Within my mindfulness courses, I repeat many mantras. One of these: "It's okay to not be okay." We practice staying with what's difficult, becoming intimate with not-okayness, and applying self-compassion. It's okay to not be okay and it's okay to be happy. Most important for us is to feel what we feel. Open to our inner-experience with kindness and grace.
Many people have inquired, "Joy, I understand it's okay to not be okay, but what should I do when someone asks 'how are you?' I don't want to pretend I'm okay if I'm not, but I also know this person doesn't want a complicated answer. How do I respond in a genuine way?"
I think we can all relate to this question. As we live life more true, it no longer feels comfortable to say "I'm great!" when our internal weather is much more complicated. The day after my mom's funeral, I participated in a CROP walk that ended in the very church basement where we ate lunch after mom's service. I felt raw and vulnerable, like my insides were on my outside. Someone I know—who attended mom's funeral—asked in an everyday way, "Hi, Joy. How are you?" Wide-eyed and stunned, I had no response. Yet in that moment I realized "How are you?" really meant "Hiya!" or "It's good to see you" or "I care about you." It's not really a question. It's become a generic greeting; an unconscious reaction.
Once I recognized this cultural habit, I began a new practice. When someone greets me with, "Hi. How are you?" I rarely answer the question (unless it comes from a friend who genuinely wants to know). Instead, I reply, "It's good to see you." On a quick pass-by, that's enough. If we linger, I might ask a question or wish the person well. No one notices when I don't answer the "how are you?" query, which gives me further evidence it's not really a question but a statement, a greeting.
I'm not sure this is the best way to handle "how are you?" but it feels true to me. I genuinely do wish people well, even if I feel crappy. So, "I hope you enjoy the day" or "It's good to see you" are truthful. And if someone doggedly asked again, "How are you?" I'd answer in a real way (though this has never happened).
I'm also more aware of my own greeting style, trying to be honest, open, and kind. If I find myself blindly asking "how are you?" or responding "fine" on autopilot, it's a chance to pause and begin again. To look someone in the eyes and say a genuine "hello" or "I wish you well." I see you and I care. At a basic level, this is enough.