal and move forward….

  3. Hi.
    I have just begun reading your blogs and I find them quite insightful. This one in particular made me think. I am a divorced mother of five in an interesting position. I spend quite a bit of time “filtering” through who my friends are and are not. I began doing this when I realized that I was everyone’s support, but when it came down to me being in need, the favor was hardly ever returned. I know life can be hard, but I do believe we were meant to be of a social element. I do not think we were meant to handle everything on our own. Through this belief system that I hold that real friends are there when times are both good and bad. Real friends won’t allow the “I’m ok” lilie, and they have probably been through rough patches too. Not only dies the need go both ways, but often through events like divorce, loss of children and many other rough spots, a true friend can be made. Those are the ones I tend to call “family” because like family they will be there for it all, as will you.

    Thank you again for this little insight to my own thought process.

  4. I really like this posting. I will be thinking about how I answer that little question, “How are you doing today?” and will pay more attention to others’ answers now too.


    A good friend is someone can put their feelin to the side for you. Stay on the ph, all night just let you talk.I love my good friend more than a sister,i’m going to help my best friend because she can’t walk anymore.I will do this without pay this is what friend ?

  6. Thanks for that. Sometimes it helps to be reminded, and right now I needed this reminder. Fortunately I have a few very good, loving and supporting friends who even help me killing my personal lie that I’m fine (sometimes it’s just easier to lie to myself, even if I’m not…).

    As for the quote: A burden shared is a burden halved. It’s a translation of the Dutch proverb ‘Gedeelde smart is halve smart.’ Besides ‘burden’, smart also translates into ‘aching’. So, very well chosen for this issue.

    Love and hugs!

    • Although I’m surely spelling it wrong (because I only know it phonetically) “Dank euw vell”

      I had no idea it was Dutch in origin.

      All the best to you, Thea.


  7. You describe what I have lived-Once we are on the “other side of the fence” as I refer to it-the friends we thought we had do disappear-I feel I have discovered why-because they don’t get it-they have no idea what you are living through because their lives are intact. In a way I am happy for them, perhaps envious. So I fault them not-
    I tried being honest several times when asked how I was-you’re right they were so uncomfortable perhaps because they fear the same could happen to them-who knows. I just learned who to “really” talk to.
    I think one of the most confusing things after my husband died was trying to figure out how to act in public. Turns out I am the happiest when I am out of the small town I live in because no one knows me-people don’t know my story and I feel I can just be me-pathetic isn’t it.
    I applaud you on your blog-all so true-I only wish people could really be that way.

  8. Great post. NOTHING has separated the wheat from the chaff in my life than being a single mother of a special needs child. In short, my guard is up BIG TIME!!!!

    However, last year in a completely overwhelmed moment I opened up to a kind stranger I met on the beach who ended up leading me to healing. It was amazing and a testament to what you just wrote about. 🙂

    • Lovely story! Wow! I suspect that many of us have had instances when a kind stranger said or did something that changed our destinies. It makes me get goose bumps!

      thanks for sharing, Shellie.

  9. Some of the biggest troubles in our lives go unnoticed by those around us; not because they do not care, rather, because they are too wrapped up in their own “stories” to reach out to others. Sadly, in my deepest moments of dispair, all I could do was take the focus off me. I was the last person I wanted to deal with but eventually found out the best way out of dispair is to deal with me first!

    • Lisa,

      Yes, I believe I understand what you’re saying. I think one way of coping IS to force the focus off ourselves. Good for you!

      Hope things are calmer now. Wishing you love, joy and peace,

  10. Thank you for this great post, Wendy. So spot on. I have a funny story, however, at the time it was not so funny. Shortly after my husband passed away, I was in our local drug store and saw a neighbor, I raised my head to say hello and she was gone. I spotted her again and went to say hello and she disappeared once again. Finally, I caught up with her and she started to literally run away again, however this time I said hello. She just squirmed. I knew right then and there, as I was barely standing, that she needed my blessing more than I needed hers as she was so uncomfortable with the notion of death. I felt great empathy for her from that day forward, but I learned my reply to her would always be “I am fine”.

    • Heather, this made me chuckle! Can you imagine?!?! How bizarre!

      Thanks for sharing.

      Wishing you a life overflowing with love, joy and peace,

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