You may be familiar with the phrase, “it is okay to not be okay” – seven simple words formed into a popular phrase which has helped to bring awareness to mental health. This powerful phrase serves as a reminder of our humanness and to give ourselves permission to be vulnerable.
Yet for many, the phrase doesn’t always ring true and a question that often follows is, “Can I really afford to not be okay?”. A friend of mine once said that she could not allow herself the luxury of not being okay, as doing so would cause her to fall apart and she was doubtful that she would be able to put herself back together. This friend ( a Black British Nigerian woman) had worked excruciatingly hard to prove she was worthy of her pending promotion to senior management despite all the hurdles and hoops she’d had to jump. Her boss, a younger white male hadn’t hidden his reservations about her abilities and kept increasing her responsibilities, almost like he was waiting for her to fail. So it was no surprise after months of long hours, weekend working, spending little time with family, with no rest and respite that she started to burn out. She badly needed some time off – a well-earned break and space to breathe, re-organise her life and priorities – but she felt like it was the worst time to even consider putting the breaks on.
My friend’s dilemma is by no means my first encounter with someone grappling with real fears about acknowledging that they are not okay. It’s amazing how quickly we can put the breaks on and re-prioritise life when our physical health is in jeopardy, whereas prioritising our mental health can feel like we are taking advantage, making excuses for incompetence or being lazy, weak or selfish.
In my role as a therapist I have to warn clients of the dangers of not paying attention to the clear signs and symptoms of stress and burnout. Ironically, the more you ignore the signs, the more your stress and anxiety levels increase, which affects your creativity and decision-making skills. The result is that you become less effective and prone to mistakes, which in turn increases your anxiety and self doubt… And the cycle continues.
The Strong Black Woman
As a Black woman, I am under no illusion that these fears are real, valid and founded on the lived experiences of many. These are not just myths or false baseless perceptions. It is a general fact that Black people and people of colour have to work much harder than their white counterparts to qualify for promotions, pay increases and recognition. The climb to the top of the glass ceiling is no easy feat and years of toil, sacrifice, going above and beyond and over-functioning offers no guarantees. Is it any wonder that many struggle to maintain the balance between forging ahead like a superhuman and staying perfectly human?
To make matters worse, the external challenges and struggles we face are only one part of the reasons why we resist accepting that we’re not okay. Within our families and communities, there are internal pressures and expectations that promote the importance and necessity of being a “strong Black woman”.
If there is a word that best typifies a Black woman, it would have to be the word “strong”. Our mothers, aunties, and grandmothers are often referred to as strong.
The strong Black woman denotes a woman who pushed through against all odds, against every difficulty, trauma, oppression, abuse, poverty, loss, and betrayal. We compare ourselves to our matriarchal mothers who survived inequalities and injustices within and outside of their homes and came out on the other side. Whatever challenges and tribulations our mothers faced, they pushed through and did not break down. Many of us have never even seen our mothers cry. In our eyes, they epitomised the strong Black woman, so what gives us the right to break down?
And let’s not talk about the dreaded “d” word. The feeling of shame that many feel after being diagnosed with depression is real. Like somehow you had failed in your duty to carry the strong woman baton passed on from generation to generation. “Depression! What on earth have you got to be depressed about? Try living in 50’s and 60’s Britain when you had to deal with ‘No Blacks, No dogs’ signs, when people outrightly chanted racists words in your face, when the only jobs you could get were menial positions despite having qualifications”. The comparison of what our parents’ generations faced is enough to fill us with guilt and shame over our lack of gratitude for a seemingly better life.
We carry that narrative in our brains while our bodies and minds continue to persist in yelling loudly at us in the face of stressful episodes, “Hey, I am not okay!”.
I often tell clients who feel inadequate or carry a sense of failure against the heroics of their parents that just because their parents appeared okay, does not mean they were okay. We now know that High Functioning Depression is a real thing. As clients start to look deeper into their family systems, they may begin to recognise unhealthy patterns of behaviour which were coping mechanisms, whether it was excessive drinking, overeating, angry or violent outbursts, or overworking. I have heard it said that the goal of our parents’ generation was to survive so that each generation after could thrive more than the one before.
So, Is it truly okay to not be okay?
How do we navigate these internal and external factors that push against us embracing our humanness and the real fears that keep us from embracing our humanity. Another friend’s response to this question was simple but profound, “by embracing the intolerability of my humanity”. Powerful words!
That means giving honest thought and consideration to the risks of ignoring and avoiding reality. If we do not take the necessary measures to look after our mental health and seek help, our bodies may force us to break down.
It is always important to assess the validity of our fears. Are they real or perceived? What is the evidence that if I speak up about the challenges with my mental health, that I would be discriminated against, shamed or punished? Sometimes it is our own internal perception of ourselves that causes us to strive for perfection. People cannot force their expectations and opinions on us unless we allow it. The more we learn to enforce our boundaries and advocate for ourselves, the more people will learn to accommodate or respect our choices.
With this said, we must still be vigilant, savvy and strategic within the workplace. Sadly there are people out there who may not have your best interest at heart and will happily trip you up. This is where my HR hat comes on in sessions with my clients. It is important to know your rights. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health and your GP is a great resource. When we are stressed and burnt out or struggling with our mental health, we need time and space for our minds to heal and recover. There is nothing worse than the anxiety and pressure of trying to deliver work from an empty tank. And no, it is neither wrong nor shameful to be signed off work by your doctor and you do not need to use your annual leave.
If you do not need the time off but you are feeling overworked or unable to manage your workload, I would advise having the conversation early on and being clear on what support you need. Always ensure you put everything in writing, notifying your boss and HR. Don’t suffer in silence and convince yourself that you can ‘manage’. From my professional experience, I have seen this result in people undergoing performance improvement plans or disciplinary measures as a result of not speaking up and asking for the support that they are entitled to.
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