It Is Okay to be “Just Okay”
A few years ago, I lived in Vancouver for my graduate studies. One of the first things that hit me was how friendly people were. Whether it was the barista at Tim Horton, or the cashier at London Drugs (a Canadian retail pharmacy chain), or just a random stranger who was in the elevator with me, anyone would start a conversation with a warm smile and a “How are you?”. After the first month of these encounters, I figured this was something I could really get used to.
However, when I was gushing about the “Canadian warmth” to another Asian friend who had recently moved to Vancouver, she stated how stressful it was to reply to that question. “I am not always fine, and I don’t want to say I am. Besides, they are just strangers. Do they really mean the question when they ask it?”
Fair point! I discussed this with some Canadian friends, and their collective response was enlightening. “There is no right or wrong answer. We ask because that is our way of acknowledging the other person, and you say whatever you want to. If your day is going ‘just okay’, then say, ‘I’m okay, thank you.’”
That was such a simple answer, and it made perfect sense. It also led me to ask another, more pertinent question for me, as a mental health professional: When did it become not okay to be “just okay”?
While this question has always been on my mind, this time I wanted to pen my thoughts down, because walking around Orchard Road on a mid-December weekend reminded me of why I even started thinking about this.
Every mall was crowded. Gift-giving means gift-buying, and school holidays meant parents with excited children everywhere. At Gardens by the Bay, smiling faces were gazing up in awe at the colourful Christmas light installations. It was such a celebratory mood.
Why shouldn’t it be? After all, it is the end of the year. It is also the festive season, and after 2 years of struggling with COVID-19, a war in Ukraine and some all-around, challenging past few years, why not? Why can’t we be happy? Why shouldn’t businesses pull out all the stops to make up for lost revenue the past few years?
As it is often the case, there is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions.
Perhaps it is more helpful to think of it as giving ourselves permission to be wherever our internal gauge says we are. For better or worse, through the COVID-19 experience, we now speak more freely about “being not okay,” and that is something I am grateful for, as a person and as a mental health professional.
While this can be a festive season for one person, it can be a painful reminder of a personal loss for another, and both of them can and should be allowed to feel however they may feel at any given time, festive season or not. While we all want to learn to manage our emotions, so that our emotional expressions do not create awkward situations for us, sometimes that level of management may not come easily. If the latter is the case, I think we can allow ourselves to sit with those emotions for just a tad bit. Where possible, if we get some privacy during these moments, that would be ideal. If it is not possible, we still do not have to ignore the emotions, or worse, repress them altogether. We can acknowledge the emotions and try to find the calm to get through that point in time until we have some privacy to revisit that experience. Acknowledging does not have to mean that the emotions knock us down and destabilize us. The point is to let them wash over us rather than stay stuck inside.
In suggesting the above, I am not saying that someone who may be feeling very depressed should be allowed to stay in that dark space without being checked on. I am merely suggesting that sometimes, it may not be a bad thing to just allow ourselves to feel some sadness, or any other uncomfortable emotion, and more importantly, to learn to have the discomfort pass through us, rather than stay within us.
Something that might help letting that discomfort “pass through” is reframing the situation with gratitude. That is not to say that we cannot be unhappy or feel sad because something is wrong in our lives. What I am suggesting is that we spend an equal amount of time to also remember what is right in our lives, because this dark moment too shall pass. Change will come, and even if it may not come in the way we hope for it to, I hope you will find it in your heart to hold on to the hope that you will feel better. For now, though, it’s okay if you’re feeling “just okay.”