8 Phrases To Replace Saying 'It's OK' When It's Really Not OK, According to Psychologists

Distraught woman sitting on the couch with her hands supporting her temple

You may have heard a phrase that’s become popular in recent years: “It’s OK to not be OK.” Although there’s been more acceptance around sharing tough emotions when you’re going through a hard time, it’s still somewhat of a cultural norm to glaze over how you’re really feeling. Perhaps someone has heard that you’ve been under the weather or you’ve lost a pet, and they say, “Sorry to hear about that.” And you reply, “It’s OK.”

There’s another instance when the “it’s OK” phrase often comes up—when someone has hurt your feelings or crossed a boundary, and instead, you say, “It’s OK,” so you don’t rock the boat or have a confrontation

While the phrase does make sense in certain situations (i.e. someone gently bumps into you and they apologize), it generally does you a disservice because you’re bottling your feelings instead of being honest.

Luckily, there are phrases to replace saying, "It's OK" that you can turn to that just might be a lot more effective and may make you feel better.

Why Do People Say, “It’s OK” When They’re Really Not OK?

Isabelle Lanser, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cypress Mental Health, says the “it’s OK” phrase comes up in varied circumstances.

“Sometimes it’s not the right setting to talk about what’s actually going on in your life or you might not feel comfortable with the person you’re talking with,” she explains. “Additionally, a person might be trying their best to get through their day and might need a break from thinking about all that they are struggling with.”

Echoing these observations, Dr. Vanessa Kennedy, Director of Psychology at Driftwood Recovery, says that we may feel like it’s easier to say, “It’s OK,” rather than to go into depth about why things are not OK and risk opening the door for conflict, difficult emotions or judgment. 

“We may not trust others to be able to handle our emotions or to offer us any helpful feedback when things are not OK,” Dr. Kennedy says. “We may feel that our situation is unfixable, so why share it with others? We may doubt our ability to share intense feelings of anger or sadness in a measured way that the other person can hear. Or we may not want to risk other people rejecting us if we set a boundary or share that things are not OK.”

So, what’s better for your mental health? Saying, “It’s OK,” or being straightforward?

Dr. Lanser points out that not everyone is fortunate enough to have work or social environments that are supportive or even give the time or space to talk about what’s going on in our personal lives. 

“However, I think people may be surprised by the amount of support they would receive if they gave others in their work or social spaces the chance to show up for them,” she adds. “We sometimes don’t realize that saying nothing can make us feel more isolated because people don’t know that we need support and therefore don’t offer it.”

Dr. Kennedy believes that when things aren’t OK, it’s typically better for your mental health to be transparent with your emotions or opinions to avoid holding them in and leading to more tension and worry.

“Sometimes, simply talking through your feelings and having someone listen is enough to help you sort through a problem,” she says. “Opening up can also be beneficial if you feel that the other person or group of people can relate or will be receptive and open to addressing your concerns.”

Dr. Kennedy goes on to say that when weighing whether to bring up your feelings, you may also want to consider the context and what type of feedback you need. Will the person be more receptive one-on-one, or with others there to brainstorm solutions? Would you like a tangible plan to make changes, are you seeking advice or do you just want the person to listen and validate your feelings?

At the end of the day, it’s really up to you and your individual mental health needs if you decide to forgo the usual “no big deal" response in place of something more candid.

Our experts share phrases that clarify feelings, set boundaries and request feedback or solutions instead of simply saying, “It’s OK.”

Related: What to Say—And Not to Say—to Support a Friend Who Is Depressed

8 Phrases To Replace Saying 'It's OK' When It's Really Not OK

1. “I’m hanging in there.”

Dr. Lanser likes this phrase for situations where you don’t necessarily want to talk about what’s going on because it signals to the other person that you might need support and creates an opportunity for them to follow up with you without you feeling the pressure to disclose exactly what’s happening.

2. “I’ve had a pretty difficult week.”

“This [phrase] creates a soft opening for inquiry and still allows you to control how much information you want to share and signals to the listener that you might need some practical support,” Dr. Lanser shares.

3. “I’ve been struggling with something recently and was wondering if you might have time to give me some feedback about it.”

Dr. Kennedy says that this phrase indicates that you aren’t OK and makes a request for something specific: honest feedback.

Related: Looking Ahead—100 Quotes on Strength and Resilience To Help Get Us Through Tough Times

4. “I’m feeling stressed/anxious/upset about…”

Here’s a straightforward way to share your feelings with someone. Dr. Lanser says, “This signals to the listener that you need emotional support and gives them an opportunity to offer companionship or emotional support.”

5. “I’ve been really preoccupied with…”

If you feel uncomfortable sharing or naming your emotions with your listener, but you also want to invite them in for some problem-solving, practical support or emotional support, Dr. Lanser says that this is a great phrase to use.

6. “I’ve been in a funk lately.”

Dr. Lanser calls this a “nice, soft opening for support” but allows you to determine how much you want to disclose.

“This will also signal to the listener that you need help, and they might be more likely to ask what you need to get out of the funk or how you’re taking care of yourself,” she says.

7. “I’ve been better, XYZ has been happening.”

Dr. Lanser says that this phrase lets the listener know exactly what’s happening and provides an opportunity to connect over shared distress/difficulty or to receive support from the listener.

8. “That hurt my feelings.”

If you feel that the “it’s OK” phrase is at the tip of your tongue after someone has offended you, think about saying, “That hurt my feelings,” instead.

“This phrase directly states your emotions and sets a boundary for the other person that their behavior affected you negatively,” Dr. Kennedy explains. “It also avoids attacking the other person or making assumptions about why they behaved a certain way. By only focusing on your experience of the behavior, you are more likely to get somewhere than by making judgments and accusations.”

Next up, read 150 words of encouragement when you need a pick-me-up.