Asking someone if they’re ok, is a pretty shitty form of support.
I’m probably not the most qualified person to write about this topic, I’m a design researcher, not a therapist, or a psychologist. I do, however, have some training in asking questions. But support is a tricky topic after all. And it’s an important one, so I feel everyone should think about it a bit more deeply.
I’ve been on the receiving end of that question quite a bit lately though. And I feel that not only are there better questions to ask instead, but we should also expand our definition of what being “ok” means at all.
I’ve been very lucky recently.
I’ve had the time and the space to think about my current self and my future plans. That feels good. I finally get to reflect and identify the ways I want to change. Many people do that all the time, some do it at the start of the New Year. But I’m not after a few subtle changes. I’m prioritizing my personal growth.
The process hasn’t been an easy one. It’s also been a bit heavy at times. Part of my method has been an honest and deep look into myself, my habits, my behaviors, my thought patterns, my emotions, and my fears. Examining these, I’ve identified what’s important to me, and also some of the things that have stopped me in the past. Some of these have been external and situational, but a lot of them have been personal challenges around productivity, mindset, ego, and motivation.
I’ve been writing about this process – in an open way.
And people have reacted in different ways. Some people find the openness with which I write about the harder things refreshing and encouraging. Others seem to find it concerning. Both reach out to offer support in whatever way they can.
Everyone’s got their own journey.
And supporting people on their journey is a great thing. But supporting isn’t easy. There’s a quote that describes this well. It’s attributed to Victor Chernomyrdin – “We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.”
We want to support our friends and family who are on their journeys, but the results are often not what we wish for. We give feedback and encouragement only to find that it’s perceived as insult and judgment.
Indeed, we want the best, but it turns out like always.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many reasons that these situations happen. But a few of the important ones I’ve noticed are empathy, language, ego, and time.
Empathy – For any message to be received, the receiver needs to accept it first. For a message to be accepted, there needs to be trust involved. For trust to manifest, the recipient needs to know you have their best interests at heart and that you are trying to understand what they are thinking and feeling. Without empathy, that’s not possible.
Language – Words are important. We often don’t think too much about what we say and about the meaning that we are conveying. But the field of advertising should offer a lesson here – words have power and they have meaning. The words you choose can set the tone, the mood, and guide people’s emotions. They can evoke feelings and memories that may be far contrary to what you want to say. Some words can act as triggers – as soon as they are uttered, nothing after is heard. How often do we think of the words we’re using?
Ego – Humans generally aren’t very transparent. Despite what we think, most people can’t read our emotions or thoughts. We are also not very good at reading the thoughts and emotions of others. At the same time, we are not the main character in other people’s stories. No matter how much we feel we may relate and understand what someone is feeling – we can’t. So when we’re trying to support others, we need to set aside our ego. The situation isn’t about us or our perception of what others are going through.
Time – To do all of the above requires time. Empathy takes time, trust takes time, thinking about your words takes time. Listening to others takes time. There’s no drive-by support. You can’t just pop in with a question of “are you ok?”, and pop out after 5 minutes. Typically, when people feel that you aren’t present and aren’t giving them your time, they’ll smile and say some obligatory words to make you feel better. Everyone knows about the American “Hey, how are you?” – a question that isn’t a question and that isn’t meant to be answered. – Great! Thanks, how are you?
Ask better issues
So the first part of what I want to say is that if you’re going to reach out and support your friends and family – then genuinely support them.
In the past month since I’ve started my process of self-reflection and personal growth, I’ve gotten a few messages from people asking me – are you ok?
I’m grateful for the kind intentions, and for the people who reach out and talk to me. I’m kindly nudging you to think more deeply about the kind of support you give, and the kinds of questions you’re asking.
Are you ok? – implies that I might not be, or that you think I’m not ok. It’s also a yes or no question, a binary state. I’m either ok or I’m not. If you intend to understand what I’m currently going through then there are other (I would argue better) questions you should ask.
Here are a few:
- Hey! I read your last article, what’s been going on?
- Hey! I saw you posted something lately, I’d love to hear more about it, let’s call?
- Hey man, what you been up to?
- Yo! Seems you’re making some changes! Me too, I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing and why.
I’m not saying I’m perfect at this – it’s a process, but the gist of the message is –
Hey! I see you. And I’m here to listen and learn.
What’s “ok” mean?
The next part that I want to say is that I think we’re generally quite wrong on what being “ok” means.
In prioritizing my personal growth I’ve had to honestly understand why I haven’t been growing. I’ve had to think about opportunities that didn’t happen. Futures that I won’t be living. Every possible opportunity is more than just a new thing – it’s potentially a new life.
Some of my past opportunities meant discovering brand new cities to live in. Some meant completely different career tracks than the one I’m on. Others meant vastly more money and the life that comes with it. It’s never just a single change. Our lives also work in systems. There will always be second and third-order consequences to our decisions.
And in thinking about all of these lives that I’m not living – it’s not all puppies and rainbows. I feel a mixture of emotions. I feel sadness, disappointment, hopelessness, anger. Sad that those experiences won’t be mine. Disappointed and angry at myself for not being good enough or skilled enough. And hopeless at times when I notice repeating trends.
And why isn’t that ok? Mourning is also good and healthy. Saying goodbye is important. You shouldn’t run from these feelings. You shouldn’t try to distract yourself, push them away or pretend that you’re not sad. Sad is ok too.
Am I ok? Yes
Am I sad? Yes, sometimes.
Am I happy? Yes, most of the time.
Do I need support? All the time, please say hello.
Those are all emotions and I cherish them for what they teach me about myself and life. I won’t go so far as to say I “enjoy” feeling sad, but it’s not a feeling I need to hide, push away, or be ashamed of. It’s a feeling that I experience and am grateful for. It reminds me that my choices are important. It makes me stronger.
Slowly, I’m noticing the dialogue is changing. We have Fuck Up Nights and Failcons where founders share the stories of their failures. We have more and more people discovering the benefits of a meditation practice and the emotional benefits it brings. You’re seeing more and more people speaking up about their journeys and struggles. We’re getting there, and I think that’s a good thing.
To end, if you’re feeling sad, know you’re ok too. If you have friends and family who need support, then genuinely support them.
And if you too are prioritizing your personal growth. We can support each other.