There are always two things that keep me from writing, physical business and psychological business. As a college student intent on salvaging the GPA I wrecked as a person with absolutely no business being in college, I have a lot of my time taken up by homework, studying, reading my surprisingly woke Communication textbook, and creating and then using numerous Quizlet sets to shove as much information into my brain as humanly possible before my ADD medication wears off. The rest of my time is absorbed in the numerous other activities I have around me at any given time, ranging from the amazing experiences at my fingertips as an incredibly lucky young adult with the best of friends a person could have, to the need to take a moment for some self-care.
Since I’ve returned to school, self-care has been on the forefront of my mind. It is so important to remind yourself to take care of yourself every now and again, as one can’t accomplish anything if they aren’t healthy or getting their emotional needs fulfilled. Self care looks different for everyone, but for me (at least this year) it has been taking time to remember it’s okay to be sad sometimes, it’s okay to do nothing sometimes, and its okay to not be okay.
One of the things any person who has experienced some form of trauma and/or mental illness hears more frequently than their own name is the well-intentioned “I know you’re not feeling so great but you’re okay,” from every single person who doesn’t quite understand how to respond to an expression of intense personal struggle with emotion. It sounds like the right thing to say, it’s just empathetic enough that it reminds the person they aren’t alone without being so empathetic you feel their trauma yourself, and it seems to convey the importance that this person is safe, they aren’t in any perceived danger and are poised to feel better soon.
In managing my own mental health and self-care this semester, I’ve come to realize everyone is guilty of this, including myself. When a friend is disclosing their feelings of despair about their emotional state in the face of adversity they’re experiencing, it seems so appropriate to remind them that they’re okay and they only feel like they aren’t. However, this is the exact wrong thing to say. The last thing I wanted to hear when I felt like I was about to vanish into a realm of anxiety, fear, and depression—when I wasn’t feeling very okay at all—was that I was okay. Being told I was okay made me internalize the idea that feeling like I wasn’t okay when in actuality I was is an irrational response, a neurotic tendency for being hyperbolic with my emotions when I wasn’t justified in expressing the emotions I thought I was feeling.
I know now that is absolutely not true. Everything I and anyone else feels is justified simply because it is felt. I don’t have to explain to myself or others why I feel a certain way about something, especially considering in most instances I couldn’t explain it if I tried. I am entitled to feel the way I do regardless of how someone else chooses to think about my worthiness to feel that way, and sometimes the way that I feel is “not okay.” I may be okay. That feeling may, and usually does, pass. But it’s important for me to fully feel it. I feel not okay for a reason, and though it may not be discernible to myself or others it is a valid feeling that deserves to be felt.
By innocently reminding someone they are okay, you’re cutting their expression of that emotion short, unintentionally setting a new feeling of guilt in motion. Instead of reminding someone they’re okay, take a moment to express your feelings and empathy a little more complexly. If someone tells you they’re having a really hard time processing an emotion, a trauma, or even a physical injury, try to let yourself really empathize.
For me, that usually manifests itself in acknowledging that things are absolute shit sometimes. Agreeing with a friend that their situation is hard, it isn’t fun or easy, and that we would both much rather they not have to experience it offers up empathy without discounting their feeling of uncertainty. There’s no way for me to know what someone’s individual interpretation of being okay is, so instead I just try to remind them their feelings are valid, they don’t need to justify them to me (or themselves), and though the task ahead seems impossible they have the unwavering support of myself and the many people in their lives that love them while they battle whatever demon is preying on them.
As the end of this year quickly approaches, take some time to consider how you respond to people expressing their feelings of crisis. Try to understand how it would feel to hear your words from their perspective. And when trying to understand how to respond to yourself in times of despair, remember you don’t have to be okay.