The Layers of ‘How are you?’

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How are you? Three little words that just roll off the tongue.  We say them, we hear them, we deflect from them.  They are a greeting and an invitation, but an invitation that is often declined.

The real answer is probably more than a sentence but we typically keep the response brief and superficial.  Stay breezy. Don’t step into TMI zone. Beware of sounding like a hot mess. Sometimes we totally ignore the question, or we just say, “thank G-d” and leave it at that.

As a therapist, the depth of ‘how are you’ is very meaningful in my work. I often witness how healing happens by going beyond the ‘I’m fine’ cover story and opening up the compartmentalized boxes of feelings that are banished and ignored. A common theme that comes up with my clients is the feeling that they are leading two lives: There’s the one on the outside; the smiley pictures on vacation, the put-together appearance, the my-life-looks-good-on-paper (or social media profile). And then there’s life on on the inside: the insecurities and struggles, day-to-day challenges, small stuff and big stuff, and the painful pieces of self that often stay hidden and alone.

There are many dimensions of self, and ‘how are you’ can go in different directions. How am I doing professionally? How am I doing physically? How am I doing in my relationships? How am I doing spiritually? How am I doing as a woman? How am I doing as a caregiver?  How am I doing with my passions and dreams?  How am I doing in this moment as I’m standing in the fruit section but forgot my shopping list?

There are legitimate reasons why we hold back when being asked how we are doing. Maybe it feels like the wrong time, the wrong place, or the wrong person. But sometimes, what keeps us bottled up — even among loved ones and close friends — is not that we don’t trust the person or feel like they care.  It’s that answering honestly involves risk and vulnerability.

There is a fine line between privacy and secrecy, and the tiebreaker is often shame. So many life challenges are endured alone because of shame.  Dr. Brene Brown, a social worker and researcher on shame and vulnerability (check out her TED Talk), articulates it beautifully: “If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”  When we tell our stories or hear others’ stories that resonate, something shifts inside of us.  It doesn’t change what’s happening to us, but it can change the glasses through which we view and internalize the experience.

Last year, I reactivated my Facebook account after a five-year hiatus. One of the first things that struck me upon my return was an unprecedented openness around personal struggles. I continue to see examples of social media platforms being used to normalize mental health issues, loss, loneliness, and dealing with the realities of being human. It’s been particularly inspiring to see Instagram personalities state that they felt a need to share what’s really going on beyond their stylish outfits and exciting adventures. What they are essentially saying: I don’t just want you to shop my look — I want you to know me more authentically.

Authenticity is a core goal of The Layers Project Magazine; giving words to what so many of us see, hear, think, feel, and experience in our lives. As Clinical Editor, I aspire to provide content that addresses real issues affecting people today and provide a space for meaningful conversation.  There will be posts by therapists covering various mental health topics, interviews, and an Ask-the-Therapist section where you can submit a question or topic that you would like to see explored.

I am excited to join The Layers Project Magazine in tapping into the common threads in our lives, the experiences that bind us and bond us. ‘How are you’ can be a loaded question, but we witnessed how unpacking what’s loaded can be liberating and transformative.  There are so many places the conversation can go, and I look forward to expanding the way we view ourselves, our identities, and our unique, colorful journeys.

Rachel Hercman, LCSW is a psychotherapist specializing in relationship and sexual health, self-esteem, and trauma. She has a private practice in Manhattan and is a popular speaker in communities, universities, and professional trainings. Rachel has been a featured expert on various websites, including Marriage.com, the Better Sex Blog, and she currently blogs on rachelhercman.com. Rachel is the Clinical Director and Editor at The Layers Project Magazine.