A month ago, I glanced down at my phone to discover one of the most irritating texts I’d received in a while. It wasn’t the words themselves — those were relatively harmless; it was the context in which they were said.
“I don’t know what I’m doing with my life,” I said, a week prior, to my most recent Tinder “friend.” John* and I were far from officially dating, but we’d found a certain rhythm to our pseudo-relationship, each of us relying on the other as a sounding board for our insecurities. We both knew this dynamic on its own was unsustainable, but right then, it felt safe.
It was true. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life — with my relationships, my career, my finances, my future and yes, I’m aware that that sounds like literally everything, but it’s still true. I could argue that I’ve never really known. In this way, I suppose I’m fulfilling millennial expectations. We are, after all, considered to be a fairly lost and listless generation, with insecurity serving as our emotional tentpole, whether our lives are marked by the old-fashioned kind of struggle or not. And nothing confirms my age quite like my affinity for scrolling through social media, watching everyone proclaim to be “obsessed with” their full-time jobs (and “killing it” with their side hustles) while I struggle to get through another work day without punching a hole through the wall.
John looked to me knowingly when I confessed my feelings, and offered examples of how he, too, felt lost. His response left me feeling less isolated and provided the groundwork for a mutually beneficial conversation. A week later, I sent him an Ask Polly article that touched on our discussion, and that’s when I got the text — the two words that left me frustrated, defeated and mourning the loss of our non-judgemental environment: “You’re fine.”
I’ve heard this seemingly innocuous phrase used increasingly often over recent years — by colleagues and friends, mentors and parents, influencers and peers. I have a friend who hears the phrase whenever she admits that she’s struggling to grieve her dad’s recent death, and another who gets it whenever he reveals his career anxieties to a coworker. And while I can say with confidence that the words have never once left me reassured, I believe their overuse speaks to a population that is as insecure as it is performatively confident.
Unlike genuine engagement, “you’re fine” is a shrug, a dismissal, a quiet sentiment that most anxious people already use to self-soothe. As well-intentioned as it might be, it can minimize a complicated issue — reduce a nuanced concern to a black and white judgment call. Instead of allowing for someone’s revelation to open up a conversation, “you’re fine” places the responder in a position of superiority and, at its worst, can invalidate emotions by belittling them.
When my trusted Tinder friend replied to my honest concerns with “you’re fine” instead of offering relevant insight like I’d relied upon him to do, I felt like he used my vulnerability as a chance to subdue his own self doubts. And it’s not that I don’t get it. We’re all looking for stability — that authority that’s so difficult to channel elsewhere. But whether we’re subconsciously using these moments to establish a sense of control or simply relying on a verbal tic we’ve heard elsewhere, I’m sure there is a better way to go about it.
In a culture infatuated with unattainable versions of success, insecurity is abundant. These moments of vulnerability — of acknowledging fears and uncertainties — are arguably more important and grounding than ever. “You’re fine,” however, is a conversation-ender. A dismissive placeholder where more thoughtful dialogue could occur. What if, instead of offering an offhand response, we tried probing a bit — asking questions and allowing someone the space to open up? What if we relished the chance to make (or further) a real connection with a person who is trusting us enough to admit their vulnerabilities?
If we were to all learn to see insecurity for what it is—a universal human trait—maybe we could take away some of its power and the damaging effects that come with it. Maybe we could admit that we’re all a little lost and, yes, maybe not totally fine.
*Names have been changed
Collages by Madeline Montoya.