Image Credit: Getty Images / Martin Novak

5 Code Words We Use When We're Feeling Bleak

Reading time | 5 mins
We often use platitudes to mask the state of our mental health. 
When asked how she is, Megan Potts tends to speak in code – even to her loved ones.
How many of these phrases do you recognise? And how might they impact your mental health – even without your knowledge?


"I'm fine, thanks. How are you?" 

Asking someone how they are is rarely an invitation to open up. "Hi, how are you?" is now a go-to greeting, asked by everyone from friends and family to shop assistants and virtual strangers.

We're taught early on that "Hi, how are you?" shouldn't have an answer beyond a perfunctory platitude and an echo of the same question.

This is okay. Sometimes, "fine" works as a catch-all for all our feelings at any given moment. Moods and feelings constantly fluctuate, so we all strive for a baseline.

However, a simple "How are you?" can trigger an entire emotional stocktake on other days. As we reply with the usual, "I'm fine," our minds open 200 tabs and force us to sort through them all at once. We're reminded of ongoing issues, the squeeze of anxiety in our guts, arguments, work stress, and the random worries that spook us.

And we're still dwelling on all this stuff long after our 10-second interaction.

Everyone does it. But has the expectation of "I'm fine" stopped us from reaching out during honest conversations? From trusting others not to dismiss us as they carry on with their day? 

Even in safe spaces, like a friend's house or therapist's office, feeling "fine" is my go-to defense against rejection or being seen as a "burden."

I learned early on that honesty ISN'T always the best policy

When I was young, constant tensions within the family taught me how to be small. I would spend most of my time in the background, just "part of the furniture," until I had no choice but to step in and play peacekeeper.

Being invisible was my survival tactic, and I carried it into adulthood. I don't reach out to people or explode at my lowest. Instead, I withdraw and turn all those nasty, uncomfortable feelings in on myself.

"People have their own troubles," I tell myself. "They don't need you begging for a shoulder to cry on."

Honesty isn't a lesson; it requires a total mental reset

Of course, my loved ones have known me long enough to see several of my mental health cycles. They're now quick to notice the warning signs, so they'll start asking me questions.

I'm getting better at being honest. But, some days, sorting through my 200 tabs is too exhausting. I fall back into my old routines and prolong things more than I should. My friends aren't psychic. Stock response after stock response from me either convinces them I'm okay, or they give up for a while.

Today, I want to share some of my stock phrases and what goes through my mind when I say them. How many of these have you used before?

1. "I'm fine!"

Let's start with the most obvious one. On bad days, "I'm fine" is a blanket term for any emotions I struggle to mask with a sunny face.

Insecurity, rage, irritability, anxiety, physical pain... if I can't figure out how to sugarcoat these feelings, "fine" is my catch-all.

2. "Tired and sore, but coping."

This is a classic example of sugarcoating the truth. I suffer from debilitating chronic pain. It's gone on so long that I no longer see it as a talking point.

So, if I admit something as vanilla as "I'm tired and sore," that's my code for:

  • I'm dizzy with exhaustion.
  • I'm nauseous with today's pain.
  • Every day is about going through the motions.
  • I get up, feed my child, clothe her, take her out, and count the hours until bedtime.
  • I'm not living. I'm existing. That's it.

Who'd want to burden others by admitting all that?

3. "Same stuff, different day."

Living with a chronic illness means facing the same battle all the time, possibly forever. There are only so many times you can complain about it before you start to feel self-conscious.

Even the most sympathetic, caring people have their limits. I've convinced myself that answering "Are you okay?" honestly will earn me an eye roll, bred from bored frustration.  

4. "I'm doing the best I can."

I'm doing my best, but I'm convinced it's not enough.

I feel like I'm letting everyone down - that my "best" is making things worse for everyone around me.

During my crisis points, I want to be held. I yearn for soft hands smoothing down my hair as someone convinces me everything will be alright.

I wish someone would take the reins out of my hand and say, "Hey. I'll work on the big stuff for now. Let these go."

Because when you're overwhelmed, trying to do the bare minimum is fighting a losing battle.

5. "Well, I'm feeling a bit broken, but I got all this stuff done!"

When I say this, I'm pushing myself to my absolute limit. My damaged body screams against these extreme conditions, but I have no regard for the hell I'm putting it through.

When this happens, I'm desperately trying to avoid the quicksand trap of my problems. I can see, clear as day, what path my mind is going down, and I won't let it.

That's a huge step forward in my mental health journey. I've learned how to identify, flag, and redirect my mindset towards something healthier.

Yet I'm still doing everything BUT asking for help. While one short activity can be healthy, forcing myself to walk miles, work for hours, or focus beyond my capacity is not.

It's still a way of causing psychological harm, but I've fooled myself with a brand new shortcut.

The takeaway

That's a deeper look into my mind than most people have ever seen.

From speaking to others, I know deflection, denial, and sugarcoating aren't all that uncommon. However, sharing our "codes" with the world may open more doors in conversations around mental health.

Consider if you've ever relied on any of these phrases, and then think if you know anyone else who has.

And if you aren't sure that someone's "I'm fine" is neutral but genuine, don't be afraid to ask twice.

NPS-IE-NP-00606 November 2022