I work with a client who is having a difficult year. Most years of his life have been difficult; he is 8. There are so many aspects of his life and identity that are complicated and not easy that even if I weren’t legally bound not to discuss him publicly by privacy laws, it would be impossible to try to capture his complexity in a blog post.
He is 8, and his life sucks right now. It just does. He knows it, I know it, and I think most of his caregivers know it but they don’t want to say it, and they don’t want him to say it either. They encourage him to focus on the positive stuff, find the things that he likes about a given situation. They point out how much he has to be appreciative of in his life, unintentionally digging up their old wounds of what they had to go without. They are uncomfortable with this sadness, frustrated with his pain, angered by his opposition. They want him to be a kid.
This is normal, and natural, and of course these caring adults want a slice of happiness for him; of course they want him to feel OK. But he isn’t OK with his current situation in life, and his emotions are the only thing that he has any autonomy over. His experience is one of the only things that is his, and his alone. This is his honest truth: it’s OK that he is not OK right now.
I hear us parents respond to our kids’ emotions in a way that makes my therapist heart flutter: “It’s OK to feel mad, but you do not hit people.” “It’s OK to feel sad, everyone feels sad sometimes.” It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK.
And it is OK for people to feel sad. It’s OK for people to feel anxiety. It’s OK for people to feel like they are losing their minds. This is honest, this is true. This is what’s happening. I firmly believe this, I believe with every fiber that people need to honor their lived experience, that being authentically human is the only way to be, that our thoughts and feelings are a sane response to an insane world, that we are spiritual beings in a human body and that is extremely uncomfortable for us and bound to be wacky, and full of twists and turns.
Butttttt I really, really don’t like it when it happens to me. Suddenly, it is ABSOLUTELY NOT OK to not be OK. Suddenly, all I want, desperately, is to be OK, OK like I was last week, OK like when I had this person in my life, or that job in my life, or that donut from that bougie donut shop in my life (… I am never OK with the loss of donuts, if we are being honest). Suddenly, this is the worst, I am an idiot, I have failed at being a human, what is even the point? Suddenly thirteen hours have gone by, and I haven’t showered, and I have watched the baby shower episode of “The Office” for the 3,600 time, and I am relating to Jan as a mother because she sings everything and makes it all about her, and I am terrified, somewhat bemusingly, mostly not.
I used to say to my therapist: I just want this part to be over. I just want to be OK without all of the muck of not being OK. And she would nod. And I would stare. And she would stare back. And then I would ask: so what am I supposed to do? And she would realize that I was being serious, that I really wanted an answer for how to skip the hard part. Even though my job, also as a therapist, is literally helping people get through the hard part.
It’s never OK when it’s us.
I have been seeing the same therapist for almost three years. She still hasn’t seen Harry Potter, it’s fine, we’re processing it together and individually. She’s helped me understand that my depression isn’t the problem, it’s the shame around the depression that really kicks me when I was down. She talked to me about this week after week, month after month, each time that I came in and tearfully explained that I had gotten depressed again and that I kicked and screamed metaphorically about it, that I really beat myself up about it, that I didn’t want this to happen because I knew better. I knew all of the things to do to avoid getting depressed. And yet.
One time, when I was having some super black and white/all or nothing thinking about something, she asked me what my self-talk was like in those moments. Here is how that conversation went:
Tx: “What do you tell yourself when you are having a depressed day? What is your self talk?”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Tx: “Like, the voice in your head. Can you try saying nice things to yourself in those moments?”
Tx: “Like, ‘it’s ok to feel sad, it’s ok to get depressed.’ Using your inner voice to say things like that.”
When I tell you I was flabbergasted, I am not exaggerating. I was 33 years old (24 according to most Buzzfeed quizzes), and I had never thought of having a nurturing thought, of having some compassionate self-talk. I finally realized what my therapist meant by “inner voice,” though. It was (spoiler alert) the voice that told me I was a failure, that I should know better, that I should not be experiencing this because I should be further along in my journey.
I had a hard time last week; I won’t bore you with details, but after a few months of smooth sailing, I missed a few days of working out, totally freaked the fuck out about it, and then fell into a cave of discomfort and blankets and “The Office” (update: I still identify with Jan. She was a toddler mom in the episodes I watched this time, and still singing her self-absorbed tunes). I was so mad at myself for going back to this place, for having these intensively negative feelings, for slipping back into this well-worn pattern. I expected myself to have risen above this – as though I was exempt from pain and suffering because I have found some serenity and healing through recovery. As though I wasn’t human, and experiencing suffering, because that’s what humans do, because that’s why we’re here.. And – a new twist of having a saner perspective – that I can also be annoyed that I wasn’t ok with not being ok! Because I should know better.
I read somewhere once (it was probably Brene Brown) that “shame” stands for Should Have Already Mastered Everything.
Well ain’t that bouta bitch.
“Should” is bullshit. And especially for women, rejecting “should” is revolutionary, because “should” is all of this internalized junk shoved down our throats to keep us in line. We “shouldn’t” be anything other than what we are, even if that makes other people uncomfortable. Even when it makes us uncomfortable, temporarily.
And sometimes what we are is in pain. Sometimes what we are is not the best version of ourselves, not the person we want to be, or our partner wants us to be, or our boss wants us to be, or our clients want us to be. Sometimes our life sucks. Sometimes we throw tantrums about it. Sometimes we don’t want to go to work, sometime we don’t do the right thing, sometimes we have to take time for ourselves. Sometimes we can’t show up, no matter what. Sometimes we disappoint people. Sometimes we disappoint ourselves.
It’s OK not to be OK.
Last week, I was on Instagram, where I get all my mental health news, and I saw a post that read “the obstacle is the way.” I had gotten to Season 6 of “The Office” by then (I started midway through 4 and skipped the “Scott’s Tots” episode), and I realized that this, for me, is about the OK vs. not OK business. And I am going to continue to sometimes not be OK, forever and ever and ever until I die. The obstacle, for me, is that I fight mightily against not being OK. And I am going to keep hitting this bump (crater?) in the road until I accept that I am not always going to be OK, and that these feelings of pain and discomfort and rage and sadness are … you guessed it, OK.
Of course you are sometimes not OK. Of course you feel the sadness, anger, pain that you are feeling. There are a million and one reasons for you to feel not OK right now. Yes, it will pass, and yes, you will learn from it, and grow. That’s what we are all here to do – to learn, and grow, no matter how many times it takes. But what I am coming to understand is that it’s not about getting to the other side. It’s about giving the not okay-ness some peace and validation exactly as it is. It’s about healing all of the times that you were told that you should focus on the positive, those moments when you felt yourself dismissed with the wave of a hand, those instances when you were told that it was not ok to not feel ok, and you believed it. We were taught that our feelings of not being ok in this crazy, crazy world were wrong. We believed it.
We are learning something new, and that can be painful. Just watch any kid trying to learn how to tie his shoes OH MY GOD CAN YOU ACTUALLY KILL ME. In short, it’s about acceptance. But it’s also about having compassion for yourself, and cultivating the love of all of the bits of you, even your failures, even your shortcomings, all of the wildly frustrating parts of you that are human.
It’s a goddamn impossible task. And you know what? It’s supposed to be hard, and we’re supposed to fail, and wail, and bang our fists on the table about it, because that’s how we uncover the small, quivering voice that tells us we’re OK, even when we’re not OK. And we will spend the rest of our lives working to believe it.