Is It Okay To Pretend To Be Okay?

“Are you doing okay?”

Sometimes these well meaning words can be a burden on us. They can be frustrating to hear.

They make us realise that the speaker — a friend, family member, colleague or even a kind stranger — sees something in us that we are ashamed of.

What are we ashamed of? We are ashamed that the speaker was right: we are not okay. We just can’t bring ourselves to admit it yet. This is why we pretend.

We hide away from it, force a smile, nod and try to get away or change the subject.

You're not the only one

Everybody has problems in life, and between work, family and social commitments, we often feel like we have to put on a brave face and just get through the day.

There may be many other people around you who are struggling in some way, great or small. You are not alone.

Why do we do it

Admitting you are not okay is an act of vulnerability. It takes bravery and it takes energy. And at the end of it, will the person you are opening up to even be able to help? Or will they look down on you? Will they think you are weak? We cannot bear to be seen living an imperfect existence.

Therefore it is harder to tell the truth, easier to lie. Explaining that you are not okay is nerve wracking, exhausting and filled with uncertainty.

Your brain does a little calculation and comes to this conclusion: it is better to hide your reality than take the risk of sharing it.

To hide is to take no action. Grin and bear it. You won’t suffer obvious repurcisions, but you also close yourself off from the possibility of healing.

To open yourself up to somebody seems like a worse option, but it is also the only road that leads to a possibility of something better.

Does pretending work?

If you lie to the people around you who care about you, before long you may also start lying to yourself. Because you won’t accept help towards something better, you may start to believe that your current state of sadness is all you can achieve.

To hide is disempowering. To take action is to remind yourself that you are still alive, that there is still hope.

We think we become expert actors, laughing when we are supposed to, hiding our emotions, keeping up pretenses. You vent in private but try to act “normal” in public. You get to work on time.

But the better actor you become, the harder you are making it for yourself.

Besides, you probably aren’t as good an actor as you think you are. The people that know you,love you and spend time with you will catch on eventually. If you don’t tell them how they can help, they won’t know.

Sometimes, it doesn’t even matter if your friend can “help”. To talk and to share your reality is a way that you can express your agency in the world. To take a hold on your situation and see hope again.

Pretending can work. But sharing your problems is a much more powerful option.

It’s okay not to be okay

Being okay all the time just isn’t realistic! Life is full of ups and downs. We would like to hope that we live happy lives, and if so perhaps we are okay on average. But that doesn’t mean that on any given day, at any given time, even for any given month or year, we have to be satisfied with our lives. In fact, this is highly unlikely!

If you ask an average person twenty different times whether they are okay, it would be totally unrealistic to expect them to answer positively every time! That’s not how life works. Emotions fluctuate naturally. Not to mention all the events, big and small, good and bad, that can push us from one emotional path onto another.

Many studies and books have been written on the topic of what the conditions for happiness are. What we can all agree on is that it is a complicated subject and that nobody is happy all the time.

You don’t need to pretend to be okay. It’s okay not to be okay. Whatever your current reality, you have the strength to embrace it. Healing comes from being honest with yourself.

How can we open up when it is so difficult?

Whatever difficulty you are facing, there will always be somebody available to talk to. You may sometimes feel that you need to pretend, and you don’t have to feel bad about that. Only you can make that decision. But what if you could find a way to talk about your feelings instead of bottling them up?

What if you could find somebody who you feel comfortable talking to, whether a friend, family member, professional or a stranger? Wouldn’t that make things easier?

The first step to opening up is to understand your own feelings. Find somewhere quiet and safe and ask yourself questions.

  • Why do you feel this way?
  • Why do you feel like you have to pretend that you feel differently?
  • Is there anything that would make you feel better?

When you have answered these questions yourself, you will feel more comfortable and confident sharing them with somebody else.

Some people don’t want to admit to their negative feelings because they think it will bring down other people. But remember, your friends probably struggle with some things too. It might not be nice for them to think that everyone else around them has perfectly happy lives with no problems. It can be reassuring when other people share their problems. Not to mention, if they can help, that will make them feel good as well. Try looking at it from this perspective if you need help allowing yourself to open up to somebody.

One study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people think they are more alone in their negative feelings than they actually are. You can break that negative cycle.

What to say if you aren’t okay

Here are some examples so you can get an idea of what it sounds like to tell somebody the truth about how you are feeling.

Question: “Are you doing okay?”

Possible Answers:

  1. “I’m actually feeling a bit down right now. I don’t think there’s any particular reason for it — perhaps the weather, or maybe I need to rethink my sleep schedule. So I’m sure I’ll be okay in a few days, but right now I’m feeling a bit emotional and it hasn’t been easy to keep working at my usual rate.”
  2. So-so. I think I’m a five-out-of-ten today. Maybe a four. What about you?
  3. I’m not my best. My partner has been driving me crazy recently. To be honest, I would like to talk to somebody about it a bit. Is it okay if we go to lunch together later so I can vent a little?
  4. Thank you, I really appreciate you asking. My depression and anxiety has been getting worse over the last week. I’m sorry you noticed but I’m also glad you did.
  5. I’m not okay right now, but I don’t think I want to talk about it right now. Thank you so much for asking, though. I will be okay, and I’ll give you an update soon.

But should you always be honest about your feelings?

The truth is that some people in the world are not kind, and some people are not emotionally intelligent. Sometimes your fear of vulnerability is justified. It could make things worse to be vulnerable around the wrong sorts of people.

But if you are used to pretending you are okay, you almost certainly underestimate people. You mum, your dad, a brother or sister, a grandparent, aunt or uncle, a friend, a colleague, — among the people you know there are almost certainly many who really do have your best interests at heart, and that would be open to listening to you.

If you’re not sure, start slow. Don’t divulge everything at once. Start by telling them that you’re not feeling your best. See how they react. Were they kind and/or concerned? That’s a good sign.

Give people a chance. Nobody is perfect, but once you start opening up you will probably be surprised how good it feels to talk to people.

Do you need somebody to speak to?

There are many groups that offer support and companionship in a non-professional setting. They may meet in person or over a video call. Whatever your situation or your background, you should be able to find a group that is suitable for you.

For professional help, you also have the option to book an appointment with an E-Therapy therapist. We offer affordable video chats at a time that is convenient for you. Find a therapist that is right for you and you could be talking with them this week.

There are helplines like Samaritans through which you can talk to somebody if you are having difficulty coping in life. Though Samaritans is the most well known, it is certainly not the only helpline. Find out more at the Helplines Partnership.

You can also refer yourself for therapy through the NHS (IAPT). This is free, though you will be put on a waiting list.

This article was written as a collaboration between E-Therapy contributors. Find out about E-Therapy here, or contact us to learn more.