Being Not Okay: problematic beliefs about personhood and value

March 9, 2014

it is one of those days where I want a friend nearby and a hug and a couch to curl up on in their company and not be okay, to be just a bewildered, lethargic, out-of-it blob, but a loved out-of-it blob. I am making do with a cup of tea instead and my ability to be analytical, because that makes everything better.

that was sarcasm. but tea does feel a little bit like being hugged from the inside.


So one of the best things about being in the company of good friends is being allowed to Not Be Okay with them. Good Friends are Safe People To Have Emotions With. If you splash your Not Okayness messily across people you’ve just met, or people you’re kind of sort of becoming friends with but aren’t entirely there yet, or people you just don’t know very well- which, some days, appears to be everyone I know in Auckland– or to some extent even your friends, if you do it too frequently, you can come across as unreasonably demanding, or too much to deal with, or a self-obsessed walking wound who just wants anybody at all to bleed all over. You thus appear to be a giant needy mess to avoid, and so people avoid you.

See, I’ve made this assessment of others before, which is ironic and a little sad because others have, quite certainly, made this assessment about me. It’s also an assessment I make of myself quite regularly. The problem is, however, that when we avoid or dismiss eedy, messy Not Okay people when they’re needy and messy and not okay, what we’re doing is telling them that they’re only acceptable to us if they are okay, or at least making an effort to appear so. In fact, we’re saying that their value to us, as persons, is entirely contingent on their ability to be self-sufficient, put together and undemanding of our resources.

In short, when we dismiss messy or needy people, we’re saying what we want from our relationships is this:

1. that the other person offers us something that we consider of worth or value
2. that the other person doesn’t demand much from us in return.


This has two implications. Firstly, it means that we in effect believe a person’s value is dependent on the value of the commodity they can provide us. Our personal worth is based entirely on our ability to provide something of value to others, and we value others according to the worth of what they offer. If we are in a relationship where what we give and what we receive is of roughly equal worth, or we receive something that’s potentially a little better, this is seen as a good thing. In effect, it’s good business; our first and most instinctive concern is what we can get out of the situation and how we can get the best out of the situation for ourselves, because our first priority is ourselves, our stability and our resources.*

This is problematic. This is deeply problematic; I say this as a Christian, but I can’t see how it isn’t problematic from a secular perspective either, given the end results. But as that isn’t the perspective I intend to live in or think out of primarily, let’s go back to: this is problematic, theologically, essentially, right down to the bones of things, because that’s not supposed to be our first priority.

Back to that in a bit. I said there were two implications. Secondly, when a person’s value to us is entirely contingent on their ability to offer us something of worth without demanding too much of our resources in return, this obviously places a significant emphasis on people not being too demanding without adequate compensation. Being needy or Not Okay is not usually a state in which one can offer any adequate compensation for the amount of resources required (which are often significant), and so it is disfavoured. This means, often, that in order to keep our social value as persons intact (which is simply another way to say in order to keep people from thinking we’re losers and dismissing us entirely), we choose to isolate ourselves when we need relationship support most.

In other words, in order to be acceptable to others, in order to keep people from seeing us as that person who just keeps having crises/doesn’t seem to have any adequate sense of social boundaries/needs to pull their socks up and cope, and then avoiding us like the plague, we are more likely to choose to appear fine, or not talk about things, or hide in our rooms, or lie, when we are Not Okay.


This is bad. Can I just point out how bad this is? Seriously. Everyone has been or will be a Giant Needy Mess at some point or another, because there will always be some reason in life to be Not Okay (this is the way life works). And when we are Not Okay, I’m pretty sure it’s a natural desire to look outside of ourselves for help or comfort or hugs; in fact, it’s a healthy and sensible desire because we were made social and relational beings, and it is ridiculously hard to hug yourself properly (self-hugs are purpose-designed to make you sadder because they just reinforce the point that there is no one else around to hug you).

Isolation and alienation are the last things we need, when what we require is comfort from outside of ourselves, but often this is what we impose on both ourselves and others- and the more this happens, the more we reinforce this particular idea of what we’re supposed to do when we’re Not Okay in ourselves and others. This, of course, leads to people who are shining examples of mental and emotional health. Isolation is good for nobody.

I don’t mean solitude. I don’t mean peace or silence or the pleasure of being alone for a good stretch of time; I am a fan of all those things and some days I yearn for a hermitage with a garden and lots of books (and internet access and a supermarket in the area and maybe a city nearby and good friends that don’t live too far away. Pragmatic solitude, yo). No, I mean isolation, where you didn’t choose to be locked into solitary confinement but appear to have been put there anyway. That thing that drives people crazy in prisons, the thing that makes people talk to coconuts. I keep stumbling across the point in my readings that people are becoming more and more isolated and alienated in modern society and culture, and it’s a generalisation, but nonetheless.


So. Given that everyone will be Not Okay at some point, given that isolation is bad for people when they are Not Okay, and given that I’ve (rather haphazardly) pointed out that this isolation is created by a particular way of seeing relationships and people as providers of commodities, the issue then appears to be the viewpoint itself. Quick rehash:

1. a good relationship is one in which the other person provides us with something of worth, and doesn’t require us to provide them with something of far greater worth in exchange.

2. as a result of this, we value people according to the the worth of the commodity they provide us, and ourselves according to the worth of what we can provide others.

Underlying this is- way too much to even begin untangling, but two beliefs in particular that I find most problematic are:

1. that our value and identity as human beings depends on what we can do or provide others, and

2. that our first priority in relating to others is our own good (and as a natural corollary that everyone else also believes that their first priority is their own good).


These two? These two are problematic as hell. The whole implicit belief system or worldview of Christianity runs entirely contrary to both of these points, and as Christians these aren’t beliefs we should be operating out of. The problem is that we operate out of these beliefs anyway, because they’re deeply ingrained in us; you might even say that they’re natural to the way we think, except for the fact that the Genesis narrative would insist we were made very good, and that such beliefs were a later result of some cataclysmic event, like, y’know, the Fall. These are the beliefs of humanity without the awareness of the presence and rule of a self-giving Triune God.

You’d think, as people who claim belief in the presence and rule of a self-giving Triune God in the world, that we’d be better at operating out of the belief system we claim to be true. Apparently not. We are terrible at this, we were terrible at this from the time of Paul (see: all of Paul’s letters) and before, and we’ll continue to be terrible at this until the kingdom comes (but hopefully we’ll get less terrible over time or something?). I’m guessing this is why there’s so much emphasis on transformative and formative change in our thinking and behaviour over time (also known as discipleship in community with the Spirit and the people of God); this ‘believing in Jesus’ thing isn’t just a matter of one-off assent and then we go about our lives as if nothing happened. It’s belief that’s supposed to change us, that’s supposed to transform us entirely as we learn what the presence and rule of this God in our lives and the world means, and how this changes the way we think about the world and God and each other, and how this change in thinking affects how and why we do what we do. And all this takes time and a whole lot of effort and a whole lot of thinking and praying and arguing (and blogging).


Arright, I’m done blogging on this for today. I’ll have something more on what we should be believing instead after I sit through a few more lectures on theological anthropology. For now, I’m going to go hug myself and have another cup of tea.



*Funnily enough, this way of thinking about relationships can also lead to white knight syndrome, where one person decides to rescue a helpless, needy other from their helpless needy plight, often via a romantic relationship. This is done in order to reinforce the white knight’s own self-worth, more or less. The drain in resources that comes with dealing with a demanding and needy person is balanced by the fact that this drain simultaneously makes you feel needed (there’s a constant demand for the goods you offer), puts your relationship in a position of stability because the other person clearly can’t leave you because they need you in order to exist in some state of wellness (making you the sole provider of these goods, like a single oasis in a desert- in effect, a monopoly that racks up your value as a person/provider of commodities even more), and makes you feel extra good about yourself because clearly you’re the more giving person in this relationship, and that makes you a Good Person, Giving So Much To Others. It’s worth noting that there are charitable, Other-loving impulses in there, definitely, but often they’re diverted into or impossibly tangled with the basic desire to bolster one’s own self-worth. People do complex things for complex reasons.

One Response to “Being Not Okay: problematic beliefs about personhood and value”

  1. Kim Says:

    Awesome blog Val! This idea of relationship as an equal exchange of value is something that bothers me too, especially as a Christian. Some people might argue that it is biological, survival of the fittest, etc. but I feel like even if you believe that, shouldn’t we try to be more?

    Also it is terrible feeling like you shouldn’t reveal too much in case people get fed up with you. I used to think it was a problem with me, like why couldn’t I just get on with it and BE HAPPIER, but I realised that really as Christians we are called to love one another, and love means being compassionate and empathetic, even if we don’t fully understand what the other person is going through. Surely a human in pain should be enough to stir something within us? Why should there be a clear “rational” reason behind it?

    Anyway this is me rambling late at night, but giant virtual hugs and I can’t wait to drink tea with you again! xx

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