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Why We Say "I'm Fine" When We Aren't

How to overcome avoidance and denial.

Key points

  • Saying "I'm fine" when we aren't can be a way to deny painful feelings, avoid conflicts, and pretend that we don't have problems.
  • Some people tend to minimize their feelings, needs and be afraid of conflict, often due to developmental trauma.
  • To overcome avoiding feelings and problems, it can help to notice and acknowledge feelings, and find a "safe" person to share feelings with.
 Mimi Thian/Unsplash
Source: Mimi Thian/Unsplash

“I’m fine.”

We say it all the time. It’s short and sweet. But it’s not always true.

And while everyone occasionally says they’re fine when they aren’t, codependents are especially prone to this form of avoidance. They say I’m fine or Everything’s fine to avoid feelings, problems, and conflicts.

Avoiding painful feelings

You may say I’m fine to shield yourself from painful feelings. In general, codependents are uncomfortable with emotions. Most of us grew up in families where we weren’t allowed to be angry or sad. We were told to stop crying or we were punished when we expressed our feelings, or our feelings were ignored. As a result, we learned to suppress our feelings and to numb them with food, alcohol, or other compulsive behaviors. Many of us also grew up with parents who couldn’t regulate their own emotions. For example, if you had a parent who raged, you may be afraid of anger and want to avoid being angry or angering others. Or if you had a parent who was deeply depressed, you may be unconsciously compelled to avoid your own feelings of sadness, grief, or hopelessness. And after years of suppressing and numbing your feelings, you may not even be aware of them—and may say I’m fine because you don’t know how you feel.

You also may have learned in childhood that you shouldn’t need anything. Again, you may have been punished when you asked for something or your needs may have been ignored. When this happens repeatedly, we learn that we shouldn’t ask for anything because no one cares about our needs and they won’t be met.

Avoiding conflicts

We also pretend to be fine to avoid conflicts. Sharing our true feelings or opinions might cause someone to get angry with us—and that’s scary or at least uncomfortable.

Related to this is our desire to be easy-going or low maintenance. We don’t want to be difficult—which might lead to a conflict—and we don’t want to be a burden or need anything because that might drive people away. A history of dysfunctional relationships and fragile self-esteem has led us to believe that people won’t like us (and perhaps they’ll abandon or reject us) if we ask for too much or have complicated feelings. It feels safer to pretend we’re fine and be a dependable, cheerful friend or an easy-going daughter who never complains or needs anything.

Avoiding our problems

Pretending that we don’t have any problems, difficult emotions, or conflicts can be a form of denial. We want others to think everything is working out great for us because we’re afraid of the shame, embarrassment, and judgment that might come if people knew the truth (that we’re struggling, our lives are unmanageable, our loved ones are troubled, that we’re not perfect, etc.). And if we acknowledge our problems to others, we have to face them and admit to ourselves that we’re not happy, our lives aren’t perfect, or we need help.

We also deny our problems and feelings because they’re overwhelming, we don’t know what to do with our feelings or how to solve our problems, so we try to avoid them.

Denial is understandable. It seems easier to avoid difficult feelings and problems than to face them head-on. However, we all know that avoidance isn’t an effective long-term strategy. So, what can we do to acknowledge and deal with our feelings, fear of conflict, and problems?

Overcoming avoidance and denial

If you’ve been denying your feelings and problems for years, it’s not easy to start digging into the messy stuff beneath the surface. But if we’re going to truly feel better and create more authentic and satisfying relationships, we have to acknowledge that we’re not fine, that we are struggling, hurt, afraid, or angry, and that we have unmet needs. A therapist or sponsor can provide valuable support when difficult feelings come up and gently challenge your denial if you get stuck.

Moving out of denial can start with being more honest with yourself. So, even if you’re not ready to share your true feelings or experiences with others, try to acknowledge them yourself. You can do this through journaling and naming your feelings. Try to be interested in how you’re feeling rather than immediately pushing your feelings away. Remember that feelings aren’t good or bad, so try not to judge them. You might think of your feelings as messengers that are delivering helpful insights. Again, rather than trying to change how you feel, be curious about why you’re feeling a particular way or what your feelings are trying to tell you.

Next, identify one safe person to be more authentic with. If no one in your life feels safe, you can set a goal to develop a relationship where you feel safe to share more honestly. Therapy and support groups are good places to begin because sharing honestly is encouraged and there’s no expectation that you’re fine all the time.

And finally, please know that you’re not the only one struggling with these issues and you didn’t cause them. You are, however, the only one who can start to change them. You can slowly start to think and act differently, you can validate your feelings and needs, and be more of your true self. Some people may have a hard time with the changes you make, but others will be drawn to the more assertive, authentic version of you. Most importantly, I think you’ll be happier with yourself when you know yourself better and can acknowledge more of your feelings and experiences.

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