Last Thursday was R U OK? Day in Australia. Founded by Gavin Larkin after the suicide of his father, it is a day to remind us to check in with our fellow travellers through life starting with the simple question “Are you okay?”
This year’s R U OK? Day took on particular poignancy in the wake of the death a few days before of a well-known Australian footballer and coach in a single vehicle crash that investigations seem to indicate was deliberate.
We can never really know the pain another is carrying so it’s important to start a conversation that may save a life.
But before you ask the question “Are you okay?” here’s a couple of things to think about:
1. Be prepared to listen to the answer
This is no “How are you?” automatic piece of politeness. If you’re going to ask someone if they are okay, you need to be prepared to listen to the answer. And don’t take any preconceived ideas into the conversation about what you think may be wrong. If the answer doesn’t match your preconceptions, you run the risk of dismissing the answer or ending the conversation because it’s not as bad as you thought or you don’t think it’s something worth talking about. Which brings me to the next point.
2. The experience of pain is unique to each person
The “Orchid Hypothesis” put forward by David Dobbs supposes that some children are more strongly affected by both positive and negative experiences in their lives while ‘dandelions’ thrive in whatever life throws at them. In a similar vein, Jerome Kagan researched the effect new experiences had on a group of 4-month-old babies and predicted (correctly) that those who reacted strongly by loud cries and rapid movement were the ones most likely to grow up to be introverts while those who remained quieter and calmer would likely be extroverts. He introduced the terms “high-reactive” and “low-reactive” to describe those who are deeply affected by new experiences and those who are less so. And this has a physiological basis. High-reactive people have a more reactive amygdala, the part of the brain that controls many of our basic emotions such as fear.*
All this sciencey stuff is just to say that people have different pain thresholds for mental and emotional pain just as they do for physical pain. So, when you ask “Are you okay?”, the other person may describe an experience that has made them not okay that may seem trivial to you. But the pain to that person is real and deserves as much care and attention as any other experience.
It’s also worth noting that high-reactive people are often aware that their reaction to an event may seem minor to others and may use words such as “It’s nothing”, “It’s stupid” or “It’s really nothing worth talking about”. They need to be told that it is something, it’s not stupid and you do want to listen if they want to talk about it.
3. Empathy not sympathy
In responding to a person’s answer, it’s important to respond with empathy not sympathy. I could explain the difference but I think this video does it in a much clearer and more entertaining way:
So, take the time to look around you, notice the people in your life and find out if they’re okay. The R U OK? website has some fantastic resources for having these conversations.
I’m not going to expect you to answer “Are you okay?” in the public forum of the comments on this blog but I do ask you that question and hope you can find someone you trust to talk to if your answer is “No.” There are also trusted services such as Lifeline you can call.
*Reference: Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.
PS I’m also not going to answer the question in this public forum. I will admit to some mental health struggles in recent times which has prompted this post but I am receiving good support and assistance and while the seas are still a bit choppy, I am no longer feeling swamped. Thanks for asking. 🙂