Why we smile when we don't feel like smiling: how we start to pretend and how we learn to stop

So let's call this fictional person Steve. It could equally be 'Clare', or 'John'. But let's call him 'Steve'.

Steve is a bit of a puzzle. He seems like a really nice guy, always cheerful, always smiling. Yet, if you watched him go about his daily life, something wouldn't add up. You'll see times when other people are really getting under his skin, or times when he's been asked to do something he clearly doesn't want to do. And at those times you'll see him smile.

You'll watch him smile in lots of situations where you know - you know because you can feel the vibes, feel the emotion leaking out of him - he's really hurt, or really annoyed, or simply doesn't agree. And yet, to look at him, you'd be tempted to think everything is rosy and sunny.

Most of us know a 'Steve.' Many of us are Steve. Or Clare. Or John.

So what's going on here? Why is Steve smiling when smiling is the last thing he feels like doing inside?

Let's talk about something called 'The False Self.'

The 'False Self' is the way we learn to protect ourselves from what we think will happen if we dare to show our real self. It's the mask we've learned to put on so that the world doesn't know what we're really feeling. That way, the world can't judge us, tell us we're a horrible person, disagree with us or tell us we're wrong. The world can't hurt us, or make its mind up about us.

Usually, Steve has learned to put on that smile from a very young age. Perhaps he's been bullied, or made to feel 'silly', or ashamed. He's maybe been told it's not nice to get angry. Or perhaps he's realised that the people he loves get really anxious and can't sleep if he tells them he's worried or unhappy, so he must protect them. It could be that he's learned to be frightened that if he says what he really thinks or feels people won't like him, or will think he's odd. Sometimes, he's learned to be really frightened that if he isn't the way everyone wants him to be they'll stop loving him. Maybe the people he loved showed how disappointed they were in him if he stepped out of line, and maybe that felt the most lonely and desolate place in the world.

Whatever its beginnings were, this 'False Self' now has Steve firmly in its grip. He no longer knows what he really feels or really thinks; rather, his go-to reaction is always what he should feel or what he ought to think.

And underneath, Steve is so unhappy. He feels that no one really knows him, no one takes his needs into account. He just lives to please others, and he's increasingly fed up with that. Yet he doesn't know how to make things any different.

What is Steve's challenge here? How does he turn his life around?

None of us can do something like this on our own. But with his therapist's help, Steve can:

  • Learn to listen to what he really feels, just before the false self kicks in and takes over.
  • Do this by learning that feelings are physical sensations in the body, a brilliant emotional GPS system.
  • Begin taking tiny steps into saying what he really feels, or thinks or wants. In easy situations. Where there's not too much risk.
  • Discover that nothing awful happens when he tackles things in a different way, using the new skills he has learned.
  • Grow in confidence until situations he once dreaded seem easy and no longer frightening.

And once he's tasted this freedom, he'll never look back.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Shepshed, Leicestershire, LE12
Written by The Therapist In My Pocket, BA Hons; PGCE; PG Dip Cllg; PG Dip Psych; UKRF; MBHMA
Shepshed, Leicestershire, LE12

Janice Judson is a holistic psychotherapist with nearly 30 year's experience of working with individuals, couples, families and groups. She works with adults, young people and children.

Janice is especially interested in the mind-body-spirit connection, and the implications of the latest neuro-scientific research into wellbeing and stress.

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