“False positivity in the face of tough emotions can keep us from experiencing authentic happiness”. — Susan David
In today’s article, I want to talk to you about the popular phrase ‘it’s ok not to be ok’.
Whilst on paper we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of emotional and mental wellbeing, I believe we still have a long way to go.
I’ve noticed that often our words and actions (towards ourselves and others) don’t always really align with this statement.
In reality, often it’s only ok not to be ok if:
- you hurry up and get better
- you aren’t too negative, messy, or difficult to be around
- you not being ok doesn’t inconvenience or affect anyone else
- you follow others’ advice on how to fix the problem
- you don’t need too much time or attention because we’re all busy and have our own stuff to deal with
- your reasons for not being ok are justified by others
- you do it in an agreeable way and within the acceptable time limits deemed appropriate for your situation
You see the judgement that comes with ‘not being ok’ is immense! We are either judging ourselves, being judged, or judging others!
That is often why, even though we might pay lip service to it ‘being ok not to be ok’, often, it just isn’t!
So in this article, I want to highlight some of the ways we invalidate our own and others’ experiences and provide some alternative ways of approaching ‘not being ok’.
Dealing with difficult emotions
Let’s be honest, it’s rubbish feeling rubbish and it’s equally rubbish being around someone that is feeling rubbish.
In today’s busy society there is no time to feel rubbish — there are too many things to do!
So is it any wonder that, in the words of author and researcher Brene Brown, we are the most in debt, obese, medicated adult cohort in history!
If it feels rubbish, we stuff it down.
We’ll then go and buy a pair of shoes to make us feel better, or pour a glass of wine to numb the rubbishness out, or order another takeaway because we deserve it after how rubbish our week has been!
Then someone asks us how we are doing and we put on our best fake smile (that doesn’t quite reach our eyes) and tell them we’re all good.
It’s all fine and of course we can take on that extra work or support them with that thing they need.
Because god forbid they knew how we were really feeling!
Yet we tell everyone around us that it’s ok not to be ok. In fact, we are really good at talking the talk… but are we really walking the walk?
You see when we feel rubbish or are in the company of someone else who feels rubbish, our natural instinct is to want to change or fix it.
We want to get rid of these difficult and messy emotions in the quickest and easiest way possible, and whilst we’re at it, sprinkle a bit of positivity glitter on it to make it appear prettier and more palatable.
And if that doesn’t work then we can always numb it, avoid it or ignore it! And I totally get it — I’m partial to a large glass of vino after a rubbish day too!
However, what I want you to know is that difficult thoughts and feelings are normal. They are part of being human. They aren’t bad, they are information.
When we try to get rid of them or make them prettier, we are essentially dismissing key information about our needs or something that is important to us.
Similarly, when someone is emotional with us, they are communicating (albeit sometimes badly) their unmet needs or values.
In the words of author Susan David, these difficult emotions are the messy, difficult, beautiful signposts to understand ourselves better.
They are also invitations to understand others better too… if we can stay calm enough to get curious and listen of course!
Toxic positivity is when we insist on turning something difficult into a positive. Essentially we deny the reality of the situation to make it more comfortable and easier to digest.
Our society today celebrates positivity. Let’s take all that messiness and look for the positives and feel grateful for it!
Those of us with the tendency to please others (more than ourselves) and overgive are masters of avoiding our own pain and ignoring reality.
We don’t want to appear difficult or be a burden to others or upset anyone. We like to keep the peace and not rock the boat so we dismiss our needs and feelings and pretend we are ok when we are actually anything but!
I remember someone that used to be in my life often advising me to ‘keep my chin up’ whenever I shared something difficult with them.
I knew that was my cue to suck it up, be brave, and try not to be sad because clearly, I was making them feel uncomfortable.
I don’t think they meant to be hurtful. However, it still felt dismissive and was the equivalent of saying ‘just be positive’ during a pretty difficult time when brave, strong and positive couldn’t have been further from what I actually felt.
So whilst I’m all for finding the learning in a difficult situation and am generally a positive person; I believe that when we are trying to row our way through the rapids of rubbishness, it’s probably not the right time to start throwing the positivity glitter.
Sometimes we just need to acknowledge that right now, at this moment, we feel rubbish and allow ourselves (and others) to feel all the difficult, messy, beautiful thoughts and feelings without judgement and without trying to change them.
Because the one thing I can say with certainty is that even if we do nothing, our thoughts and feelings will change with time.
Often, when we allow ourselves to feel our feelings in a healthy way, without denying or dismissing our experience or getting stuck in it, we can actually move through them in a much quicker and prettier way!
So here are some ways that we can start to do things differently and begin to approach ‘not being ok’ with a little more compassion and understanding.
Get curious about your emotions
Rather than avoiding difficult thoughts and emotions, start to get curious and explore what they are trying to tell you.
First, get clear on how you are feeling — for instance, are you hurt, angry, sad, overwhelmed, lonely? I like to use the feelings wheel by Dr Julia Willcox to help me identify and explore my feelings (just search Google and you’ll find it).
Then see if you can identify what unmet desires or needs these feelings are highlighting, or which of your values (the things that are important to you) you feel out of alignment with.
Use this information to meet your wants or needs and to have better conversations with others about them.
Validate yourself and others
Validation means that we acknowledge our (or others’) emotions, thoughts, experiences, values, and beliefs.
It isn’t about agreeing, placating, fixing, or trying to solve or change anything. It’s about allowing ourselves to feel whatever we feel, even if it’s not pretty!
Here are some phrases I often use to validate another person’s experience:
- I hear you
- I understand
- It makes sense that you feel/think…
- That sounds X (rubbish, frustrating, sad, difficult, etc.)
- I’m sure lots of people would feel like that in your situation
- That sounds pretty normal given the circumstances
- What do you need?
- How can I help you?
And these are some things I say to myself to validate my own experience:
- It’s ok to feel [insert feeling]
- This too shall pass
- Sit with it and see how you feel tomorrow
- What do I need?
- What do I want?
- It won’t feel like this forever
- Give it some time and see how you feel
- Who can help/support me?
Cultivate some self-compassion
Many of us place great emphasis on being kind to others and yet this isn’t often the case when it comes to ourselves.
I hear time and time again from clients that they feel guilty and selfish for taking care of themselves and prioritising their needs.
Self-compassion is about learning to be our own best friend. To allow ourselves to be a little selfish sometimes to take care of our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing — ‘responsibly selfish’ as I like to call it.
By acknowledging that we matter too we become an inner ally to ourselves rather than an inner enemy.
A really good place to start being more compassionate to ourselves is to follow this simple rule — if we wouldn’t say it out loud to a friend, stop saying it in our head to ourselves because we are always listening!
Life is messy so give yourself permission to be human and stop judging yourself and comparing your reality to others’ highlight reels. We are all flawed works in progress — no one has it all together all of the time, despite what their Instagram account might depict!
The best bit is that when we start being kinder to ourselves we are naturally able to be kinder to others and give from a place of fullness and love instead of fear and scarcity — win-win!