I Am Not Fine, So Don't Ask Me How I Am

15/03/2017 14:56 GMT | Updated 16/03/2018 09:12 GMT

The automatic response to: "Hi how are you?" is usually "Fine thanks." It's a globally accepted answer to a question regardless of where we are or how we feel. Who decided that? How did "fine" become the designated answer and what does it tell us about ourselves?

Similarly the selfie. When the camera stick is extended or when we hear the word "Cheese" the universally accepted response is a facial version on the word fine: we smile.

It all goes back to those early days. We have all been in the presence of a baby that looks dreamy and innocent one minute and the next bursts into wailing tears. Our first response is to placate the child, to jiggle it up and down, show it a funny toy and attempt to quell the distress. We want the baby to be fine and smile. We cannot bear the sense of pain the child is expressing and want to clear it up as soon as possible. And so the script is set. We learn from the earliest of ages to keep our distress to a minimum, to distract ourselves from it as much as possible and to hide our faces should they break out into any form of expression that suggests distress. If we are boys we are taught early on to "stop crying" and if we are a girl we are encouraged to talk it out "What's wrong darling?"

The straight jacketing of our emotions appears to be heralded as the height of civilisation. It symbolises our mastery over our nature and has come to represent the pinnacle of professional and personal effectiveness. The problem is - it's not real. The act we learn is an accepted form of role play that denies our lived experience of being human. It's a weird and wonderful world out there and an equally weird and wonderful world within our heads. We are just not expected to acknowledge and explore it. The script is safe and predictable and moulds us into units that can be stacked up in a neatly predictable row.

Human nature, however, has other ideas. The cracks start appearing when our nature gets the better of us. There are only so many times we can rush to the toilet to hide the tears of a nervous breakdown, and there are only so many sick days allowed where we can stay at home, draw the curtains and enjoy our misery. Nowhere does it get more difficult than when we are living with people, and especially when we even lay our heads on the same pillow. The urge to mask our true feelings becomes untenable and we end up resigning our faces to truly showing our feelings...often it's not pretty.

The interplay between 'the script' and 'our reality' can become blurred. We start to believe the hype of our own well-rehearsed responses. While on holiday we post sun-kissed pictures on Facebook and Instagram after having just had a row over a daiquiri. There is a silent tug of war in play between what we display and what we feel. The bridge between the two is often alcohol. A couple of glasses of wine often collapses the illusion, the script being thrown over the shoulder and the wailing truth comes flooding forward.

We are both drawn and horrified by the fractures that appear in ourselves and others. A man crying, a woman enraged, a stroppy teenager, a miserable, grumpy old bloke - or a mash up off all of the above. The question is: Is it more or less damaging to express emotion as it is experienced or withhold and keep it submerged? What would the world look like if we adopted a different approach to expression than the 'civilised' version we adhere to?

Perhaps acknowledging our emotional responses as they occur would shift the intensity and duration in which they are felt. Rather than boxing it away and allowing the pressure to build. We might, alternatively, just quietly say "I'm feeling a little low right now.'" For isn't it also in those quiet moments when someone has the courage to confide their true feelings, that our hearts melt and we are able to respond with "I know how that feels'"?

When emotions become part of our accepted language and discourse we might be able to honour them without the fear of being totally overwhelmed by them. Simple acknowledgement might smooth the way for a calmer and more productive workplace.

Rather than having our emotions hold us as suspended hostages we might release them and ourselves from the distress they have the capacity to create.