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How to respond to "I'm not okay."

“How are you?”

“I’m not okay.”

This was not the response Lisa was expecting, so all she could come up with was “Oh my.” Most people respond to “How are you?” with ‘okay” or “fine” or maybe “busy” and occasionally “tired.” They don’t say “not okay.” Lisa hadn’t meant to start a counseling session – she was just tossing off a standard greeting in passing. Our positive American culture hasn’t prepared us for an honest answer to the question implied in our greeting!

We are in a moment. We are emotionally worn out and many of us are willing to admit it. Now what?

Lisa wanted to honor the honesty of her colleague’s reply but recognized that she couldn’t stop her day right then, and even if she could she didn’t have the emotional bandwidth to take on one more person’s story of pain just then. Later she sent her colleague a text and they scheduled some time so Lisa could listen to what was going on in her life.

How can we help ourselves through this time, so we have the emotional bandwidth to help our congregations? Listening is a good place to start. Listening to our own emotions, as well as those expressed by others.

How many emotions do you think the average person can name? According to Dr. Brene Brown, the answer is 3. She calls them the Mad-Sad-Glad triad. In Atlas of the Heart, Brown names 87 emotions. Dr. Marc Brackett identifies 100 in his book Permission to Feel.

Perhaps our positive thinking culture has limited our ability to express emotion. Not that we can’t be mad or sad – but we feel pressure to be glad. And as you may remember from part one, we even feel entitled to be mad at people who aren’t glad. While I’m relieved to see that “sad” made the triad, our culture’s tolerance for grief is short. Those who experience loss are supposed to “get over it” quickly.

What if we used this moment as an opening to a deeper conversation? Some of us aren’t ready for that. I’ve heard many people admit that they don’t know where to start such a conversation, or to respond on the rare occasion the opportunity presents itself. . They are so shocked– that the moment passes before they can think of anything so they say something dismissive and change the subject. We need to give people tools for going deeper.

Here are questions that help spark a deep conversation. We can use them on ourselves when we are “not okay” and offer them to a friend when they confess their distress. These questions are based on the idea behind an analysis tool called ‘The 5 Why’s.” The basic premise is that it takes asking “why” five times to get down to the root of the problem. Of course, we can’t respond to every comment with “why?” It sounds snarky and might trigger their defense mechanisms. We need to be ready with opening and follow-up questions that are filled with grace, not snark.

The questions I suggest below are structured using a bit of wisdom from motivational psychologists. Two drivers inspire change – and we need both. The first is a concern or discomfort that pushes us away from the current situation and the second is the hope of a preferred future. Responses to the first few questions reveal the context of the concern or discomfort while the last couple hint at a possible way forward.

Next time you or a friend feel “not okay” try moving through some of these questions:

Tell me more.

What does “not okay” sound like? Look like? Feel like?

When did you first start saying you were “not ok”?

What was going on then?

How did you respond? In what way was that helpful?

Is there something you are trying to avoid?

What will it look like when you can say “I’m okay” again?

Of course, these aren’t the only possibilities – they are just some that we can have ready for that moment a friend dares to be honest with us. These questions are designed to help a conversation partner recognize the context of their discomfort, learn from it, and see the hint of a way forward it is offering.

We don’t have to fear being stuck in “not okay” – we can help each other learn from it and move through it. Things aren’t always great. We are in the deep and denying it isn’t working, but there is hope when we help each other through.

This blog is in two sections: Part 1 focused on a couple of biological and social realities that complicate our ability to say, “I’m not okay.” while this one looks at what we can do to build on the openness of this moment in ways that help one another. If you missed part 1 you can read it next by clicking the button below.


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