The power of a smile, it can create an unexpected connection, it can alter your day when you’re absorbed with your own distracting thoughts and it can surprise you with its sudden shine and gravitational pull. I have always been a “smiley” person. I learned early in my life that a smile can change the course of a situation, it can put people at ease, and it can potentially get you what you want, or need, in many situations.
My Mom has always smiled a lot. Maybe that’s where I picked it up. I noticed she smiled in public when she was interacting with pretty much anyone. Typically, people treated my Mom with kindness and showed interest in her and what she had to say. It probably didn’t hurt that she was attractive but it was the smile that warmed people up to her and made her approachable and easy to talk to. I realized early that it was the easiest thing I could do to make a connection, so I followed in her footsteps, maybe a little too much. Sometimes I smile so much that people actually call me out on it. One morning I was riding up the elevator with the President of my company, also my friend, and he paused as we stepped out into the hall and asked, “do you always smile, are you always happy?” Without hesitation, I said, “most of the time, I guess I am.” When I walked away I couldn’t stop thinking about his observation. I have been leveraging “the smile” for so long it truly does come naturally. And I can pull a smile out of my ass, even on my worst day because when I smile, people smile back, and that typically turns my day around quickly. But always happy? That’s a different story and a bit more complicated.
Smiling as a kid was a way to put a person or a situation at ease and I’ve been focused on making people comfortable for most of my life. I grew up in an emotionally loving but volatile home. Both of my parents are/were “feelers”. They also had the ability to use logic and information, (specifically my Dad) but when push came to shove we were an emotionally driven family and emotions can rise and fall pretty quick as a result. I had to learn to navigate these situations and make choices. When you grow up around intelligent and emotional people it’s like a dance and I had to pay close attention to what music was playing that day. I found that with my parents a smile could get them back to a calm and loving place much faster so I used that along with my gift of words. Between the smile and the words, I could get away with practically anything. But as I grew into a teenager and young adult my tactics may have become manipulative and for certain, self-absorbed. I smiled a lot in later years because it was a distraction, a decoy, from what was really going on. Has anyone asked you while in full smile, “what’s wrong?” Nope, me either. So, this has been a sure fire way to keep those pesky investigative questions at bay and manage my inner battles alone, completely alone.
So, this leads to what’s behind the smile. And that very daunting question, “are you always happy?” Well, mostly I am happy but sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with the speed of life and my old tactics begin to fail me. I have always believed that being sad was something that I did alone, in my car, in my room, anywhere that was safe to cry and feel everything that may be going on inside. Being sad is not something I choose to carry around on the outside and definitely not in the presence of others. But there are days I’m really sad, and I assume that’s no different than anyone else walking around this world. When I’m feeling sad I guess I fake it until I believe what I’m faking. I consider this the art of reframing and I’m pretty masterful at it. I put energy out to others, typically starting with a smile, and they send their energy back to me. It’s quite magical how others can lift you up in those moments of “faking it”. Eventually, this leads to a better moment, interaction, and day.
Here’s the challenge with this strategy, I stopped telling the truth. I didn’t start lying, it’s not like that but I have not been truthful for a long time, almost longer than I can remember. If you pride yourself on showing up in a positive way and that eventually becomes your brand then the “undoing” is to begin to show yourself in the most vulnerable way. For me, this means unfolding and coming to terms with the imperfections of my life. It is the act of letting people in to help me navigate the unsettling challenges that we all ultimately face. This is a daunting and ever-present, challenge for me.
The people closest to me can see right through me, as they should. I need them to, and I’m grateful to have them in my life so that I can be challenged and pushed at the most difficult moments. Fortunately, I have a few of these people in my life but it’s Aubrey that’s been around the longest. My smile has never fooled Aub, who has been watching my tactics for a lifetime. Maybe it’s because she knows my history, or maybe it’s because she’s been reading me for almost 30 years and sees the young vulnerable Michelle all covered up in “experience”. Or maybe it’s because she’s annoyingly intuitive and just an overall badass. Whatever it is, we all need these people in our lives, the ones that will call us out. The ones that see us through the smile and the nodding and the attempts to move past a topic. We were down at the beach several years ago, which is where she lives, and out on our customary “date night” to catch up. We were only sitting for 3 minutes with our husbands when she simply asked me, “how are you?” I guess I paused, I don’t really remember, but she immediately stood up, grabbed my arm and ushered me out. Just as we stepped out of the restaurant and stood in the parking lot, in the dark of night, I fell apart but was still saying, “I’m fine, I’m fine.” She wasn’t having it, she knew I wasn’t fine and she wasn’t willing to listen to the words. She was focused on what I was feeling and I was feeling raw, to say the least. The smile didn’t work and she broke me down. Thank God she did. I went back to therapy when I got home and started to dig a little deeper to figure out exactly what was going on. If it wasn’t for Aub that night I would have continued down the road of life potentially fooling everyone, including myself. I wasn’t being truthful and she could tell. It’s that simple.
I needed Aubrey’s help at that moment and I need more help than I’m willing to accept pretty much every day. As I tried to explain in my past blog, Help, it’s difficult, and I’m trying to be intentional about getting the help I need. I have so many people in my life that have tried and keep trying to support and listen to the truth but most days it seems easier to keep all the difficult stuff to myself. It’s exhausting to open up and go down those complicated roads. So I’m trying to think of it in moments versus big proclamations. For me, this means saying something sooner, even about the little things. If I think Greg, or a friend or my Mom is implying something then I’m trying to ask more questions to disrupt the stories that I build up in my head. Or if something pisses me off I’m working on saying, “that kinda pisses me off.” We don’t have to take everything on by ourselves and I think if I start addressing the little moments maybe they won’t build up to be such big issues. I have a choice and I’m doing the best I can to open myself up to asking for what I need and to share how I’m really feeling in the right moments. Let’s be honest, sometimes, all you need to do is smile in passing and move on. It would be weird to unleash everything “real” to the unknowing or undeserving.
I don’t plan to stop smiling, it wouldn’t be me if I did but I am working on what’s behind the smile. Sometimes it’s a lot of things and many of those things are difficult and painful. I want to be truthful and I want to be more open to getting help and then sometimes…I just want to smile.