Psychiatrist Dr. Judith Orloff mentioned in one of her books that as a child she’d noticed one of her mom’s much-accomplished friends flashing handsome smiles at a party, but somehow, he seemed depressed. The mother considered the observation to lack credibility but later realized that her youngster’s hunch had been correct. The popular, financially secure and apparently well-adjusted man eventually committed suicide. He’d been smiling despite enduring depression, deceiving onlookers on purpose. Smiling depression is a con job that implies happiness though it is absent from the person’s mindset. It isolates and endangers practitioners at a loss to deal with their sadness. Though they might not realize that they’re at risk for falling apart and even suicide, the smilers strive to conceal their misery from the public, rationalizing the effort somehow. People who suffer from Smiling Depression can appear well-adjusted, presentable, professionally successful and apparently happy. They’re not, and they need help to feel better about life, including themselves.
Why Would Anyone Smile while Depressed?
Smiling Depression is a façade, a tool for preventing the acknowledgement of inner turmoil and the need to overcome it. A mask that covers up an anxious person’s concerns and uncertainties – including possible job loss or family problems if anyone realizes the truth, Smiling Depression tends to be a problem among perfectionists and people burdened with more than their fair share of responsibility. If you’ve ever heard someone remark “I had no idea…” or been the person making that remark upon learning of a person’s despair-induced suicide attempt, nervous breakdown or confession of feeling worthless, you might have been exposed to the Smiling Depression reality. It’s quite startling, and confusing to most onlookers. But it is not an unknown phenomenon to mental health professionals.
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In some cases, people smiling through depression self-medicate with caffeinated beverages to energize themselves, and with substance abuse that can kill them as it anesthetizes inner pain. Emotionally overwhelmed or feeling somehow inadequate, depressed smilers are determined to conceal their unhappiness for career, social and other reasons. No matter the rationale or the amount of effort to disguise depressing thoughts, those sufferers need psychological help, a reality that they struggle to deny themselves for one rationalized “reason” or another.
A false front of optimism and well-being, Smiling Depression is a coping mechanism that backfires. Sufferers might convince themselves that they can persevere past some serious problem unassisted. They might believe that they’ll benefit somehow from hiding their fears, self-contempt or other negative mindset. None of the people deceiving themselves this way know if their situation is temporary or long-term, and they certainly don’t know how to end the problem. The deep unhappiness warrants mental health intervention to alleviate the suffering. The evidence of that will show up in the smiler’s deteriorating physical health, disrupted sexual functions, sleep problems and, eventually, their failed efforts to hide the overall problem from the public.
The National Alliance on Mental Health has an online fact sheet about Smiling Depression. Smiling Depression is a serious problem for anyone hiding behind laughter, and a seemingly happy face no matter where they live.
What Can You Do to Solve the Problem?
In the event that you learn of someone’s severe anxiety, their efforts to hide it, and/or their intention to harm themselves, you can show life-saving compassion.
Skip the lectures about faith in God, morality and the like. Don’t demean the sufferer’s remarks by denying or insulting the despair. That person is suffering even if you tell them that they’re not, or, that they have no right to feel as they do. If you deny the confidential remark made to you and worsen things by telling the sufferer to do this or that so they’ll “be Okay,” you will validate their fear of social stigma and become part of the now-bigger problem. Your judgmental response will alienate the person suffering behind a contrived grin, and possibly prevent the depressed person from seeking the succor they need somewhere else.
Instead, express genuine concern and offer specific efforts to help the person to find an insightful therapist who can help them past the agony. Honor their courage in speaking with you. Confessing to such inner pain is no simple feat.
Are You a Depressed Smiler?
If you are smiling despite depression, you can seek out therapy that soothes you. A therapist can offer ideas for ending the problems that hurt you, and help you to put life into a less daunting perspective. You can also focus on techniques to increase your composure and sense of positivity as follows:
- Make Up Talk a constant hobby: speak in pleasant ways to yourself though it will feel contrived and artificial at first. Practice until it feels soothing and natural, even though it will take time for you to feel “up” and not “down.”
- Confide your mindset to a trusted friend or multiple friends. Let them soothe you, too. They just might have insights that benefit you.
- Consult a mental health professional who leaves you feeling comfortable, optimistic and focused on can-do solutions to your problems.
- Reduce your time on social media, where people try to impress the wider world with “I’m having fun!” photos and tales of exciting adventures. They might be false, exaggerated or otherwise inappropriate. Credibility is sorely lacking on social media, where people can portray falsehoods at will. Some of the people out there in cyberspace might even be smiling despite their depression. There’s no need to expose yourself or anyone to the pretense, then wonder why your life isn’t just as wonderful.
- Indulge in relaxing, rewarding hobbies that suit your interests, skills and needs. Nurturing yourself this way can allow your heart and mind to rest, to reach helpful insights and to reject ideas that harm you.
Above all, know that you are not alone. Many fine people suffer from Smiling Depression. And some of them enjoy happier lives for having consulted a mental health therapist who helped them past the problem.