Smiling for the outside world, and all it’s drawbacks

Many of us are taught to “smile” and “put on a brave face” when dealing with the outside world.  We are taught this by our family of origin, by friends, heck, by the internet (I can’t even count the number of “inspirational” posts I came across this morning on Facebook that mentioned something along the lines of smiling on the outside even when you’re breaking on the inside).  Even clinicians will tell you to focus on the positive.  There is merit to this.  It can be helpful to pull one out of a depressive plunge, it can balance some of the more negative concepts that may be floating around the murky waters of our thoughts.  The problem comes however, when we are so worried about showing any hints of cracks in our armor that we wall it off without ever showing anyone our weakness.

I know this is a big problem for me much of the time.  I function with a smile on my face and genuine concern for others even when there’s an enormous black hole in my chest.  I do it so much, I have a lot of trouble showing that “weakness” even when I am supposed to be allowed to do so.  I don’t know how to express the level of emotions I feel because I am so used to suppressing them.  When I do attempt expressing the intense level of chaos going on inside, no one gets it because they rarely see me in that place (some people have never seen me in that head-space before, so they are confused by my seemingly “together” presentation as I tell them I’m falling apart. I also get a very big grin when truly nervous, something I have no control over. If my anxiety is high, and I need to say something disturbing, it is said with a stupid, huge, and anxiety-filled smile that tends to throw people off, making them think I am lying or being manipulative. In reality, it’s just a weird reaction to anxiety).  I have yet to figure out how to be able to tell people that despite the calm I may be exuding in the moment, when I fall, I fall hard, fast, and completely. I can say those words to a clinician, but unless they have seen the drop off the cliff, they don’t quite understand what I mean. Even when my wife or former clinicians try to express it, no one gets it unless they have seen it in person (and then they get scared).  My perfection at appearing competent while crumbling really throws people for a loop.

Of course, my ability to express myself also gets hindered when overwhelming emotions hit.  I’m very used to pushing things down and keeping a lid on the limit of what I allow myself to feel.  When any of that spills over the quota, it gets incredibly overwhelming.  I suddenly become helpless without any access to my knowledge of how to handle it all.  I say I don’t have access to it because, when I am not overwhelmed, I have a pretty good theoretical grasp on how to handle said emotions.  The problem with them being overwhelming is that I suddenly find all my effective and safe coping skills are buried under miles of turmoil.  I lose the ability to effectively ask for help. I lose the ability to speak in the moment about what my needs may be (I’m horrifically ashamed at having any needs at all, and I was finally able to figure out with De why some of that is).  I desperately seek safety in any form, even if it ends up being outrageously uncomfortable.  There’s a level of comfort in certain uncomfortable things (another thing I was able to figure out with De this past week).  I’m slowly practicing finding safety in truly safe situations that are not also at once very traumatic in their imposition of safety (ie: an inpatient stay at a “regular” psych unit).  I’m learning to keep breathing.  I’m learning to reach out before things hit crisis levels.  They are difficult lessons.  I still stumble sometimes, but I’m learning it.  One part of that is not always smiling for the outside world.  I think that may be that hardest lesson of all…

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