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“Doing Fine” When We’re Not: Intimacy, Competition and Shame

(2 minute read)

I’ve had several clients who have been deeply depressed, sometimes to the point of considering suicide, and yet have never let anyone know how unhappy they were. And it’s not just people who are depressed: most of us resist sharing our deepest troubles with others. The desire to hold back, to maintain an image of ‘doing fine’ even when we’re not, seems very widespread, if not universal.

Some people will protest and claim that they’re very open with friends and share everything. I suspect though, that while they may talk about their troubles, they rarely show how they feel when things are at their worst. The vast majority of us present a somewhat sanitized version of ourselves to the world.

There are some obvious reasons why we have to do this. Sharing our darkest thoughts and feelings with colleagues could endanger our career or promotion prospects. Self disclosure to people we don’t fully trust could lead them to say hurtful things, or even use it against us.

But there are other factors that are less obvious, things that exert a powerful force on us and prevent us from showing anyone how we really feel. We are all caught in a dilemma: We are social creatures with a need for intimacy with others, yet as social creatures, we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Why is that a dilemma? In order to get close to others, we must reveal ourselves. But by revealing ourselves, we give others the opportunity to feel they’re doing better, and put ourselves into a position where we may be pitied and looked down upon.

And that is one of the reasons why we reply “Fine” and smile when asked how we are, even though we feel awful inside. Sometimes we would literally rather die than let anyone know how sad, weak or vulnerable we feel. Yes, we need other people, we need to be known, but our fear of being seen to be struggling is the very thing that keeps us from revealing that struggle.

Some people pretend to be doing fine for another reason entirely: they fear abandonment. They sense — rightly or (as I believe) wrongly — that their friends or family will reject them if those people know how troubled they are. They believe that their unhappiness will be an intolerable burden to others, and is therefore best kept to themselves.

We are therefore caught in a vicious circle: Because we feel down, we are reluctant to share our troubles with others, which makes us feel isolated and distant from other people. And because we feel isolated and distant, we feel even more down.

And so many of us bravely soldier on, hiding our sadness, low self-esteem, loneliness or even despair from many, if not all of our friends and family. We get up in the morning, plaster a smile on our face and summon the energy to pretend throughout the day. It’s exhausting….but that’s not the worst of it. The real problem is that by pretending to be feeling something we’re not, we further isolate ourselves from our fellow human beings. At the very moment that we most need others, we find ourselves most distant from them.

So what can we do when you’re feeling down, and because you’re feeling down you’re also feeling isolated and lonely? Three things:

1/ Stop pretending. I’m not suggesting you tell everyone how you’re feeling — that would be inappropriate and would get you some negative reactions. But it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to the question “How are you?” with “I’m having a rough time right now, but if you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it.” Or you can say “I’ve had better days. It would help me if we could talk about something else though.” If you’re questioned, and you feel like giving a bit more information, by all means. If not, you simply repeat what you said before. (It’s important to remember that just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean you have to answer it.)

2/ Take a risk. If you have people you already confide in to some extent, see how they react if you tell them a bit more. If you have no one who knows how you feel, try to open up a bit to someone you feel more comfortable with. Sometimes, just connecting with another person can make us feel much better.

3/ Find a therapist. If the first two ideas don’t make you feel better, then perhaps it’s time to find someone who can listen to you and guide you as you find your way to your own solution.


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