What We Need to Do Before Asking “Are You OK?”

“Connection gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” ~Brené Brown

R U OK Day is a crucial campaign to address mental health problems in our community. Even prior to the pandemic, isolation, loneliness, and disconnection from each other meant that the simple act of asking “Are you OK?” needed to be prompted.

We may go days, weeks without seeing each other in person, instead relying on sporadic whatsapp messages, emojis, or comments on each other’s social media posts. We may spend all our time at our work places, but not make time to see our friends and family.

So, what are we missing? Well it’s that face-to-face, daily interaction where we read each other’s emotional cues, have spontaneous and natural flowing conversations, plenty of eye contact and laughing, chatter, and crying together. Simply put—the human experience of sharing our unique energy with one another.

So, is asking “R U OK” enough? No, definitely not. It is one piece of the empathy and connection puzzle.

In most cases, you have to be emotionally ready for the answer that may await you on the other end of that question. Do you have the time, energy, or motivation to listen to the answer? What if someone says they are not OK, but you have already judged that their life is totally fine—why would they not be OK? What if they tell you that they are struggling, but you feel that you are struggling more? What if they say they are OK, even though they really are not?

In the above cases, your ideas of what a person may answer and your judgment of their situation will greatly influence the way you respond. But also, if you don’t have a prior, strong connection to that person, their ability to open up to you is also greatly diminished.

So, when I think about what this boils down to, I feel it’s about building long-lasting, trusting. and deep connections with the people around us. Without that, we cannot possibly expect real emotions to be shared, and for responses from that person to be loving and supportive.

I think about my own experiences of trying to share difficult emotions with various people in my life.

There was a time when I was a new parent to my second child who was very unsettled, was only managing very broken and limited sleep, looking after two children under five years old, co-running a business, and working part-time during the week.

I remember many instances of sharing my feelings of being so alone, exhausted, isolated. and needing support, only to be invalidated and dismissed by well-meaning individuals, or the person didn’t know how to respond, so therefore detached and moved on from the conversation.

I also recall the confidante being in so much pain themselves, it became a competition about whose pain was worse.

I remember being honest about not coping during stressful periods in my life, resulting in the perception that I was weak and incompetent, and me thus being treated that way.

These reactions can be very hurtful and harmful and can detract us from seeking the help we need. In many cases, that person may not even realize that is the effect of their actions. In fact, their reaction is commonly a mirror to how they may judge themselves.

So the “R U OK” campaign is a great idea, but it’s not the whole solution.

Before we ask that question, we need to foster a relationship in which we make space for the other person.

This starts with being incredibly accepting of ourselves first, including awareness of our emotions and struggles. We then need to be attentive, loving, supportive, and non-judgmental to those we choose to have in our lives. And there has to be deep trust that the person who you are sharing with will only come from a place of acceptance and love.

Only then can “R U OK” be most effective in reaching its purpose. The purpose being: when you are not OK, when you are in pain and are having trouble dealing with it, that person will help you accept these emotions, guide and support you, and make you feel genuinely and authentically loved, in a moment when you may need it the most. For them to remind you that your emotions will pass, but their friendship will not.

Let’s create and foster these connections with one another daily, consciously building our tribes, and reach out often to each other. Let’s intentionally create space and time for these relationships in our busy lives.

We can also get creative about how we meet as couples, friends, families or communities, whether it be regular catch-ups working toward a common goal, meeting up to exercise, play sports and dance, cook together, or group meets at parks to walk and talk (with masks and social distancing as long as necessary, of course).

Let’s also be open to opening up our lives to new people who also need this support. Because not everyone has been lucky to find these connections, or has been able to build their tribes yet.

And finally, if we are always present and conscious with ourselves and our loved ones, asking, “Are you OK?” will come naturally—and so will our response when they inevitably one day say “no.”

About Piyali Somaia

Piyali is working towards a more equitable and healthier world with global health initiatives through her work leading a Network of World Health Organisation Collaborating Centres in Australia. She is also supporting gender parity in the workplace through her involvement with Capital Human and the Women in Global Health movement. She is a dancer/choreographer and believes in the power of the arts to inspire social change in the world. She holds a Masters in Public Health, Bachelor of Commerce, and a Bachelor of Science.

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