Are you accepting or dismissing?
The one where "it's okay" turned into a whole hour of therapy
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I was talking with my therapist recently about work stress. I’ve been in a busy season that has pushed the boundaries of “season,” and it was starting to catch up with me. I’d been feeling burned out and more than a little discouraged, wondering when I could take a break longer than just a mental health day or long weekend.
At the end of my share, I said, “But you know what—it’s okay. It’ll be okay,” and my therapist didn’t waste a minute. “You say that a lot,” she pointed out. “‘It’s okay.’ But, like, is it okay? Are you okay? It seems like that phrase is meant to convey acceptance, but I’m actually hearing dismissal.”
You know when you hear something so truthily truthful, you feel it like a punch to the gut? That was this.
Sometimes, “it’s okay” does signify acceptance. When I got rear-ended on the highway in July—a second concussion, thousands of dollars in damage to my new car, lots of stress—I took the time to process what had happened, then settled firmly into gratitude. When I talked about it, I could truly say, “It’s okay,” because it was. It could have been worse. I was lucky, all things considered. I had the resources to keep my life going with little interruption. There were challenges to navigate (insurance, a rental car, repairs, finances), but it really was okay, because I had accepted everything about the situation, and was truly able to feel grateful and move forward.
It turns out, that’s not how I use it most of the time.
After my appointment, I spent the next week catching myself saying, “it’s okay.” It turns out my therapist was right. I do say it a lot—usually after talking about something stressful, sharing bad news, or venting. It had become automated—like the formula of “something stressful + it’s okay” would somehow lighten the load of the hard thing. And though it sounded the same, this “it’s okay” wasn’t acceptance—it was dismissal.
Work is bananas and I’m super stressed and have no idea how I’m going to get it all done. It’s okay!
I’m behind on this project and might miss my deadline. It’s okay!
The house is a mess and I have zero time to get my environment in order so I’ll feel better about everything else. It’s okay!
My concussion is crushing my mood and productivity and I’m not sure how to balance my responsibilities with healing. It’s okay!
I’d tack that on at the end in the hopes that the other person would think, “She’s venting and stressed—but she’s on top of it, so we can move on.” Which worked with most people! But not my therapist.
That day during our appointment, she drilled in further. “You have no idea how you’re going to get it all done (at work). That doesn’t sound okay. Maybe we should just sit in that for a minute.” I immediately burst into tears, obviously. That led to the most productive half-hour of therapy I’d had all year, when we went from sitting with it to exploring why I felt so stuck in it to her asking, “what if it didn’t have to be like this,” which made me cry even harder because I HAD NEVER EVEN CONSIDERED THAT.
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From dismissal to acceptance to change
When I said “it’s okay” immediately after sharing something negative, hard, or stressful, it wasn’t just that I was trying to distract my conversation partner—I was also trying to move myself off of the problem. It wasn’t acceptance, it was dismissal. I was telling myself, “Yes, this is hard, but let’s just move on—it will (one day, mysteriously and magically) be okay.” In retrospect, that is toxic positivity at its finest. I never allowed myself to actually sit with the feelings, acknowledge the suck, embrace the discomfort, or explore where I might go from there. I just waved my magic “it’s okay” wand and distracted/numbed/denied my way outta there.
Being called out by my therapist was the best thing to ever happen to me. It made me aware of how often I was using this form of toxic positivity to gloss over how I felt. It helped me return to the discomfort of feeling my feelings—the first step in actually shifting them. And it finally gave me permission to say, “It is what it is, but what it is sucks,” something that I honestly needed to get out of the way before dusting off my hands and looking for a path forward from a place of power and true acceptance.
Are there behaviors or words that you’re using to signify one thing (I’ve got it all together), but may actually be a sign of avoidance, dismissal, or denial? I can think of a few I’ve used throughout the years—“it’s okay” is a relatively new development. If it serves you, sit with this today and share it with us in comments. XO