“Are You Okay?” When You’re NOT Okay

Are you okay? Do you front a smile and pretend to be okay when you’re crumbling inside? Sometimes this question comes unexpectedly. Why not try these tips next time so you do not regret your response after.

Are you okay?

A Difficult Question

At times when we feel moody or down at least, this question pops up unexpectedly and in a bid to put off the one asking we hastily answer the question. In our experience over the years with many clients at this point in their lives, we have noticed one thing which might be true for you too. Responding to someone who greets you saying, “Hi, are you okay?” can be a difficult question especially when you’re feeling down or in the midst of a personal crisis.

Sometimes you might even pick an offence and answer rather aggressively saying ” what is that supposed to mean?” or you say “yes i am” either without blinking or after a pause due to the shock of having to answer such a question at that point.

Why It Is So Difficult

For some people, this question isn’t one they might want to talk about as it brings painful memories. Mattew* for example, mentioned what happened when his close friend committed suicide.He recalls that he was so disturbed and he had to answer the question ’Are you okay?’many times that he had to start giving sharp responses. The reason? Any time he gives an honest answer, he breaks down emotionally whenever he remembers what happened.

In some occasions, the person asking might really have your interest in mind and wants to help. But there are some other times when the person asking if you are fine just says so casually with no strings attached or really want to make a mockery of you says David*. I have learnt to smile and answer “yes i am just fine” he concludes because i really don’t want these people to see me as being weak and helpless.

Are You Okay?- A Guide To Help You Answer

Suffering mental health issues—whether situational or chronic—is debilitating enough without worrying about how to handle other people’s curiosity—even when the one enquiring has good intentions. Sometimes your hesitation at admitting you are in an emotionally fragile state is what makes being confronted with this question a pain.

Here is a guide to help you handle this question in a way that works for you

1. What is the intent of the questioner?

You need to figure out answer to these questions. “Who is the person asking?” “Is he or she someone you are close to, someone you believe truly cares about you?” “What is the context of the question?” Is it one that seems to care or just one that seems to be asking the question as automatically as one offers “Gesundheit” after a sneeze?

A good rule of thumb is if you are unsure this person can be trusted with your intimate secrets and/or you just feel uncomfortable, don’t feel obliged to offer more than a casual response.

This means give a polite non-answer that makes it clear you want this topic of conversation shut down. Some typical examples of what you might say to answer include, “Lots of people are going through difficult times these days. Let’s talk about something pleasant” or “I’m hanging in. Thanks for asking. How are you doing?” If the person persists, offer, “Thanks for your concern but I’d really appreciate your respecting my privacy. Have a great day!”

When confronted with this blunt question, Mitchell, one of our counsellors says if you do not want to feel bad after pouring out your heart to the wrong person, quickly ask yourself “Is this person one I want to open up and discuss my emotions with?”

Even if this one is someone you know is truly concerned about your welfare, your answer depends on your state of mind. Are you ready to talk about it again? This takes us to the next thing you must consider.

2. How will answering the question affect you ?

For some people talking about what makes them cry can be extremely difficult, even with a trusted one. For some, it reopens past wounds or even painful memories, for others it feels shameful, so think about how you would feel after you open up your heart to anyone.

Some people find it difficult to share their feelings because they think they will be looked down on and referred to as ” feeling insecure” Tom* says ” sometimes I feel i am bordering others with my problems and whenever I try to mention it and i think about it twice because I don’t want people to stay away from me because of my issues” Like him many people are dying to speak out but are discouraged to say anything because of what they think others will say or think about them.

If you are among this category of people, remember that most who are asking about your well being are likely doing so out of concern. This is especially those in your family, close trusted friends (figure out those who are your true friends) and health practitioners. Remember, these people are your main support system. Anyone else you choose to open up to is at your discretion.

Anyone else you do not trust or you are not comfortable with don’t deserve more than a cursory answer. But sometimes someone you value but you don’t feel like telling everything or whom you don’t feel are capable of handing the whole truth might ask you “Are you okay?” What should you do in this instance? Finding balance is the best solution. This is what will be looked at next.

3. Set Boundaries

Mattew mentioned earlier says he confided in his next door neighbour who appeared to show a listening ear and was actually caring about some of his mental health issues. Later he regretted it when this person kept asking him how he was doing again and again and others he never mentioned the issue to started asking him the same question. It was like “My problem had become the talk of the day” he says and it ended up becoming even annoying as I had to evade these people most times.

So set some boundaries as to the limit of your talk with anyone like this. Learn to tell concerned friends what you need but know where to pause. Learn to get your privacy—especially when you need to vent.

One Thing You Should Remember

If someone is becoming intrusive, always try to be firm in your answer but in a polite way. They say there is something wrong with over familiarity right? Be kind and at the same time firm in your reply. And that response would be perfectly okay for you!

*Names and details are changed to protect their privacy.

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