In my practice as a therapist, I’ve counseled many people over the years who are working through life’s less shiny moments. The thing is, when you’re feeling down or in the midst of a personal crisis, responding to someone who greets you with perky, “Hi, how are you?” can be a difficult question. Sometimes people—even casual acquaintances—are genuinely interested in hearing what’s going on with you and sometimes they aren’t looking for details; they’re just being polite.

Last summer, for example, Brandyce’s close friend and mentor committed suicide. Brandyce, who is an empowerment coach recalled, “’Are you okay?’ is a question that was asked more times than I cared to count…” The constant reopening of her wound lengthened the grieving process because she felt it important to give an honest, emotional answer, no matter how much doing so cost her.

My patient Pamela’s* experience with being asked “Are you okay?” during a dark depression led to a different but also disturbing reaction. Pamela replied to the question with an honest accounting of her lifelong battle with the blues, only to be met by an uncomfortable laugh and abrupt, “Yeah, life is rough. See you later.” Pamela explained ruefully, “It turned out that the person asking didn’t really care. She just wanted an, “I’m good, you?” kind of response. I felt so stupid, which only added to how wretched I was feeling.”

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Suffering mental health issues—whether situational or chronic—is debilitating enough without worrying about how to handle other people’s curiosity—even when the curiosity is well intentioned. Sometimes your hesitation at admitting you are in an emotionally fragile state is what makes being confronted with this question so torturous.

Here is a guide to help you handle this question in a way that works for you:

1. Figure out the intent of the questioner

Who is the person asking? Is he or she someone you are close to, someone you believe truly cares about you? Or is he or she a casual acquaintance that seems to be asking the question as automatically as one offers “Gesundheit” after a sneeze?

A good rule of thumb is if you are unsure this person can be trusted with your intimate secrets and/or you just feel uncomfortable, don’t feel obliged to offer more than a cursory response.

This means give a polite non-answer that makes it clear you want this topic of conversation shut down. Some potential candidates for your go-to answer include, “Lots of people are going through difficult times these days. Let’s talk about something pleasant” or “I’m hanging in. Thanks for asking. How are you doing?” If the person persists, offer, “Thanks for your concern but I’d really appreciate your respecting my privacy. Have a great day!

When confronted with this blunt question, Natasha, who blogs about relationships and chronic illness at low stress living asks herself, “Do I wish to discuss my emotions with this person?

If the questioner is someone you know is truly concerned about your welfare, your answer depends on your state of mind. With someone she trusts and wants to talk to, Natasha will say, “Actually it’s been a really tough week. Would you be up for talking about it with me?

2. Judge how answering the question will affect you  

For some people talking about their inner turmoil, even with a trusted cohort, is painful for a variety of reasons.

Remember Brandyce, who found being queried about her emotional state in the aftermath of personal tragedy to lead to a reopening of a barely-beginning-to-heal scab?

Some people who feel shame at having mental health problems might react to this question with a wave of self-disgust, thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t even pretend to look normal!’ (Whatever ‘normal’ is!)

Others find it painful to be hit with, ‘Are you okay?’ due to fear that once they start talking, it will be hard to stop. Debra* was reluctant to talk to anyone about her anxiety out of fear she would get “diarrhea of the mouth and never shut up.”

Most who are asking about your wellbeing are likely doing so out of concern. However, those who are in your full confidence are likely family, close friends, mental health practitioners. Remember, that is your main support system. Anyone else taken into your confidence is at your discretion.

We’ve dispatched with the people who don’t deserve more than a cursory answer. But how do you handle caring questions from people you value but don’t wish to give a complete accounting of your suffering or whom you don’t feel are capable of handing the whole truth? Finding balance is the best solution. 

3. Set Boundaries

My patient Sarah* found herself regretting that she’d confided in a caring neighbor about the extent of her mental health issues. Sarah said, “Beth was constantly saying she was happy to be a listening ear. It got so I feared getting on the elevator because I might run into her and she’d ask how I was doing with a sad look in her eyes.”

I advised Sarah to tell Beth in a kind but firm way that she didn’t want every conversation or run in with the neighbor to involve a serious discussion. Sarah followed this advice. “I told Beth that if there was something I needed or wanted it was so nice to know she was there. Otherwise could we just go back to talking about our kids or sharing news about new restaurants in the hood?”

Brandyce learned to tell concerned friends what she needed—and didn’t need. “I’d say, ‘I need to vent’ or ‘I need some space’ or whatever.”

The empowerment coach said, “At the end of the day I have found that if I am not in an emotional place to talk and I find someone’s questioning me intrusive I need to go within and do what is best for me.”

And that response is perfectly okay!

*Editor’s note: Patients’ names and details are changed to protect their privacy.

Last Updated: Mar 7, 2018