Smiling on the outside, broken on the inside.
Not long ago I was standing in the street outside a café, my mind racing. I’d come outside to take a phone call on my cell, had some bad news, and was trying to collect my thoughts. Actually, I was trying very hard not to burst into tears.
Then a guy walked past and said, “Smile, it’s free”.
Swiftly I conjured one up because it was easier than saying, “Mind your own business”, or something much less polite.
He’s not the only stranger to order a smile from me like it was a latte, because, in life, appearing happy is an essential part of our daily outfit. It’s the ultimate social passport, an id that has to be worn while we’re out and about; and it makes people leave us alone.
With a tiny curl upwards at the sides of our mouths, we signal to the world that we’re friendly, approachable, polite, sociable and courteous. It breaks the ice when we’re being introduced and makes an upbeat first impression.
Potential mates find it attractive, potential friends are drawn to us, and in an interview, potential employers are left with the feeling we’d be easygoing to have around.
That’s a big statement from a tiny expression, but without it, we can be deemed anxious, cold, miserable, difficult, awkward or stand-offish. And total strangers can see it as an invitation to snap at us in the street to conform.
Yes, it’s easier just to accessorise with a smile before we leave the privacy of our homes and play our role in society, whatever that may be. It’s more important than lipstick and as essential as our shoes – but it doesn’t mean we’re happy. The two can be totally disconnected though; on my darkest days I’ve smiled the most. Often people carrying the most sadness smile the widest.
I’ve hidden inner pain behind my most dazzling smiles, cried at night and masked agony underneath layers of mascara and an extra wide grin the next day. I’ve been immersed in a dark fog of utter despair and not said a word, just let my lip curl do the talking. My trusty smile has been my shield for keeping prying questions away.
I’ve gathered shattered pieces of a broken heart together, wrapped them carefully in a cloth and hidden it underneath a beaming denial to make sure no one suspects anything’s wrong. Day after day, I’ve dragged myself around signalling to the world that everything’s okay when I’ve felt it will never be ok again.
Why? Because I haven’t wanted to talk about my pain, my fears, my unhappiness, my loneliness or how my life has unravelled. It’s easier to keep a barrier around ourselves than let our guard down, and a smile is the cherry on the ‘I’m coping fine’ cake. The outside world sees that not only have we managed to get out of bed, shower and dress ourselves, we’ve accessorised with a smile. Therefore it’s presumed everything’s fine, though in reality, our inner monologues are often akin to Nat King Cole’s Smile; ‘Smile though your heart is aching, smile, even though it’s breaking…’
From a very young age we’re taught to project happiness on demand. As tiny babies our mothers tickle us on the cheek to encourage a lip curl. As we grow up, we smile every day to ensure easy human interaction, but it certainly doesn’t mean we’re happy.
It’s our eyes that tell the real story, but often that’s a story people don’t want to hear. When they ask if we’re okay, they don’t really want the truthful answer. And so, instead, we walk around with our id on display; our lip curl of conformity. And we dress ourselves with an expression that says we’re happy, along with our lipstick and shoes for another day.
Comment: Do you think society places a lot of pressure on us to be happy all the time?