Rushing to Be OK Before You Are OK

Spinning pain into positivity before its time can lead to feeling badly about feeling bad
June 18, 2020 Updated: June 26, 2020

From the time we’re young, we’re taught to find the silver lining in every cloud, to search for the lesson in every challenge. Adversity is our teacher, darkness brings light, difficulty is an opportunity. Yes, that’s all useful, but sometimes, we rush the positive narrative before we’ve allowed ourselves to feel the actual feelings … the hard ones. The lessons we construct end up replacing the actual learning and we end up with a pseudo-well-being that isn’t real or resilient. Not being OK, for real, is also OK, and even necessary.

I recently broke my foot two days before going on a long-awaited beach vacation. The break was a non-weight-bearing injury. I didn’t know what that meant when the ER doctor first used the term, but I soon came to understand that it meant what it sounds like; you cannot put your foot down on the ground for any reason, not without risking surgery or excruciating pain. And in my case, not for six weeks. While it’s not something you think about until you need to, not being able to set your foot down for any reason is a big deal; it makes life very challenging.  Essentially, with a badly broken foot, you have to just sit down and sit still.

At this moment in history, our world is not OK; we are not OK. Oddly, however, when things are not OK, we are told that we should be OK, should be able to get OK with not OK. The should police tell us that adversity is an opportunity for growth, and within all difficulty lies great teaching. Suffering is our guru, a gift. And yes, that may all be true. But I wonder, does our positive, spiritual narrative around life’s challenges rush us into a pseudo-well-being, a flimsy mental construct, an OK that’s not entirely real, not earned? Is there a time and place for actually not being OK … before we get to being OK with not being OK?

So here I was, in this adorable boardwalk beach town, a town with endless opportunities for walking and running, for exploring neighborhoods by foot, spectacular hiking, bike riding, and swimming. A town meant to be fully and physically enjoyed—and no possibility of doing any of it.  I watched as my family (with my encouragement) traipsed off to explore the sweet town and neighboring towns, stroll the boardwalks, take sunrise jogs, participate in power yoga classes (on the beach), swim in the gentle waves, laugh their way through gigantic suburban grocery store aisles, and, basically, have a whole lot of fun.

In the grand scheme, having to sit down and sit still is not the end of the world, not the biggest deal, and certainly not even a blip on the screen when it comes to what’s happening in the world. But, for someone like me, it is a big deal—a monumental deal in fact. Moving is a fundamental ingredient in my well-being, like breathing and eating.

Strange though it may sound, I don’t think a day has passed in the last 35 years when I didn’t feel immense gratitude for being able to head out on my daily walk or run. When I was pregnant and on bed rest, I knew that I would do anything and everything in my power to never not be able to move again. I have relied on being able to move and move quickly in order to feel emotionally and physically well; it’s my fix, my go-to feel-good drug that’s served me for a lifetime. So, here I was, sitting in my seat at the beach, still as a sloth, unable to give myself what I needed to be well.

I felt really bad about not being able to walk or run or move much at all. But I noticed that I felt almost as bad about feeling bad. Many people I talked to about the situation told me some version of the silver lining to every cloud adage, with a little “oh, what a pain” thrown in for good measure. My more spiritually-inclined friends were excited by the situation and the teachings that awaited me in this opportunity.

I felt disappointment in myself for thinking that this moment was anything other than perfect, and should be any other way, and sternly told myself to accept the present moment without resistance, since that’s all there was. My family reminded me to practice the power of now, along with the power of surrender, neither one of which, apparently, I was practicing.

As my body atrophied on the sofa, my mind was soaking in shoulds, the ways I should be better-experiencing this unfortunate opportunity. I chided myself with Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” thinking about all those who had suffered before me with a purpose. I went full-throttle on the self-throttling. I still felt awful about not being able to move and the timing of this injury with my long-awaited active vacation, but I felt just as terrible if not worse about the fact that I was feeling so terrible.

But then it occurred to me that I was pushing myself to learn and feel something new and expansive in this mess before I had actually learned it or felt it. I was demanding that I be a person who walked through this with great optimism and a spiritual perspective. I realized that this idea of a hidden teaching, the “why” that made the “how” OK, and all the rest of the shoulds might just be a narrative that I was constructing. I was skipping an important step in the process, a step that needed to happen so that I could actually learn and grow.

I felt enormous pressure, most of it coming from inside myself, to find acceptance and peace about this situation. But I wasn’t there, not yet anyway, if I ever would be. Rather than compel myself to use this as a teaching, I had to actually let myself feel bad, feel sad, feel upset, feel angry, feel irritated, feel disappointed about this situation, this unfortunate event—to live it as I actually experienced it. I had to let the teaching teach me rather than construct a teaching that would work for my mind.

Getting OK with not OK is not about feeling good or even comfortable with what doesn’t feel good or comfortable. It’s not about manufacturing a positive lesson in a negative situation before that lesson has actually revealed itself. It is, however, about having the courage to allow yourself to not be OK, without judgment and the urgency to change it.

There’s no reason to berate or shame yourself for feeling bad; bad things happen and we sometimes just feel bad. Feeling bad is part of the process and it leads to feeling good again. When you stop judging yourself for not being OK, you are indeed being OK with not being OK.

Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com