With the emergence and continuation of this strange, unfamiliar and disruptive way of life, there has been a great deal of talk of the idea of “coping”. Feelings of anxiety, grief, loss, confusion, restlessness, depression and fear have gripped many of us (for me, a few of them, a few times over). And often, I find myself asking the question, “So, am I okay?”
One of the champion battle cry’s of the mental health movement is “It’s okay not to be okay”, which, of course, it is. There should be no shame or stigmatisation in suffering, disfunction or overwhelm.
But, with the world being as it is, and when it’s so easy to cycle through a range of conflicting emotions in one day (I’m feeling like a Crowded House song over here) I’ve felt unable to gauge whether I am in fact okay or not (and I’m supposed to know about this stuff.)
So I thought I would investigate what it means to be (or not to be) okay right now, and hopefully gain some clarity…
Aren’t we all in a collective shit-storm?
The first thing that comes up when I ask myself this “okay/not okay” question is: We ArE aLL iN tHiS tOgEtHeR. That is, we’re all facing the reality of living amidst a global pandemic. I tell myself, some people have lost jobs and prospects, cancelled plans and celebrations, some people have to work 12+hr shifts face-to-face with the virus, some have lost loved ones and lost their lives. In comparison, it seems I’m doing pretty bloody okay, and it seems almost selfish to compare.
But then there’s people on Instagram baking exquisite banana bread loaves, and tending to their flourishing indoor gardens. Facebook friends making compassionate meal-prepped deliveries to the elderly, sharing rigorous workouts, or courageously learning a new skill. All I can think is WHY DOESN’T MY [ISO] LOOK LIKE THAT?
It’s human nature to use the perceived experiences of others to judge your own against, and it’s even easier now with social media. But the sticky bit is that there will always be people faring better, and always be people faring worse. Even if you can say, objectively, that you’re doing better than 95% of the rest of the world, that doesn’t acknowledge your own, unique cognitive and emotional experiences – which, let’s face it, is where most of the shit really goes down.
Is it all about my perspective?
We alllll know about the power of perspective: “always look on the bright side of life”, “you don’t see the world as it is, you see the world as you are”, that time you had no shoes and met the dude with no feet etc. etc. Research backs this up, that our beliefs about a certain situation often impact our experience of that situation.
With this being the case, I figure, “Ok, I get to decide if I am in fact, okay or not okay. So I’ll decide I am, in fact, okay, and that will make me okay…right?” But then I remember those people who auditioned for Australian Idol who were legitimately shocked and incredulous to learn that they couldn’t sing for shit. It can be hard to distinguish whether you’re taking a positive perspective or simply kidding yourself. One of the reasons many people don’t get help for mental health conditions is they spend so much of the time convincing themselves they’re okay (when they’re not). Conversely, people who are convinced they are not okay allow the weight of their suffering to seep into every aspect of their life.
Believing something doesn’t necessarily make it so, and yet, our beliefs do hold great sway over how we subjectively experience life.
While I can reassure myself that I am okay, (which is helpful, to a point), I’m still forced to acknowledge and be present with my emotional experience. And even when I know, objectively, that my feelings are not necessarily wrong or harmful, the subjective experience of them is tumultuous, painful and confronting. And it’s hard to feel okay with all that shit going on.
But is there something wrong with me?
The final question that comes up in this exhausting debate is one that requires a number of normed and validated psychological scales. Science hates a grey area, and in order to diagnose and provide interventions for psychological conditions, mental health professionals often require people to tick little boxes to assess their objective level of “okayness”.
Now, while I’m not likely to get any through-the-roof scores on these clinical measures (no suicidal ideation, no severe depression and probably just your garden variety stress/anxiety), admitting that, from a clinical perspective, I am okay, doesn’t feel particularly helpful.
As useful and necessary as these measures are, they can run the risk of invalidating, over-emphasising, and pathologizing the messiness of human experience. And this is a pretty damn messy time to be a human right now, in whatever you might be going through.
So, what did I learn?
…that maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Trying to understand my experience (or anyone’s experience, for that matter) on a binary scale of “okay or not okay”, over-simplifies things. It suggests that we are one thing or the other, when in truth we can be both, and neither, and a plethora of other things many times in one day.
Perhaps I’m overthinking this (highly likely…is that a symptom of not-okayness?). A more helpful approach might be to park the question and allow myself to be however it is I am – without the restrictive need to label or quantify it. In moments when I’m feeling light, I’ll enjoy it, while it’s there. In moments when I feel like the messiness is too heavy to hold, I’ll practice self-care and I’ll talk to someone – a friend, my partner, a therapist. I don’t need to be okay or not okay to be worthy of support, love and acknowledgement. I am what I am, just like you are what you are – and whatever that might be, it’s okay.
This post was written by Ash King, psychology researcher and Indigo’s content manager. You can join Ash & Mary digging deep into thought, feeling & behaviour each week for The Big Shrink, live on Insta at 4pm (AEST). Check out the latest ep here.