Xandria Ooi on Mental Health: ‘It’s Okay to Not Be Okay’

According to Xandria Ooi, life is always going to have challenges. “Happiness is not about having no problems – it’s about developing the skills to overcome challenges,” explains the bubbly speaker-author-coach.

As the author of Be Happy Always – Simple Practices for Overcoming Life’s Challenges and Living Each Day with Joy, it is not surprising that she often gets questions on the subject of happiness. 

“The most common question I get from people is ‘Is it possible to be happy always?’,” says Xandria, who specialises in communication, customer service, interpersonal relationships and happiness. (For her answer, read on!)

With over 76K followers on Instagram (@xandriaooi), Xandria’s popularity is increasing in this pandemic era, where more and more people seek out her honest-to-goodness advice.

Asked how she’s coping with the new normal, Xandria replies: “My work has been largely online before the pandemic – personal coaching, digital programs that are sold on the web, creating videos – so work-wise the shift has been to having more companies investing to virtual talks and engagements than pre-pandemic. 

“I feel very grateful that I can continue to do what I love, it’s something I don’t take for granted. The adjustment has not been difficult because I’ve always preferred staying in than going out, though this is certainly taking staying in to the extreme!”

Adds Xandria: “I think a huge part of the reason why staying home has not been difficult is because of my relationship with my husband (composer-producer Yuri Wong). We’ve been married for over 11 years and the first few years of our marriage, there were a lot of arguments and misunderstandings. Working through those challenges were the best thing that could ever happen for our marriage, because the acceptance and understanding that developed over the last six years have allowed us to communicate in a way that we previously found difficult.” 

What is your advice to people when it comes to mental health?

I think that letting go of expectations of how we think our life “should be” is a tremendous help to our mental and emotional health. We all have an idea of who we should be or what we want to achieve, and whilst goals and ambitions are wonderful, they can just as easily turn into “conditions” of what we need to be happy and to be significant.

When things change in the way we don’t expect, it’s not always easy to adjust. And I think that allowing ourselves to feel down or disappointed without thinking ourselves “weak” or “a failure” helps. When we wish something isn’t happening, the burden of our struggles becomes 10 times harder. Acceptance is hard because we all have an idea of how we’d like our life to be, yet judging ourselves or blaming the circumstances will not help us feel any more reassured.

One of the most helpful things I’m practicing for my life is to truly understand that self-improvement requires acceptance – acceptance of myself and acceptance of what’s happening. It is when I accept that I can let go of guilt, frustration, blame and defensiveness; and that’s when I reflect and learn the most to take action to create the changes I want.

What is your beauty routine like?

(Laughs) I adore makeup and I love doing my makeup, so my beauty routine can be 1-2 hours depending on where I’m going. I’m so glad that I still have my weekly Facebook Live sessions and virtual talks as an excuse to do my makeup. Blow drying my hair and putting on makeup really boosts my spirit, even during times where I didn’t know that my spirits needed boosting!

Skincare wise, I’m very basic. I’ve always been too lazy to go for facials so I just try to drink as much water as possible and I use Li Organic’s Liquid Amber all over my face, eyes and neck every morning and night. I’ve discovered that Lancome’s eye and lash serum is amazing for making lashes grow, which was such a happy surprise.

It’s also been nearly seven months since I’ve gone to the salon, so I’ve been cutting my own hair and that’s a skill that I’ve only acquired because of the pandemic. My hairdresser, Aaron from Hair Atelier, sent me a pair of professional scissors! Being able to cut and maintain my hair has helped me to feel “normal”.

When you have free time, what forms of wellness do you indulge in?

Reading has always given me calm, perspective and gratitude. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in a bookshop – my parents had a bookshop (Readers’ Corner in Subang Parade) for 18 years – that reading has always made me feel whole.

I love stories so all I read are novels – I think fiction have a magical way of making you feel and reflect. So much of my life lessons, I’ve learned from wonderful authors telling stories. 

You have authored two books so far on happiness. What is the most common question on that subject that you get?

The most common question I get from people is “Is it possible to be happy always?”

And the answer is it depends on how we define happiness. Our instinctive gauge of whether or not we’re happy is usually by feeling – when we feel good, we’re happy. When we don’t feel good, we’re unhappy. Looking at happiness this way makes it very hard for us to feel content, because emotions are so fleeting – one moment we can feel pleasure and excitement, and the next moment we can feel sadness and disappointment. So, if we define happiness purely by how we feel, then it’s not possible to be happy always.

If we define happiness as a lack of suffering and a sense of peace, then we can definitely be happy always. Suffering comes from anger, guilt, resentment, frustration, envy, judgement, hate … and peace is what we have when we develop the skills to let go of all that suffering. 

This is why someone can have terminal illness yet be happy – they’re not feeling great, but they have acceptance of what’s happening, they empower themselves to take action so they don’t feel like a victim and they practice letting go of what they cannot control. 

Whether or not we’re happy every single day depends on our ability to overcome the challenges that (are bound to) come into our life. Happiness is a skill we need to develop; a muscle that we can strengthen. 

This is why I feel that happiness is a practice – the practice of understanding our own needs and fears, the practice of acceptance and letting go, the practice of focusing on our objectives, the practice of recognising our own triggers, the practice of solving problems in a positive way instead of reacting according to our emotions (which leads to self-sabotage).

If you’re feeling down, what do you do to get out of that negativity?

I’ve realised that one of the biggest contributors of unhappiness is not our down days – it’s thinking that there’s a problem with having down days. We are often not okay with being not okay. It’s instinctive to feel like something is wrong when things are not going great or something is wrong when we’re emotionally low.

What really helps me is practicing acceptance towards what I’m experiencing or feeling – it’s okay to be not okay. Feeling down may not be a desirable state, but neither is it a worse state. It’s just life unfolding. I think to myself, “I can’t want to be human and be alive yet resent the fact that I have challenges”. 

To be upset when life isn’t going well is to deny our own humanity, because I don’t think we’re here on earth to live a perfect life. When I don’t feel great, it’s not a bad thing, it’s a human thing. Just having this acceptance makes me feel more free – like I’m not a victim of what’s going on – and that does wonders in taking away negativity. There really is magic in accepting ourselves and accepting what’s happening. I’m not going down the path of “Why me?” or “This shouldn’t be happening”, which is the real source of our suffering. 

Acknowledging that it is okay to be not okay, that it’s HUMAN to be not okay, helps us lessen anxiety because we’re kinder and more patient towards the difficulties we are facing. We don’t have to wait for life to have no problems before we decide to be happy. 

I genuinely believe that control is an illusion, and I absolutely believe in the power we have as a human being. We cannot control what happens in life, but we have absolute power over how we choose to respond. 

What is self-love to you?

Self-love to me is living life, taking responsibility for where we can grow and doing that without guilt, self-blame or judgement. It is making decisions driven by our objectives instead of making decisions driven by our need for validation and our fear of failure.

Self-love to me is understanding that having dreams and goals is a wonderful way to experience life instead of a way to constantly seek proof and validation of how worthy we are. 

It is a combination of self-acceptance AND action. Accepting ourselves is not about excusing ourselves – it’s about understanding that there’s nothing wrong with being imperfect so we can let go of guilt, shame and self-judgment. We often think it’s good to have guilt, like somehow, we’re a better person for judging ourselves. But where there is guilt, there’s also denial and defensiveness, which makes it very hard for us to be honest about our mistakes and where we need to grow. 

Self-reflection is a vulnerable process, which is why we often don’t like lowering our defenses and going to deep into understanding our fears and needs. This is why self-acceptance is important if we want to take action. The less we judge ourselves, the safer we feel to be honest and vulnerable in self-reflection, which helps us identity where we need to grow and what action to take. 

Otherwise, we just have good intentions, “I’ll do better next time”, but our problems keep recurring in the same pattern and we end up hating ourselves a little bit more each time that happens. 

What made you the woman you are today?

I think that my parents’ divorce was the first time I actually thought of what it means to be happy. I saw how my mum could still be happy despite her husband having an affair and leaving after 32 years. She was hurt and betrayed, but she wasn’t angry and she didn’t blame him – she understood that his actions were a reflection of his own unhappiness, not a reflection of her value as a person. She wasn’t angry not because she doesn’t have emotions, but because she didn’t’t attach his decision to leave to what it says about her as a person. My mum just never saw herself as a victim.

That was the first time I saw how someone can cause you pain, but you can choose not to suffer. To my mum, anger and blame is a burden and self-inflicted suffering, and she didn’t want that for herself. Her objective was to be happy and for her children to be happy. 

I learned so many lessons just witnessing how my mum handled the divorce. That was also the first time I saw what acceptance and letting go truly means. I saw what it means to love someone without attaching your self-worth to the person. I saw how difficult days didn’t automatically make you unhappy. I saw how strength isn’t about justice but about living your life each day with joy. And I also saw the contrast of how my parents approach life – my mum finding her happiness internally and my dad seeking happiness externally.

And I realized you can have a lot of pleasure and excitement in life yet still seek happiness like it’s eluding you. And you can have sadness and disappointment yet live life with so much peace and gratitude. 

So, I would say that my mum, who lives her life with so much wisdom, has shaped me to be the woman I am today. 

What are your plans for the rest of 2021?

To experience new adventures even if I cannot travel, to practice being more and more present when I’m with my family, to cook more (something I really enjoy), to take the opportunity of my online business even further with new programs and clients, and generally just to be able to go with the flow and learning to adjust and adapt as I go. 

I don’t really have major plans for my life. I just want to live each day with joy so even on the days when I’m upset, hurt or frustrated, I can learn to still be contented with my life.

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