What Does it Take—Really—To Be Okay With Not Being Okay? (And Why It Matters)

If I have seen a version of this line, it’s okay to not be okay once, I have seen it a thousand times in the past few days, if not weeks and months, as more and more people have acknowledged the wisdom and truth of this sentiment.




Seeing this play out against the backdrop of the Olympics has been particularly telling, given the once-every-[in this case 5!]-years' uniqueness of this event and the cost athletes have paid for putting their mental health needs ahead of competing at this pinnacle event. That is, some of the athletes who have chosen this path are more likely to retire than return to the Olympic stage again, rendering the impact of their decision to step away from competition all the more compelling.


Through the lens of these actions, we are watching elite athletes violate much of what we thought we understood about high-performance sport. If stepping away rather than stepping up seems fundamentally antithetical to us in our imaginings about what makes gritty performers tick, imagine how it must have actually felt for the likes of Naomi Osaka, Liz Cambage, or Simone Biles. No athlete at this level got here without years of gritty, honed effort, of leaning into difficulty and pain, of constantly testing one’s limits in the pursuit of the “next level.” So it is important to not only consider but frankly, marvel at the self-awareness and strength of character each of these women showed in:


1. Recognizing and honouring their distress for what it was.

2. Acting to put their own welfare ahead of their sport, a major competition, and perhaps their career.

3. Fronting up to the media and the court of public opinion to talk about it.


Not to mention then having to bear up—with articulate grace and dignity—to the ill-considered responses/withering critiques of the uninformed.



Angela Ruggiero, 4-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey and co-founder and CEO of Sports Innovation Lab, in her comments to Bloomberg News about what it takes to manage Olympic-level pressure, had this to say when asked about Simone Biles: …the fact that she stepped away and allowed her teammates to step up speaks volumes to the kind of team athlete she is and that, I think, deserves a gold medal in and of itself. I think she is demonstrating what a great teammate looks like, what courage sounds like. She is exposing her vulnerability in a way that I think the world is now recognising.


Yes, this is indeed a powerful notion, that we can be okay even when we are not okay. A notion whose time has come, a notion that takes its rightful place next to other powerful contemporary movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, it's time for #ItsOkToNotBeOk.”


Yet, if we are not careful, the idea that we can be okay, even when we are not can wither away from a lack of continued emphasis and articulation or lack of understanding about what it really means in practice. We need to re-emphasize and articulate this idea to ourselves, continuously “trying it on” in order to develop new habits of mind. Think about how many times you have angrily told yourself some version of “just harden up and get on with it!” or otherwise dismissed your own emotional or mental hurt, and you can imagine the work it will take to rewire your own neural pathways to adopt a wait-what-is-really-happening-here? approach to your own mental health messaging. Let’s unpack what it takes to really be and act okay with not being okay.


When In Doubt, Lean In. Dave Barry, the celebrated humourist, used to joke about how everyone, no matter the evidence, thinks of themselves as a good driver. It’s funny because we all know we think it, while also knowing it can’t be true for everyone. Similarly, we all like to think we are self-aware, but it turns out that few of us actually are. We all have pockets of awareness as well as blind spots, a result of our habits of mind. We pay attention to the stuff we like or is important in our life and often ignore or are unaware of the rest. Our emotional lives often get short shrift simply because much of that part of our experience is uncomfortable. Many of my clients are simply unaware of at least a portion of their emotional experience. We can get better at this simply by paying more attention to our emotions as they come and go. How can we do that?


Our first task is to notice. When you become aware of an emotion, take the time and make the effort to become better acquainted. What do you notice about this emotion? Where is it residing in your body? If it had colour and texture, what are those qualities? Our second task is to allow. This is how you cultivate your ability to “be with” what is happening and is all about the attitude you bring. Can you welcome all your emotions—positive and negative—with the same sense of affable openness?


Not surprisingly, our tendency to ignore or avoid some of our emotions has more to do with the attitude we bring to our noticing than to the emotion itself. Anxiety can be discomforting, but if we busy ourselves thinking about how much we hate anxiety, we may inadvertently double down on this discomfort. It is only through the open and allowing awareness of our emotions that we can know if we are in fact okay or not okay.


An important caveat. One of the differences between an emotion, a mood, and a mental health issue is duration. It is useful to know and keep in mind that emotions are meant to act “like the weather” in that they will come…and they will go. If on the other hand, you are aware that your emotional experience has lingered for days or weeks, then it may be useful to seek advice from a mental health professional.


Seek to Understand. Emotions tend to crop up in response to, among other things, perceived threat on the one side or anticipated awesomeness on the other. Once you settle in with your emotional experience—in an affable, open way—listen for the stories it might be telling. What are you afraid of, anxious about, angrily imagining, or excitedly anticipating? Naomi Osaka linked the awful and awkward reception she received after defeating Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open with her developing depression and anxiety. Simone Biles reported a growing sense of unease and performance pressure—new mental experiences for her—and linked them with the loss of her superpower ability to sense where she was in the air during her signature aerial moves. Liz Cambage reported experiencing panic attacks when contemplating playing at the Olympics. This kind of sense-making can be a helpful grounding and source of understanding, providing some clarity and even comfort. “There is a reason why I feel this way and this is what’s happening” can help to empower self-care action.


Except when it doesn’t. That is, some mental distress can’t be traced to any particular event. Understanding, in this case, could be as straightforward as being willing to back your own experience and perception. Whatever the case, it can also be very useful to speak with a mental health professional about your experience if symptoms persist or become more intense.


Vulnerability as Strength, Not Weakness. As we seek to understand racism and sexism in more nuanced and real ways, so are we starting to wrap our heads around the reality and totality of mental health. Mental health is not just a problem other people have, but part of our experience of being human. A spectrum of perception, thought, and emotion that fluctuates and can be wounded just like physical health. Something okay to talk about. Poor mental health is a state that just is rather than a sign of flawed character or “weakness.”


Angela Ruggiero rightfully celebrated Simone Biles’ willingness to expose her own mental health vulnerability as an act of ultimate bravery and honesty. While it is easy to equate vulnerability with “unprotected” or “weak,” I’d argue that there is freedom and ease that can come from not hiding, not protecting. For if we agree that mental health is okay and part of the human experience, then what exactly are we needing to protect?


Are you okay with not being okay? I hope so. If not, I can help.


In case you missed my main message :), I believe that high performance shouldn't hurt people. I provide individual and group coaching on how to achieve the performance goals you want without hurting yourself or your people in the process. In ways that are healthier, happier, and more sustainable. If you want more information or have questions, you can reach me at kirsten@kirstenpetersonconsulting.com.


Ok Not To Be Okay


Demi Lovato, Marshmello


Feeling like a drop in the ocean

That don't nobody notice

Maybe it's all just in your head

Feeling like you're trapped in your own skin

And now your body's frozen

Broken down, you've got nothing left


When you're high on emotion

And you're losing your focus

And you feel too exhausted to pray

Don't get lost in the moment

Or give up when you're closest

All you need is somebody to say


It's okay not to be okay

It's okay not to be okay

When you're down and you feel ashamed

It's okay not to be okay


Feeling like your life's an illusion

And lately, you're secluded

Thinking you'll never get your chance

Feeling like you got no solution

It's only 'cause you're human

No control, it's out of your hands


When you're high on emotion

And you're losing your focus

And you feel too exhausted to pray

Don't get lost in the moment

Or give up when you're closest

All you need is somebody to say


It's okay not to be okay

It's okay not to be okay

When you're down and you feel ashamed

it's okay not to be okay


When you're high on emotion

And you're losing your focus

And you feel too exhausted to pray

Don't get lost in the moment

Or give up when you're closest

All you need is somebody to say


It's okay not to be okay (ohh)

It's okay not to be okay (no, no, no)

When you're down and you feel ashamed (When you feel ashamed)

It's okay not to be okay (no, no)

It's okay not to be okay



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