This week, I received a message from a reader who shared that he’d been struggling with various self-doubts and uncertainties and that he was frustrated with well-meaning advice.
One interesting point was that he felt it “wasn’t OK to not be OK”, and that he wasn’t sure he needed to improve and “be better than I am at present”.
The reader also included a gentle scolding of a previous column I wrote on the importance of self-acceptance. As I read the message, it occurred to me that we sometimes over-simplify ideas that are designed to stop us from fighting against ourselves and create space for growth.
I’m sure many of you have heard the phrase, “It’s OK to not be OK”. Like many pithy sayings, its job is to be memorable rather than explain any nuance.
In this case, someone has taken the saying literally. Of course it’s not OK to suffer, to have self-doubt, to be depressed, anxious, or otherwise affected. We know it’s not OK because, were any of these conditions a choice, none of us would freely choose them.
When we say that it’s OK to not be OK, it’s a message that comes in two parts. Firstly, it’s a recognition that no-one’s at fault when they suffer from ill-health, self-doubt, or feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy.
Secondly, it’s a call to treat ourselves with kindness and to know that there’s nothing wrong with any kind of ill-health; whether it be mental or physical, it doesn’t in any way diminish our worth as a person.
What the saying doesn’t mean is that suffering in any form is OK in itself or that we should accept our lot. Where change can be made, and where we can – and want – to improve ourselves, then that’s a choice open to us.
All too often, we can feel enslaved by our circumstances, by our past, and by unfortunate events we encounter. Feeling shackled, we might lack the motivation to better ourselves, to climb out of our self-doubt and move beyond uncertainty.
In this situation, we might find well-intended friends telling us that “It’s OK to not be OK”. While we should give ourselves some space to feel difficult emotions, and although the initial step towards change is to accept – for the moment – how and where we are, we needn’t stay there.
As the renowned psychotherapist Irvin Yalom once wrote, it’s important not to let your life live you. He adds, “Otherwise, you end up at 40 feeling you haven’t really lived. What have I learned? Perhaps to live now, so that at fifty I won’t look back upon my forties with regret.”
We all have a hardwired need to aim for something. It’s why advertising has been so successful, because its fundamental premise is that, if you buy this product or service, it will improve you and make you feel complete. Of course, that’s never the case, and we continue to struggle to learn the lesson. As a result, we keep on buying our way towards an ideal that’s forever just out of reach.
Research into what makes video games so addictive shines a perfect light on this aspect of our nature. As it turns out, the best games that keep people playing are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being doable, but continually challenging at the same time. Too easy, or too difficult, and we lose interest.
Rather than spending money to feel satisfied, one of the best ways to overcome self-doubt and uncertainty is to set ourselves a goal (something to aim for) that’s a little beyond our capability (the challenge), but is something that we can reach if we persevere.
Contrast that with an attitude that simply gives up if something’s even remotely challenging, and there you will find fertile ground for self-doubt and uncertainty to fester. From there, we might start to wonder what our purpose is, or whether we’re good enough to even have one.
Of course, if we feel so overwhelmed to the point where we don’t even know where to begin, then that’s OK – it’s a normal part of our human condition. If we need help, guidance and support, that’s OK too. This is when we should be especially careful to treat ourselves, and others, with understanding and kindness in accepting that, for the moment, we’re not at our best or where we’d like to be.
If we fall, we accept that we’ve fallen – but of course we don’t stay down. We take action and get back up.
Similarly, when we feel unsure of ourselves, uncertain or lost, we should start from a place of accepting our situation.
But, just as we would support a friend in need, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of the strength and potential we have to shape ourselves however we choose, should we make that commitment. It’s not that life becomes easier or more certain, but that we become stronger and able to bear any challenges we face.
As the noted Hindu monk Swami Vivekananda put it, “Things do not grow better; they remain as they are. It is we who grow better, by the changes we make in ourselves.”