Sometimes normal people smile though they feel unhappy, maybe miserable. The smile is forced, to deceive other people into believing that the sufferer is feeling fine. That way, outsiders won’t interfere with the sufferer’s efforts to deal with the problem that leaves them feeling hopeless, helpless, and maybe confused. Or, the smile deceives onlookers so that the person can succeed at doing nothing to address their problems. The difficulty or multiple challenges to their happiness might last a few hours or days. Then the problems somehow get solved and the person is happy again. But if the problem or problems continue for weeks or months, possibly longer, and the misery continues or worsens, it signals a bigger problem: The deep sense of sadness is actually depression and the person is smiling to hide its existence.
A depression being masked by the deceptive appearance of being fully functional though the person is falling apart inside is a life-threatening problem shaping up. That the sufferer chose not to reveal the problems with which they need outside help is a complicated issue for a different article. Let’s stay focused on the deceptive smile, learning what to look for to identify the depression problem, and how to lessen its pain, even to resolve it. That can educate you about a form of agony that might lead to suicidal efforts.
Smiling through Soul-Searing Pain
Meeting expectations at work, school or home, even with social commitments, as the suffering person smiles and behaves politely, becomes a tool for covering the severe, enduring unhappiness. That facade lets the distraught person preserve their privacy though they need outside help to cope with the specific problems they find too painful to reveal.
Identifying the Problem
The tension can build until the sufferer’s pain expresses itself despite the effort to hide their sadness. People around the depressed smiling person might notice that they’re quieter than usual, cancelling promised activities to loved ones, colleagues and mentors, or just not showing up as expected. They might even stop being involved with favored sports and once-valued activities such as family or friendly get-togethers.
If the unhappy person appears disheveled or without their usual flair for fashion, cosmetics or posture, if their smile seems dull, the truth about the person’s emotional state is escaping its prison. Those symptoms signal observers that the sufferer needs help, an intervention, to prevent suicidal thoughts, and to solve the problems too big for them to handle.
How to Lessen Emotional Pain
Clichés about why a person should appreciate the blessings in their life are likely to make them feel worse, not better. They’ll feel guilty in addition to feeling sad. Don’t give destructive guilt trips. Go for compassion, instead of pain-inducing bromides.
Accept the reality of the person’s emotions, that they’ve not found necessary solutions, and that they didn’t want to confide their troubles to someone. Practice speaking compassionately in front of mirror until you smile back at yourself. Use phrases such as “Life hurts, sometimes. I get the feeling that you’re going through a tough time. Gosh that’s normal.” Or say something like “Man, I felt like garbage when X, Y, or Z happened to me. It took months to get back to being myself again.” Play around with the words until they’re coming from your heart, then share them with the person who needs to have their pain validated and above all, respected. The only way to help the person past their pain is to prove that you understand it.
How to Minimize or Solve the Problem(s)
You’re not GOD, nor a therapist. What you are is a confidante. Do not share the details being confided to you.
Use open-ended statements that invite the person to describe exactly what’s hurting them. Here are samples of what to say:
“I’m here for you. What happened?”
“Is there more to this story? Did something else happen, or not happen, that’s important to know? What’s the background for this issue?”
“Keep talking. Let me know all the details. That way I can think with you about how to solve the problem(s).”
“Are you feeling sad, angry, frustrated, humiliated, cheated, afraid, or something else? Tell me so I’ll know what’s in your mind and your heart.”
If you’re dealing with someone being unnecessarily dramatic, consider asking “Let’s look at what you’re thinking. Could you be mistaken? Are other interpretations of what happened possible?”
In any event, ask “Why do you feel that way? What should have happened so you wouldn’t feel like this?”
“What needs to happen first, second, and third, to fix this mess? How can I help?”
You’ve demonstrated respect for the inner turmoil, and let the person release some tension. Now you can seek solutions together.
Byron Katie’s The Work can be a life-saver. So can one-on-one therapy. Discuss some therapeutic options with the distressed person who now trusts you. Help them to access the option(s) that they want to try. You just might save a life.
Yocheved Golani is a popular writer whose byline has appeared worldwide in print and online. A certified Health Information Management professional, she is a member of Get Help Israel. Certified in Spiritual Chaplaincy (End of Life issues) and in counseling skills, her life coaching for ill people puts healthy perspective into a clients’ success plan for achieving desired goals.