How Real Is Your Smile?

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One way to gauge your burnout and stress levels is to pay attention to your smile.

Sometimes we have real smiles.

Sometimes they are forced and fake.

Sometimes we can’t even muster up the energy for a fake.

Next time you smile at someone, take a moment to classify it. Is it genuine? Did you have to force it? Are you smiling on the outside and imploding on the inside? A smile diagnostic takes a fraction of a second, but can be very informative.

As time goes by, keep a mental tally. If, over the course of days and weeks, you find that you’re forced smiles outnumber the real ones, it might be time to take some action to rectify the situation. It might be time for new choices or new habits.

When you find yourself forcing a smile–or unable to fake one–consider dropping the charade. Using a forced smile as a mask for inner turmoil is a pretty common move we adults try when living and working with children. We want to hide our discomfort, shield them from it, pretend everything is OK. The thing is, people (including children) are adept at reading the emotions of others and tend to be pretty skilled at seeing through our masks.The people you’re faking the smile for have probably already seen through it’s veneer. Wearing a forced smile for the benefit of others can be exhausting, might be bad for your health, and is pointless if they know it’s not real.

It can also be really confusing. An example from the early years of my marriage:

Me [sensing that something’s bothering my smiling wife]: “Is something wrong?”

Tasha [Forcing a smile while dripping with body language and social cues that scream she’s upset]: “No.”

Me [Confused]: “Are you sure?”

Tasha: “I SAID NOTHING’S WRONG!”

(Over the years, she’s gotten better at letting me know when things are wrong and I’ve gotten better at not asking questions I already know the answer to.)

One the other hand, because humans are complicated, that forced smile might decrease stress–or it might make you feel worse.

I still think in many situations dropping the mask is a more emotionally honest approach that can lead to quicker resolution of the problem (if resolution is what you actually want).

I also think some smile self-diagnostic work can help you better understand your personal level of burnout and stress.

What are your smile thoughts? I’d love to read about them in the comments.

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Jeff is an early learning speaker, toymaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ who is really bad at getting his picture taken.