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It’s Okay to Not Be Okay

By Professor Scott L. Rogers
Director, Mindfulness in Law Program, University of Miami School of Law

When I learned the topic of this month’s newsletter, It’s Okay to Not Be Okay, I was reminded of a popular book by Thomas Harris titled, “I’m Okay—You’re Okay” that became a bestseller in 1972 and remained one for 2 years. It drew upon transactional analysis and explored our potential to change and achieve greater joy and intimacy in our relationships with others.  Commentary on the book’s back cover makes a connection to KidSide and of our lives:

“Happy childhood” notwithstanding, says Harris, most of us are living out the Not OK feelings of a defenseless child, dependent on OK others (parents) for stroking and caring. At some stage early in our lives we adopt a “position” about ourselves and others that determines how we feel about everything we do. And for a huge portion of the population, that position is “I’m Not OK — You’re OK.”

Harris, as is the aim of many approaches to therapy and wellbeing, is pointing to ways we can reclaim an intrinsic “OK-ness.” Forty years later, we continue to grapple with the desire to be happy and content and to have meaningful, supportive, and intimate relationships in a world that is not always with the program. In the work many of you do, you are helping children and families to feel and be okay, and to have the tools to cultivate this terrain, all while working within a legal system that does its best to balance interests and help protect the most helpless among us.

At the same time, you are also helping yourself to feel and be okay.  And sometimes, notwithstanding our good intentions and all the work we do to help others and take care of ourselves, we are not okay. We struggle and we suffer. Sometimes this is associated with things that happen and sometimes it just happens.  We experience anxiety and depression.  We lose touch with our values and our intentions and make decisions that do not serve us well, but in that moment is the best we can do.

We can feel shame and disappointment. We feel as if we are letting ourselves and others down. And at such times we can forget that it’s OK to not be OK. It’s called being human. And in the work we do, our caring, compassionate and empathic hearts can take on the weight of other’s pain.  It is important to remember that the people we wish to help have a lot of other things going on in their lives and we are helping with but one aspect.  And as much as we may be of service, the fact that we care about them may be the most helpful of all.  So too, it is important to care good care of ourselves. One way to do this that draws upon mindfulness and self-compassion is a short meditation practice known as Mindful Self-Compassion. It was developed by psychologists Kristin Neff and Chris Germer. Below I provide a short overview and link to some guided practices. I also link to a 2021 Florida Bar News interview with Chris Germer where he talks about self-compassion and shares tips for short practices you can bring into your day.

There are three elements to a mindful self-compassion practice.  The first is bringing awareness to our experience. If we are having a hard time, we acknowledge it. We might say to ourselves “This is moment of suffering.” Or “I am having a hard time,” or “I am struggling.”  This is the mindfulness piece.  It’s recognizing reality and meeting it where it is, where we are.

The second element involves recognizing our shared humanity. We are not alone; others are suffering too. In fact, it is the nature of life to experience unpleasant moments—periods of grief, fear, anger, turmoil, anxiety, and overwhelm.  So too, it is the nature of life to experience pleasant moments, as these too will surface again and again.  We remind ourselves of our shared humanity.

And the third element is self-kindness. Rather than meeting ourselves with self-judgment and criticism, we look for ways we can nurture ourselves. This is what we would offer a good friend.  And so whether it is placing our hand on our heart and breathing for a few minutes, going out for a walk, taking a warm bath, or whatever form of self-care is accessible and comfortable, after bringing awareness to and recognizing the difficulties we are experiencing, and that we are not alone, we take action to offer ourselves a little kindness.

Sometimes just guiding ourselves through these reminders can be very helpful.  Listening to guided practices are a useful way of learning and practicing self-compassion.  Here is a link to a video of me guiding a 12 minutes practice and to practices offered by Kristin Neff (if you have time for only one, pick hers J).  And here is the link to the interview with Chris Germer.

The work you do matters a great deal and can take its toll.  Many of us who are inclined to help others do not have an easy time asking for help ourselves, or sharing how we are feeling.  By practicing a little self-compassion we can soften the edges around our pain and the ways we can suffer.  It’s OK to not be OK. Remembering this and taking good care of ourselves allows us to more fully share this insight and be helpful to others in our life.