"Are you okay?" is a trap of a question

How can a seemingly innocent enquiry into someone's wellbeing actually have an adverse impact on their mental health?

Jon Deery
16th February 2022
Image from Unsplash @lkintziger
Here’s a predicament. Your mental health, as far as you can tell, has never been better - most of the time, you’re feeling great, and the only blips in that bliss are provoked by the occasional sad stuff life throws at you every now and again to puncture the monotony of contentedness. You cope with these obstacles in a healthy way, growing stronger overall, and see life as a general progression towards further self-love. But somewhere in this system lies a pernicious bug: you find that a certain input can risk crashing the whole thing, freezing up your normal functioning, overloading your means of processing the world - what’s worse, this input could arrive at any time, from anywhere, and will not give you time to prepare. It is a weapon of three words, ironically only wielded at you by those with the most concern that you are not hurt. It is the question “are you okay?”

I’ll stop using the second person now, because it’s not fooling anyone: this is my current situation (though it is shared, I hear, by many other than myself). I’m doing great until you ask me if I’m okay, and then suddenly I’m not so sure.

What’s most distressing about this is its absurdity: surely, if I’m okay, I’ll be able to answer “yes” straight away and move on - the fact that I hesitate must therefore mean the question was pertinent, that I’m not really okay, and that I should probably investigate why that is. It seems ridiculous to suggest that the question itself is to blame for the negative feelings that come after it.

On the surface, this holds up. After all, why does a concerned friend inquire about their companion’s okay-ness status if not because they’ve been given reason for concern?

But that’s one of the cutting edges of the question. “Are you okay?” implies “you don’t seem okay”, and that is enough, if you’ve been striding around convinced of your contentedness, to catch you off-guard. The knee jerk reaction is a defensive ‘yes I’m fine, why do you ask?’ but on many occasions, you’re so convinced of the first part of that response that you can’t bring yourself to say it out loud. You hesitate out of shock that someone would even suggest that you’re not okay, and all of a sudden that very hesitation seems like evidence for their perceptiveness. Oh god, you think, maybe I’m actually not as okay as I thought - how could I be so blind?

Now the horse is out of the stable. Your mind runs through dangerous territory at speed, with questions like can I ever really know if I’m okay? threatening to trip you up at every turn. Your whole emotional grounding is no longer solid. It appears that you’ve been deceiving yourself, successfully, this whole time, and that you’ve been suppressing your ‘real’ (negative) emotions in favour of ‘pretend’ (positive) performances. How can you trust yourself to know what you need if you’re better at fooling yourself than others?

At some point, I slipped back into the second person again. Whoops. But I know this is a feeling shared by more than myself, so let’s compromise: I’ll pluralise my narration from now on.

We arrive at the conclusion that our friend is onto something, that we’re not okay, despite previously believing ourselves to be, and that, therefore, we cannot trust ourselves to know our own feelings. We are ashamed and aghast at our own internal gullibility, as well as our arrogance that things could ever truly go as well as we believed they were going.

What makes this dangerous territory is the fact that it cannot really be refuted. By necessity, to be continuously okay is to be perpetually ignorant. To be continuously okay would be to never understand the pain of living in a dying world, to never feel the life-changing grief of losing a loved one, to never learn, essentially, from the wisdom-giving library of melancholy. To uphold unbroken okayness is to willingly remain in the dark about darkness. Maintaining ignorance about these things requires enormous self-denial.

This has the potential to be a healthy realisation: it’s okay not to be okay, because being okay doesn’t provide us with a full picture of the world.

The unhealthiness comes when we filter it through negativity bias - when the bad stuff seems ‘more real’ than the good stuff in life.

“Are you okay?” is a prompt perfectly positioned to provoke negativity bias. First, it implies a binary opposition that pits ‘okay’ against ‘not okay’. Our mental health is no longer a complex web of knowledge and emotion, reshaped by new perspectives every day. It’s an on/off switch. The second implication, that we don’t look like we’re okay, tells us that, of those two options, we’re probably ‘off’. And so our vision begins to adjust to the dark.

What’s ironic about this article is that friends of mine will read it and their immediate instinct will be to ask me if I’m okay. There’ll probably then be a realisation that, oh wait, that would go against the whole point of the article, and a resultant reluctance and confusion about what to do.

Let me be clear. Everyone needs to be checked up on, by caring friends, every once in a while. There’s no getting around it; we’re too good at lying to ourselves and to other people to be trusted to look after our mental health on our own. But the question we ask should not be “are you okay?”, but “how are you feeling?” - and then, if there is a hint of hesitation in the reply, “what’s the matter?”

“How are you feeling?” gives much more room for diversion and performance than “are you okay?”, but at least it doesn’t assert the harmful binary that the latter is built on. “What’s the matter?” is the key question, though, because instead of leading to an endless trapdoor of worries about self-deception and quantifiable contentedness, it leads directly to “the matter”. It pushes us toward something concrete - an issue we can grapple with, a problem we can discuss and learn to cope with or overcome.

So I ask, indulging in the second person a final time: how are you feeling? Take your time.

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