I’m OK, you’re OK all the time in Pakistan

Ever wonder why we always say we're 'fine'?
Mar 30, 2020
A physician advising a man not to be depressed by his illness. Wood engraving after G. Du Maurier. Iconographic Collections
A physician advising a man not to be depressed by his illness. Wood engraving after G. Du Maurier. Iconographic Collections
How do you feel today? When someone asks you this question, you usually politely reply: “Fine.” "Theek." Why do we not really tell people honestly how we feel? We don’t want to be judged. We’ve been taught since childhood to never share exactly how we feel. In Pakistani society, some people think that if we say we are not doing well, we will look weak. Some men say it is worse for them because they labour under this crushing diktat: “Mard ko dard nahi hota” (Boys don’t cry). We believe men don’t get hurt. It is an idea we grow up with and internalize, which is why we find it so hard to deal with emotions. Why do we have such a hard time sharing how we feel? One reason is that we shrug, and say, well, what is anyone going to do about it? And if we get advice, it is usually not what we need to hear. Other people respond by saying we should be patient and wait till things get better. That’s even less helpful. Some people don’t really ever say how they are feeling because they are scared that they will be labelled “crazy” or “psycho”. This is the fear of stigma. When we share with sisters and brothers, or parents, the problem is that they start panicking about us and then we have to reassure them. That’s exhausting when you are already not feeling so great. People believe that really sharing how they feel with someone older breaks that barrier of ‘respect’. Being frank is not always part of the ‘bara-chota’ equation. And then if you tell someone you are not feeling so great they can belittle it, make fun of you or not understand. What problems could you possibly have, they scoff. You have everything in life. Stop being spoilt. Sometimes we just feel “off” but don’t really know how to describe it. We feel negative. Many Pakistanis might even say they are not “emotional” people. They think before they act or speak. They have control. But in reality, all of us are “emotional”. Some people just “handle” or “manage” their emotions and calibrate what they show or hide. What they recognise or ignore. So here is a question. How much time do you think we spend in a day being emotional? 30%? 80%? The answer is 100% because all our decisions, the hundreds of decisions we make, are all based on emotions. Of course, some people find it extremely hard to control their emotions. This becomes a problem in different ways for them and the people they interact with. What is important to remember, and a healthy way to navigate this is to stop and ask how you feel about any particular situation. This is even more important if you find you are reacting. Consider this case study: I’ve called someone and she doesn’t pick up. I’ve been calling since the morning with something important but she is not picking up. In my head: She always does this. She is totally irresponsible. I feel: Angry, anxious, irritated. When she does pick up, I blast her. Then I feel bad that I shouted and lost it. I may have to apologise. Or she reacts and shouts t me. Or worse, shames me for a lack of control. You know that quiet voice people use: I’ll speak to you when you can calm down. I could not control myself. I could not control my emotions. This person could have been busy, their phone could have died or been on silent. If I had checked in and recognised I was feeling angry, irritated and anxious, and acknowledged it, I might have been able to control myself. I might have been able to think about reasons why she did not answer my call. If I did this, my health and wellbeing would not have suffered because of an external factor. There is a triangle: thoughts + feelings + behaviour. Because the way you think is going to make you feel a certain way and that will affect your behaviour. It can become a vicious cycle. If you learn how to deal with your emotions, you can let go of old patterns, thoughts and behaviours that aren’t working for you and replace them with an alternative. Being aware means maybe you’ll behave the same way, or maybe next time you will do it differently. The idea is to catch your response in the triangle: what am I doing and how am I feeling. We often say that we are feeling fine because we don’t want to accept that we are uneasy or that we are not OK. If we suppress how we feel and don’t deal with it, it will keep knocking about in our heads and we can behave in ways that are not good for ourselves or the people around us. This piece is based on a part of a transcript of a discussion that took place during a Dec 2019 workshop on “difficult emotions” held by the IBA Centre for Excellence in Journalism in Karachi with two clinical psychologists and a group of participants. It has been edited down for clarity and length.


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