What Really Happens When We Say "It's Fine"
Learning to make-believe our way through life’s challenges
I have a friend who would share something troubling going on in his life and then predictably end his story with, “it’s fine.” When he’d say it, he’d emphasize the “it’s” and then lower his tone and pull in on “fine.” He’d often look away, usually down. I found it strange every time, though it became a light joke between us.
In somatics, we listen for what is within and behind the words that people say. We look for what the body does while words are spoken. And we notice how what we hear registers in us, the listener, curious about any incongruence. I remember that strange feeling my friend’s words produced being a mix of confusion, mistrust, and concern.
All of us are adaptive. We’ve arrived where we are today by using a variety of moves we started learning when we were young and have repeated as we’ve grown up. Today, we’re a blend of these learned ways of being (thinking, feeling, acting, and relating). Some of what we’ve learned helps us thrive, while much more is self-protective, rooted in survival. Our survival-based strategies are what we used to navigate overwhelming events and environments of lack. They’ve served us as best they could, but as adults, they get in our way; within our present-day context, they’ve become maladaptive.
The problem with “it’s fine“ is when it's used in situations where we feel anything but fine.
“Fine” becomes an always-on view we use to orient ourselves and keep things moving. As adults, we might think it signifies acceptance while it often feelsmore like resignation—resignation about something that hurts us and that we feel powerless to admit, let alone address. We disconnect from the truth of how we feel and shift into narrating a better version of the story that we think we can tolerate. But what defines tolerable is, in fact, that old survival-oriented part of us; we embody and protect an outdated status quo.
Before going on, it’s important to say that we came by our survival strategies honestly and that their intelligence deserves deep-felt respect. At a minimum, they worked — you are here.
As children (and adults), when what we’re experiencing is too much our nervous systems are designed to automatically move away from dangerous intensity into other states with better odds for survival. But this isn’t always about actual life or death threat or physical harm, though. As social creatures who are dependant on mutual, reliable connection, we’re hardwired to seek more than safety—we need belonging and dignity, too.
“It’s fine”makes so much sense with this understanding.
When we numb to reality, we can then create a fantasy that helps us to endure. Whether that’s the fantasy we make up about our family being loving because bills were paid, partners not being present because they’re stressed, or a toxic workplace (or society) as “the way things are,” the split from our inner experience is always meant to help us navigate our precarious relational space. The problem is, we know it’s not true. What this breeds is a lot of anxiety and a constant preoccupation with having everything figured out. And, in hiding what we feel to live from stories we create, we build connection at the cost of our authenticity. It’s impossible to be truly seen, known, and intimate with others if we’re accustomed to holding back our most vulnerable truths. In the end, it’s us who become an act.
Our strategies don’t just impact our relationship with others—we embody and play them out with ourselves. We have make-believe ideas about who we are or should be. We perform, posture, and push, trying to become the version of ourselves we need to be to not feel what it’s like to be us. And we may become permissive of ineffective actions—ones that don’t meet our needs, don’t align with our values, or that just don’t feel good—because we no longer know what we feel. Over time, any feeling becomes risky because it threatens to unleash a torrent of unfelt, unexpressed realness. We clamp up and keep pretending.
Our thwarted emotional lives become chronic tension stored in the body.Meanwhile, our strategies double-down, and we suffer through the same familiar patterns.
Here is where somatic coaching often comes in. It’s likely that at some point our habitual ways of being clash with the life we long for. By working through the body, we can begin to meet and be with these wayward tendencies. We get curious to know more about them, asking questions to better understand how they show up, how they came to be, and what they’ve been trying to take care of.
Where do you feel “fine” in your body?
What would it mean if it weren’t fine? How would you know?
When do you remember saying “it’s fine” for the first time? What was it trying to take care of?
What’s the cost of everything being “fine?”
What might open up if it were safe to say that things aren’t “fine?”
Through the answers to these questions—both spoken and embodied—a simple understanding of “it’s fine” can expand into a profound view of someone. Through this single entry-point, we gain clarity and depth about who a person has been, how they came to be, and what matters to them; what’s real and true comes forward. They become visible and knowable, especially to themselves. And, through the arc of somatic coaching and somatic practices, we discover how to rest in what’s real; to finally shift into a version of life where “fine” is no longer good enough.
A note on this period in time
We are lucky to live in an era when individuals and groups are learning to embody a “no.” This country and the planet are not fine. People are not fine. A collective shift into the reality of what it feels like to live right now is taking shape, especially within marginalized persons and communities. Think about #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, but also March For Our Lives and the many immigration protests that have happened around the country.
The micro to all of that macro lives in our nonchalant moments. When we trade what’s true to protect others—especially systems of oppression—we reinforce our learned helplessness. To do our collective work, it is imperative that we also do the work of transforming the strategies we’ve learned to disconnect from ourselves into new ways of being in integrity, deeper connection, resilience, and effective action.