The truest sentence that I know, is that a smile can conceal great sadness.
Speaking from my own experience, I don’t only cry when I’m sad and only smile when I’m happy. It just isn’t that simple.
I have perfected the art of smiling sadness. I suppose you could say it’s a semi-conscious process. I have to put some effort into it, but the effort is instinctive and done by me more or less on auto-pilot.
As a child I’d feel sad, but be told “don’t be sad, be happy” and the way I demonstrated to them that I’d ‘learned my lesson’ and conformed to what they expected, was to smile.
A smile is the universal non-verbal sign for happiness, approval, social attunement.
So used to smiling when unhappy am I, (due to this parental indoctrination & brainwashing), that I still now often automatically smile when I feel sad, even when I’m absolutely alone. I don’t need any audience present to compel me to smile when unhappy, I just do it. End of. And they lived happily ever after. etc.
I caught myself doing this a few minutes ago when lying alone in my outdoorsy bed shed (so called because it’s a shed in my garden, with a bed in it!- my sanctuary away from the world. And I thought, why the actual fuck am I smiling?? I’m feeling bloody AWFUL here. Vulnerable. Low. Empty. Frustrated. Needy. Insecure. Why on earth smile about it?! But then I reasoned, I am not smiling with unbridled enjoyment at my current state of melancholic moodology. I am really just smiling to conceal exactly how sad I really feel, at a time when no fucker can see my face. How does that work? Why summer!? Why!?
I am so good at smiling when I’m unhappy that I spend a lot of my time doing just that-smiling whilst inwardly wilting and sinking and drowning and frowning. I like to think I’m not a fake person. I like to think I am authentic and share my emotions readily and openly and honestly with others- and verbally, I very much do. I am extremely honest and I usually always tell people how I’m really feeling, BUT, I can say all that crap feelingy stuff with a grateful smile plastered all over my face, and that totally does not resonate with what is going on underneath. I say the honest stuff, but in a non-verbal way that communicates the polar opposite of that.
‘Incongruence’ is the posh word for it. My face is incongruent (mis-matched) with my mood.
People say they don’t find me too draining, because (paraphrasing) I’m a ‘cheerful sort of depressive’ and see the humour in my state of mental mis-wiring .
I do actively like to be a non-draining friend to my friends. That’s important to me as I don’t want to drive my friends away, so I suppose I do try and put my best foot forward and not linger too long on the shit stuff, but actually physically smiling to myself when I’m totally alone and unwatched and inwardly feeling terrible IN A GARDEN SHED no less, is just bonkers, isn’t it?
I find the line between sadness and smiles to be paper thin, as is the line between happiness and it’s supposed opposite, pain.
Surges of happiness and euphoria and gratitude, [which to me are experienced particularly intensely due to my BPD], invariably invoke stabbings of pain and sadness- the sad yang to my happy yin.
What they should have taught me at home and at school though, is that life is far more than just discrete categorisations of happy and sad. A sense of one can be coloured and polluted by the sense of an other.
You can cry happy tears, and/or you can smile the fuck out your sadness. I’ve had to learn all that over the last 36 years on this strange planet.
There is usually some sadness tucked behind my smile, and often a freeing sense of release (that brings accompanying euphoric feelings) when I am acknowledging and sitting with my feelings of sadness, so the confused emotional mix is there, ready to make you smile when alone in garden sheds when you’re feeling shit.
Smiling when you’re sad might well be about (learned) social concealment of genuine emotion to enhance relationships with other humans- it might alternatively be a subconscious attempt to change your mood by manipulating your facial expressions. Smiling when you’re sad is (one of the) key skills of emotional regulation in DBT Skills, a psychological treatment for people with BPD, as it physiologically tricks the brain into thinking we are happy and secure, when we’re actually in pain and feeling threatened. Facial expressions give feedback to the brain about what is happening in the outside environment, so maybe smiling when we feel shit is a good way of diffusing all that internal crap-ness. Or maybe, it is just that emotion is so damn complex that many conflicting emotions can simultaneously be firing off in your brain all at once so you can’t help but smile, no matter what might be happening to you psychologically.
Whatever the reason, maybe next time I catch myself smiling when feeling sad in the shed, I’ll experiment with allowing my natural emotion to etch-a-sketch its way onto my face, and see what happens to my mood state then.
I shall report back. But until then I shall end this post with a genuine smile, at my enjoyment of my mental health blogging, and how it can make sense of the senseless (or I might just cry about that too) :P