How Are You Feeling? (A Little Worse Now That You Asked, Thank You!)

For the chronically ill, the four very well-intended words “how are you feeling?” can cause angst.   This post attempts to shed a bit of light on this seeming contradiction, both for those who ask this innocent-sounding question, and those who must answer it regularly.

If you’re chronically ill, you may already know what I’m talking about here – but perhaps not how to prevent the awkward conversational choices or difficult emotions which “how are you feeling?” can precipitate. If you’re not chronically ill, you may not believe that you could be causing harm. You want a full explanation immediately.  

So here we go.

Imagine Person A encounters Person B. In situations where Person B had the flu, a broken arm, or any other ailment when the two last encountered each other, “how are you feeling?” frequently replaces “how are you?” as Person A’s conventional conversational opener of choice. It is usually a genuine expression of concern. But, at another level, it trips off the tongue without much thought, as is the case with many other phrases of social convention.

If you’re Person B and you’re chronically ill, this innocent question may trigger an awful split-second debate between your ears.

"Should I tell them the truth and make them feel badly, which will in turn make me feel badly because I hate to disappoint this person yet again? OR should I just smile and share my usual little white lie ("fine, hanging in there") in the perkiest voice possible? Truth be told they probably don’t want to know about those two new pain spots that have kept me from sleeping more than 3-4 hours a night for the past two months." 

“How are you feeling?” is generally a safe and welcome question when used on those with non-chronic health problems. A happy answer is often forthcoming; bug bites, broken bones, bad coughs, and the aftermath of difficult operations usually disappear - or at least get better - within days, weeks, or months. The recipient who is asked can often smile and truthfully say “I’m feeling better, thanks so much for asking!”

For the chronically ill, by definition, this is not often true. They’ve been sick for 6+ months – often for years. Their condition is typically either declining, or if they’re lucky - stable.

So what is a caring friend or family member to do?!

I recommend switching to “how are you doing?” as your opening conversational gambit of choice when greeting anyone who has been sick for many months or years. It can be asked with every bit as much love, concern, and kindness as the standard “how are you feeling?”   

At first blush, these two questions may sound very similar; in fact, they set up the ensuing conversation very differently.  

Why? Because “how are you doing?” rises above the subject of health. It asks how someone is doing in their totality.  It does not demand an answer regarding the absence or presence of physical aches, pains, or worries.   It lets Person B avoid that rotten decision to report the disappointing truth - or tell yet another little white (and uncomfortable) lie.  

Most importantly, this broader question recognizes that any human’s state of mind and being does not equate to their state of their health. I find that on days I’m in significant pain due to my fibromyalgia, I can still be VERY happy - busting out of my skin happy! Perhaps due to a daughter’s new accomplishment, a new activity I’ve fallen in love with, a new source of hope, a fixed plumbing problem, a funny movie, or a million other things. And like every human being (sick or not), I LOVE being given the chance to share good news!  

Some people with chronic issues also appreciate the chance to “not focus” on their suffering or ailments by giving voice to them too many times each day. They find that distraction from pain works better than constant discussions of it. Everyone is different.

If you are chronically ill and this discussion resonates with you, don’t wait for others to change their approach. Take the bull by the horns, and ASK. Describe why “how are you doing?” is the check-in question you prefer – or simply send them this blog post with a brief cover note.   

It may help if you reassure family members or friends that at moments where explaining recent health challenges will make you feel better, you will certainly grab the opportunity to share them.   

Assure them too that the minute you have good health news, you won’t be shy in sharing THAT with them, either.  After all, that’s what they’re digging for (and cheering for!) every time they ask how you feel. 

(By the way, lest I forget to ask: how are YOU doing today, my dear reader? May you have sources of joy and hope to take refuge in, despite any difficulties.)

This article was written by KIRSTIN KOLOWICH.