So far on my quest to find self-acceptance through the writing of this blog, I’ve been struck by two surprising realizations. The first realization is that the more I accept other people for who they are, the more I like and accept myself. Now, I’m learning a little about something that seems like a contradiction: the more real and honest I am about all of my emotions – my sadness, my pain, my anger – the happier I feel.
This idea runs counter to what I’ve long believed, but it’s hard to deny. The more I verbalize some of the ugly emotions and unpleasant aspects of my life, the more I feel a burden being lifted, allowing me to experience true happiness. It’s an incredible feeling, though the path that’s taken me there is a bit unexpected.
Like Doc tells Lightening McQueen in Cars, “Turn right to go left.” It’s counter-intuitive, but yet – it works. Telling the world about my anger, my sadness and my fears has somehow made me a happier person.
Doc Hudson: I’ll put it simple: if you’re going hard enough left, you’ll find yourself turning right.
Lightning McQueen: Oh, right. That makes perfect sense. Turn right to go left. Yes, thank you! Or should I say No, thank you, because in Opposite World, maybe that really means thank you.
I’ve always been known as a happy, smiley person. At school, at work and generally out and about in the world, I typically have a smile on my face. I tend to look on the bright side of things. People have commented on it frequently. I’ve often been asked, “How are you always so happy?” I even chose “You’re never fully dressed without a smile!” the cheesy saying from Annie, as my senior quote. (Sidenote: I think I may have started to crack the mystery of why I wasn’t cool in high school.)
Generally speaking, I am optimistic and cheerful much of the time. I like to focus on the sunny aspects of life and breeze over the shadows. It’s not a lie! All those smiles I put out there in the world are mostly true. I think life is beautiful … most of the time. But sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, I don’t feel like smiling. Sometimes, I fake it.
I am happy much of the time, but that’s not the only reason I feel compelled to smile so much. Subconsciously, I have believed that it is shameful to be less than perfectly happy, so I have hidden my sorrow and anger and fear far too often behind those big smiles. I ascribe to the school of thought that smiling increases endorphins, reduces stress and increases happiness. Science backs this theory, and I’m not one to argue with science. I believe in the power of a smile, even a fake one. However, I now see that masking imperfections with a pretty smile can only go so far.
My emotions run the gamut from pure bliss to horrid depression, and each emotion on that spectrum has merit. Each feeling deserves to be expressed. What I have been doing in the past was pretending those other, unpleasant emotions didn’t exist. That’s called denial, and denial is a powerful force of anxiety and turmoil. Denial brings a heavy weight with it. Denying emotions doesn’t make emotions go away. Sometimes, we need to talk about those unpleasant things.
That’s what I’ve been doing over the last year. I’m no longer just pretending everything is perfect all the time. I’m no longer pretending that I’m happy all the time. I’m admitting that I’m ridiculously imperfect and that life can be unfair and even outright ugly at times. In doing so, I’ve seen the happy mask disintegrate and I’ve seen a genuine smile appear beneath it.
This concept is brilliantly depicted in the movie Inside Out. The movie tells the story of a little girl, Riley, struggling to find her place in a new city her family has moved to. Though she has many conflicting emotions, her mom tells her, “Your dad’s under a lot of pressure, but if you and I can keep smiling, it would be a big help. We can do that for him. Right?” So Riley plugs away, slapping a smile on her face and shoving her sadness and fear aside. Yet, it ultimately doesn’t work. In the end she learns that feeling sadness is a necessary part of happiness. When Riley acknowledges her sadness, she also lets in joy.
It turns out that all the colors are necessary to make a rainbow.
I got through almost 40 years of my life pretending that sadness didn’t exist in my life. I’m tired of pretending. I’m tired of wondering what the neighbors will think. I’m tired of “holding it all together.” So I’ve started letting some things go. The result has been unburdened happiness.
Though I’ve long subscribed to it, “Fake it ‘til you make it!” may not actually be the road to happiness. It may really be the roadblock.
The less I pretend to be happy, the more authentically and genuinely happy I actually am. So, I’m not going to smile away all my troubles anymore. Today, when I smile, you can bank on it being genuine.