“A lot of times, the world wants the smile of a woman, especially black women…and I wanted to make sure everyone she comes across in this show has to earn her smile. You’re not going to just get it.”
~ Actress Dominique Fishback on her character in The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.
“The way you speak, the way you act, you’re very…measured,” my counsellor commented during one of our sessions last year. She went on to explain that I wasn’t fake or dishonest, merely that the way I put myself out to the world was controlled and considered, even in that safest of spaces where I was expressly permitted to let down my guard.
I could only agree. And with my agreement came regret.
“You know,” I said, “after my sister and my dad died, I was heartbroken but also, in a strange way, liberated. I had a legitimate reason to be sad, to not be my usual upbeat and optimistic self, and it was like a crushing weight lifted from my shoulders. I could walk through the grocery store with tears running down my cheeks and I didn’t care. For the first time in a long time, I could just feel what I wanted to and didn’t feel guilty about letting it show. There’s this mask I have, and I’m used to wearing it to make the people around me feel good, but it’s exhausting sometimes.”
I suspect some of you—likely women of a certain age—may be nodding your head at that last sentence. Whether it’s nature, nurture, or a combination of both, there are those of us who are hardwired to want everyone to be happy, who avoid conflict, who have a smile-mask they can put on when the real smile just won’t show up. And for those of us smile-mask wearers, learning to be okay with not being okay usually feels like more work than it’s worth.
While it’s true that almost all of us paint on smiles now and then, and almost all of us understand that functioning in society means we don’t always get to express exactly how we feel at any given time, there is a small percentage of us who feel like showing any of the less-than-shiny parts of ourselves makes us failures.
To combat this, at least in the virtual space, I’ve tried to share as many lows as highs on social media. I’ve tried to show myself as I really am—wrinkles and messy hair and sweatpants and bad lighting—and to write honestly about bad times as well as good. Even if it feels a little awkward and occasionally like I’m sharing too much, it’s important to me to do what I often can’t do face-to-face, and that is simply to be a real person with a variety of moods and emotions.
Now some of you may be thinking, “Why can’t you be that way all the time, Kristene?”
Good question, reader.
Well, as I find myself slowly coming out of almost seven years of varying degrees of depression and a year of anxiety as the cherry on top, what I’ve learned is that we modern day humans are not good with negative emotions. On the few occasions where I’ve worked up the courage to express my pain or have run out of the energy to hide it, reactions from the people around me were frequently unhelpful and sometimes made the pain worse.
Dismissal (You’re blowing things out of proportion), denial (How you feel isn’t how things really are), anger (Stop feeling sad and moping around), frustration (Why can’t you just get over it), distraction (Look at all the good things you have and all the reasons to be happy), and advice (Get out and do something fun) are common reactions. Hell, I’m guilty of all these with my own reactions to pain and sorrow from others.
We’ve somehow become a culture that is unwilling to sit with sadness, with grief, with hurt and loss. If we feel those emotions, then we must fix ourselves, or fix the situation, or slap on the smile-mask and jump back in the joy pool. But what is wrong with allowing ourselves to feel the full range of human emotions and to step away from the constant happiness for a while to process difficult feelings?
My grief, my sadness, and my hurt have made me a better person. As awful as they have been to live with at times, they’ve also offered me new perspectives and have gifted me with empathy and patience. In those moments when I took off the smile-mask and stuffed it in a drawer, a new world appeared before me. This world was slower, somber, filled with obstacles and pitfalls that I could not see from behind that suffocating mask. It’s a world that demands attention and caution, a more considered step and less frantic carriage. In this world, there’s beauty in the cracks and hidden spaces, and the beauty of that other world is revealed as a façade, a trick of light, a fairy tale with a promised happily-ever-after dangling like a carrot above a pool of quicksand.
In this maskless, despairing world, the true happy-ever-after is merely connection. It’s that moment when you look into another person’s eyes and really see and accept each other, flaws and all. The nod of a head, a twitch of the lips, the released breath that says, “Why don’t you sit a while and feel what you need to feel”…without a word spoken. It’s knowing there’s space for all of you, not just the happy parts, the positive parts, the busy-making, striving, go-getter parts. It’s acknowledging the darkness without the need to shine a light. It’s silence, reflection, and stillness and, when necessary, shuddering howls and primal screams. And tears.
We need that other world. We need it so much.
So here I am. Returning to the world of light and movement and busyness, looking at that old mask and wondering what to do. I like my happy self. I naturally gravitate toward laughter and music, and I enjoy the pride of working toward worthy goals. But I don’t want to fall back into those old patterns, I don’t want to end up trapped behind that mask because I’m afraid of how other people will react.
I want to smile but I want those smiles to be real, to be earned. And if I’m sad, I want the right to be sad, to sit with that feeling whether or not those around me feel I have the right to it, and no matter how uncomfortable it may make them feel.
So, let’s make a pact, you and me. Earned smiles only, going forward. You feel sad, be sad. I’ll make room for your hurt, and you do the same for me. Let’s do the same for everyone. Let’s leave our smile-masks for emergencies only.
Can you do that? Can I?