What I Really Mean When I Say, ‘I’m Fine’


In the 2003 hit movie The Italian Job, there’s a scene where the main character says he’s fine.

The supporting character, played by Donald Sutherland, quickly corrects a young Mark Wahlberg by saying “Do you know what fine stands for?

Freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional.

And that’s why I love Donald Sutherland and his character.

How many times have you said ‘I’m fine.

Dozens of times?

Hundreds perhaps? Maybe even thousands of times over your lifetime.

I’m no psychologist, but here’s what I’ve found it to really mean when people say they’re fine.

  • I’m trying hard to pretend that I’m okay inside, but I’m really not.
  • I’m not fine, and I don’t feel safe/comfortable sharing with you what’s really going on in my life.
  • I’m too scared to tell you how I really feel.
  • I don’t know how I’m doing, to be quite honest.
  • I’m afraid if I admit to not being fine, you’ll see me as weak and as a complainer.
  • I’m not fine and I don’t want to burden you with my problems because I don’t think others really care about me.
  • I’m tired because of my life circumstance and don’t have the energy to explain why I’m not doing well.
  • I’m frustrated or upset, but I don’t want to rock the boat.
  • I was taught by my super-strict Christian parents that feelings are bad and that my feelings aren’t valid, so I suppress them.
  • I need someone who will listen to me, and not try to fix things so I can open up and tell you why I’m not fine.
  • I am sad inside, maybe struggling with anxiety and depression, and want to isolate myself.

How to respond when someone says they’re ‘fine.’

The next time your waiter at a restaurant asks how you are, I’m not saying you need to share your life story with them.

On the contrary, use prudence and discretion.

The expectation should be that many of our daily interactions are superficial, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Not every conversation needs to be, or should be, deep and meaningful.

As you and I go about our days, especially working in a professional environment, we should understand that over-sharing can be an issue. But not all interactions are surface and superficial.

The problem begins when “I’m fine” becomes the norm. The problem begins when “I’m fine” becomes a habit, like a reflex that you apply to your interactions with friends, family, and even the person staring back at you in the mirror.

If every response to the question ‘how are you’ is ‘fine‘ then I’d argue you’re not.

And sometimes that’s okay!

It’s okay to not be okay every once in awhile. It’s okay to be just fine if you’re going through a rough season or your life situation sucks.

Recently, a good friend of mine had to cut out his business partner of over 20 years. They had a long history of conflict and strife, and the one had to go. “I feel fine, Dave. I don’t feel horrible, but I also don’t feel great. What I’m going through is hard and I’m grieving losing my best friend and partner. So, I’m fine.

Another friend of mine recently became a single dad. His wife left him for another man, leaving him to raise three kids on his own, two of which are girls. That’s tough for any dad to raise girls, let alone as a single father. “I’m fine, Dave. Really, I’ll be okay I’m just fine.

Another business professional I’m close is going through a divorce after his wife has been openly cheating on him for years. The worst part: he’s got a terminal illness and she’s choosing her other relationship over him. “Dave, I don’t know how to say it other than to say I’m fine…and for now I’m okay with that.

Ever watch the YouTube video called It’s Not About The Nail?

Click here to watch it. –> (https://bit.ly/MnyfOZ)

It’s great. It’s about a couple where she’s simply trying to tell her partner about some frustrations she’s having, only to find him wanting to fix the problem instead of listen to her.

When someone says they’re fine, the worst thing you can do is try to dig only to learn what they’re struggling with and try and fix their problem.

The best way to respond to someone who’s fine, and clearly struggling, is to listen to them in order to understand. (listening and listening to understand are not the same)

Stop what you’re doing for five minutes and ask some probing questions to get them to open up. Tell them things to make them feel safe because if the person who’s really struggling with being fine doesn’t trust you, they won’t open up.

Things like:

  • Being fine doesn’t sound awesome. I’m wondering if you can tell me how you’re really feeling?
  • Just fine? Sounds like fine is masking something else you want to get off your chest. Can you open up to me and tell me more?
  • How come you’re just fine instead of good, or great, or even horrible?
  • Look buster, Donald Sutherland once said that being fine means your freaked out, insecure, neurotic and emotional. Tell me more…how come you’re only fine?

When responding, try not to use the word ‘why’ in your sentences because using the word ‘why’ can trigger a defensive reaction. Instead, ask your questions using the phrase ‘how come.’ It’s softer and will yield a better result in your conversations.

Going through tough stuff is okay.

It’s okay to grieve the loss of a close friend and business partner.

It’s okay to admit you’re tired from your life circumstance.

It’s okay to have rotten days.

But, living in a state of perpetual misery is not ever okay or fine.

Living in a state of perpetual misery is robbing yourself of the beauty of opening up to someone through the exercise of vulnerability. As humans, we all need connection through relationships and that can only come from the courage to respond with authenticity.

It’s hard, I get it. Sharing hard things and being vulnerable can feel like you’re getting naked in front of a sea of people who will laugh at you once they see what you look like. Getting vulnerable can feel like going against the grain.

Being vulnerable can put you in the position of being hurt. Maybe you’ve opened up to someone recently and instead of extend some empathy and grace, they wounded you with their response.

Being vulnerable can be a little painful.

But, what’s the alternative?

Bottling up what you’re going through can lead to negative stress, anxiety/panic attacks, affect your heart-health, decrease your lifespan, force you into isolation, and puts you at risk for depression.

I’m no Einstein, but that doesn’t sound fun or desirable.

The next time somebody asks you how you are, respond intentionally with these words and watch your interactions change.

  • Sad
  • Nervous
  • Excited
  • Anxious
  • Lonely
  • Energized
  • Confused
  • Frazzled
  • Aroused
  • Irritated
  • Content
  • Elated
  • Angry
  • Lost
  • Melancholy
  • Fatigued
  • Overwhelmed
  • Engaged
  • Hurt
  • Frightened
  • Relieved
  • Embarrassed
  • Jealous
  • Unsure
  • Grief-stricken
  • Grateful
  • Rough around the edges

You can even respond with just fine.

I think we all can agree that this life is stressful enough without empathy, grace, and compassion.

Imagine a place where people you interacted with actually listened, loved, and cared enough to understand.

Imagine a world where you and I listened to those who inside were once miserable, but because you took time to understand their struggles they’re no longer fine.



2 thoughts on “What I Really Mean When I Say, ‘I’m Fine’

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights And personal interactions on this topic! Love the call to action step- next time someone asks respond intentionally with these examples.

    Appreciate you Dave!


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