What do we mean when we say that everyone has off days?

I’ve been chewing on this for months. I was raised, as I expect many of us were, to believe that no one maintains flawless streaks of untrammeled joy, that everyone’s life involves unpleasantness and misfortune at times. Not that life is misery, but that misery happens now and again and that, really, it’s not anything to be alarmed about. When I was unhappy, I could console myself with the knowledge that I was not alone or uniquely ill-fated—everyone has off days, after all, so mark this one as a whiff and hope tomorrow’s better.

Lately, though, I’ve been frustrated by the imprecision of the aphorism. Like so much having to do with mental and emotional health, we talk about “off days” in a vague sympathetic tone, but say nothing beyond that. My own experiences are making me question what level of feeling “off” is typical, and I think our reluctance to talk about our minds except in feel-good adages is doing us all a disservice.

So let’s start by talking about my brain.


For the most part, I have a good relationship with my brain. I feed it a steady diet of ideas and trivia, and it keeps me running. It makes sure my lungs keep breathing, plots routes and complex thoughts alike, and keeps me healthy and happy. It’s a good working relationship. Most of the time.

There are days, though—rare, but certainly real—when my brain doesn’t do such a stellar job. Days when it wakes up, takes in one mildly unsavory piece of information, and panics. My brain hears one piece of pointed criticism, or I make one comment to a friend that falls flat, and rather than rolling with it like normal, its eyes go wide1Yes, my brain has eyes. and it starts screaming.

“AAAHHHHHH NOBODY IS GOING TO LIKE US!!!!”

“OH MY GOD WE’RE TERRIBLE AT EVERYTHING!!!!”

“HOLY SHIT DID WE JUST COMMIT A FAUX PAS????”

“WHAT HAVE WE DONE????”

And it loops. Suddenly, no matter what I do, I hear it screaming in my head. I’m not good enough. I ruin everything. I’m a ridiculous excuse for an adult.

My heart rate rises and all the muscles in my back tighten. I might still go to work, make dinner, look at Facebook, or watch Netflix, but my brain is still screaming at me, insisting that I’m a screw-up and everything is awful and shitshitSHITSHIT

Or there are days—rare, but certainly real—when instead of taking the driver’s seat, my brain slumps up against the wall in a shadowy corner and blankly stares ahead. Joy? Not a thing today. Energy? Nah. About all my brain can muster is a low, dreadful moan, and so I shamble through the days (or months) until it gets its act together again.

These things don’t happen to me often, but they happen. And that’s why I wonder about “off days”.

See, I’ve never been formally diagnosed with anything like anxiety or depression. In terms of diagnoses—which certainly are not the only indicator of mental health—I am neurotypical. And yet, these things that my brain does strike me as remarkably similar to, well, anxiety and depression.

How typical is my brain?


Tell a friend that you’re feeling down, and, unless you have friends who are especially attuned to mental health, you will probably get some form of reassurance. “Everyone has off days,” they’ll say, or, “I’ve felt that way too.”

I’m certain that this impulse comes from a good place. Our friends care about us and don’t want us to suffer. One source of suffering is the idea of being uniquely screwed up, so we reassure each other that we’re not alone. Your pain is real and you are not the only person who has suffered like that; in fact, I felt that way just last year when my plant died unexpectedly…

The intention behind “Everyone has off days” is a generous and caring one, but I worry that our good intentions might be obscuring the effects of our aphorisms. As Miri writes over at Brute Reason, sometimes the urge to normalize gets in the way of validating:

“Common” problems are easy to relate to. Most of us have had bad breakups or manipulative family members or really exhausting days. But rushing to relate your own experience closes off the possibility of learning more about their life.

In our eagerness to normalize “off days”, have we “me too’d” mental illness into invisibility?

After all, you won’t find a standardized definition of “off days” in any dictionary. There is no universal rubric for grading bad days—“Today got 4 points in ‘Isolation’ but only 1 in ‘Low Self-Worth’, so it only counts as a ‘funk’.” The Bad Days category is so broad that every negative experience can go in it, whether that’s feeling deep sadness following a big breakup or feeling sure everyone hates you because you said something insipid at the meeting and people rolled their eyes and now EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE RUINED AND HOW DID YOU EVEN GET THIS JOB. Nearly anything can count as a bad day.

So we find ourselves in the situation where our language is so vague that we could be talking about wildly different experiences and we’d never know. It’s as if you went to a vet and told her that you had a big cat that was tearing up your house, and she laughed and said that, yeah, kitties can be a little rambunctious, especially if they’re a little tubby, so you went home with the impression that the lion in your living room was a typical part of the pet-owning experience. Except we aren’t afraid to talk about cats the same way we are about mental illness.

When it comes to mental illness and “off days,” I honestly don’t know what the case is. Maybe most people’s idea of a bad day just entails misfortune and a well-earned negative reaction, not a traitorous jerkbrain. That would suggest that my brain’s misbehavior is unusual. I’m okay with that. It’s good to know.

But maybe I’m not the only one, or not even close to the only one. Maybe having the occasional critical failure up in HQ is something many of us experience. Maybe lots of us are fighting lions at home, but being assuaged as if we keep tubby tabbies.

I’m okay with that too. Because it means we’re not alone, and scores of us are waiting to connect as soon as we can find the right words.


Header image by Riley Briggs via Unsplash (public domain).

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Yes, my brain has eyes.