“Fine.” The word sounds innocent enough. And most of us hear it — and use it — multiple times every day. But there’s more packed into this four-letter word than you might think.
To talk about the troublesome nature of what seems like a benign word, let’s establish that three levels of communication exist:
Superficial communication is the area in which “fine” finds its place. And the truth is, that’s usually fine. This sort of communication is the most common of the ways in which we interact with others.
For example, the barista at your regular coffee spot asks, “How are you?”
You answer, “I’m fine, thank you.”
Your response is polite and appropriate. It leaps easily from your tongue, checks off a few boxes associated with social norms, and is transactional.
While superficial communication accounts for the bulk of our verbal interactions from a psychological standpoint, it’s the least satisfying. In fact, if we’re unable to achieve communication that’s more meaningful, we’re in trouble.
This is because, as humans, we long for connection — that is, a sense of being seen, understood, and felt. This sort of connection is achieved through intimate communication.
Unlike superficial communication, which is transactional in nature, intimate communication drives meaningful connection. It’s this level of communication which facilitates one’s sincere expression of thoughts and feelings.
While expressing thoughts and feelings may sound simple, the reality is that it’s quite hard, especially when those thoughts and feelings cause 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 vulnerable 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.”
Imagine the friend who’s disappointed you reaches out and asks, “Hey, is everything OK? I’m afraid I may have upset you.”
You respond, “No, no worries, I’m fine.”
You see where this is going? Trouble.
That trouble comes in the form of behavioral communication. When one is unable to experience connected, intimate communication through the verbalization of vulnerable thoughts and feelings, one will instead behave — or act out — those thoughts and feelings.
Here’s the deal: Thoughts and feelings don’t just go away. Try as you might, “hiding them away” or “letting them go” or “just forgetting about them” doesn’t work. In fact, doing so is like slapping a Band-Aid on an untreated wound.
The wound looks to be better — you can’t see its messy gape — but it’s still there. Only now, it’s there and festering. Thoughts and feelings are the same way. They can be covered up, but until you sort them out, there’s high risk of infection.
To bring this concept back to the earlier example, avoiding the discomfort of a vulnerable conversation is a Band-Aid. However, the unspoken thoughts and feelings that result from this type of experience fester into behaviors that you act out, often without even realizing the connection.
For instance, your feelings of disappointment may translate into your becoming less likely to return that friend’s phone call. That initial feeling of disappointment evolves into resentment that eats away at the foundation of the friendship.
So, what to do? Intimate communication is a skill that takes practice. It requires that one step out of your comfort zone. You must dare to take a curious and nonjudgmental look at what you’re truly feeling and thinking.
This can start back at the coffee shop. The next time someone asks you how you’re doing, feel free to give them your most comfortable answer, but challenge yourself to actually take a minute to check in.
Maybe you’re experiencing more joy than you’d been aware of … and maybe sharing just that will spark a new kind of start to your day.
Coley Williams, LMFT, is the co-founder and chief medical officer of Level Therapy.