The “How Do You Feel?” Conundrum
“How do you feel today?” A friend used to text me this frequently. I knew she was asking out of kindness and genuine concern, but I began to cringe whenever I saw a message from her. No matter what I was doing, a text from her brought migraine to the focus of my attention. Migraine is already at the forefront most of the time, but sometimes I can focus my thoughts and attention elsewhere. Having these texts appear at random moments took me out of that distracted bliss with the reminder that I am sick.
I eventually asked her to ask me a different question instead. Good alternatives include “How’s your day going?” “What’s going on with you?” or “What are you up to?” Then I can choose to talk about illness or not. She was understanding and I no longer dread hearing from her.
Problem solved? Unfortunately, not entirely. I can, and do, ask individual friends to ask different questions, but I can’t issue an edict to the entire world declaring that asking me “How do you feel?” is forbidden. And I don’t entirely want to—this is the conundrum I allude to in the article’s title.
Migraine's impact on friendships
When people never ask how I feel, I interpret that to mean that they aren’t receptive to talking about my illness. Sometimes this is true. I’ve recently ended a friendship with someone I’ve known since college and thought I’d be friends with for the rest of my life. She never asked how I felt and changed the subject whenever I mentioned being sick. With my limited energy, I decided I couldn’t stay in a friendship with someone who didn’t want to know the details of my life, to really know me.
However, there’s another person in my life who never asked how I feel. This wasn’t a refusal to hear about my illness, but because she’s not a big question-asker. She assumes that if you want to tell her something (no matter what it is), you’ll pipe up without an invitation. She’s started asking me sometimes. It feels really good to know she cares and wants to hear about my life.
Inadvertently doing what I disliked
It gets even more complicated.
When a friend was dealing with a chronic pain problem, every text I sent inadvertently inquired about her health. It wasn’t intentional. I rarely asked directly how she felt, but she interpreted “How are you?” and “How are you doing?” as “How do you feel?” As soon as I realized that, I started using generic questions that didn’t imply I was asking about health. She was totally aware that she could talk to me about illness at any time but that I didn’t want to push her into it.
How can a person possibly navigate this complex matrix of emotional landmines?
Open communication strengthens relationships
If you have a loved one with a chronic illness, the best approach is to ask what they want. Explain that you care what they're going through and want to hear whatever they want to talk about, but don’t want to intrude or make them feel like their life is all about illness. Laying your thoughts out so explicitly may feel strange, but honesty usually strengthens the relationship and leads to more comfortable interactions in the future.
And if you’re the person with the illness, I encourage you to think about what you want and speak up. You may want something different from different people in your life, which is totally OK. Express your gratitude for their concern, and then let them know a way to ask the question that’s more comfortable for you. I have done this with countless people; every time, it has made our interactions more comfortable for both of us and ultimately improved our relationship.
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