As many of us rush around during the busy holiday season, we're the picture of poise. But the image we're working so hard to project is sometimes just that: a mirage we think we need to maintain to hide inner sadness. Rather than admit how we’re feeling, we tell ourselves, “There’s so much to do, and I don’t want to let anyone down — it’s better if I just grin and bear it.” This justification seems admirable, but suppressing our true emotions under a joyful mask can make us feel worse. If this sounds familiar, you may be struggling with a hidden form of melancholy called “smiling depression” that often rears its head during the fraught holiday season.
What is smiling depression?
Though not a clinical psychological term, the concept immediately resonates with many people when they first hear it, says clinical psychologist Jessica L. Schleider, PhD, Founding Director of the Lab for Scalable Mental Health and Associate Professor of Medical Social Sciences, Pediatrics and Psychology at Northwestern University. "Smiling depression often affects high-functioning people who don’t want to ‘bother’ others with their symptoms, like sadness and fatigue, particularly during the holidays. But underneath that surface there is often a lot of anxiety.”
The problem with being so put-together on the outside despite inwardly struggling is that you likely don’t even fully realize you may be depressed, adds psychotherapist F. Diane Barth, LCSW, author of I Know How You Feel: The Joy and Heartbreak of Friendship in Women's Lives. “Women who have all the external markers of success, from a great family to a nice place to live, may feel like they should be happy, especially this time of year, but they don’t. And this brings up a lot of guilt.”
It's also just plain exhausting to keep up the facade that we’re fine. “But we often do it out of fear of being judged or the internal shame of not simply being able to ‘snap’ out of it,” says counselor Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, who studies women's transitions in life. She adds that the pressure of having the “perfect” holiday only intensifies smiling sadness. The first step to feeling better is admitting you’re down or overwhelmed — and reminding yourself that it's completely understandable. Instead of pretending away your pain, read on for a few simple ways to lift your spirits and rediscover happiness.
1. Outsmart guilt with the power of connection
There are so many cultural and internalized pressures on women, especially during the holiday season, observes Schleider, author of Little Treatments, Big Effects: How to Build Meaningful Moments that Can Transform Your Mental Health. “We’re supposed to be there for others, but depression undermines our capacity to live up to these expectations.” And when we believe we’re falling short, guilt and shame often hide behind our carefully cultivated smile. If we don’t challenge these distortions and ask ourselves if we’re being realistic or fair to ourselves, this guilt can transform into shame.
The best way to overcome the toxic self-criticism that often underpins “smiling sadness” is to talk to someone you trust. “Share a brief example of what you’re experiencing, like ‘I feel like I’m letting people down,’ or ‘I feel like I should be thankful and I’m not,’” suggests Barth. Revealing how you truly feel can lighten your burden, she says. Indeed, commiseration helps shine a light on emotions we want to hide (particularly guilt and shame, which thrive in darkness) and destigmatizes them so we can begin to heal.
“Research shows we're wired to interact with people in ways that help us change our internal state," says Barth. "We now know that how we feel about ourselves is strongly impacted by our interactions with others.” This sort of “talking therapy” with someone you can confide in will help relieve the stress that comes from trying to conceal your struggles.
2. Usher in optimism with a growth mindset
Even if we’re great at going through the motions during the holidays, depression can make us feel like we’re in jail and someone threw away the key. “The internalized message that your symptoms are inherent to who you are and will never abate, that your depression will last forever, is called prognostic pessimism,” reveals Schleider. And it can undermine the most powerful antidote to sadness: hope.
Thankfully, reminding yourself your symptoms aren't permanent and that there are strategies to soothe your depression can help you feel greater joy, assures Schleider. The most powerful way to do just that is by tapping a growth mindset.
“Think about something you enjoy doing, from reading to baking to texting a friend,” she suggests. “Then reflect on when you were 6 years old. Could you have predicted that you would be able to do these things? It’s not ‘just because you got older,’ it’s because you learned new skills and evolved. You’ve learned and overcome more than you give yourself credit for. These are all pieces of evidence that we are built for change. And managing depression, through tools like self-compassion and being kind to ourselves, is a skill like any other.” In short, depression isn’t an unalterable part of who you are — it’s something you can overcome.
3. Lift the pressure of perfectionism by savoring ‘stumbles’
The gift-wrapping has to be a work of art, the ham must be crisp yet moist, and the list of pressures you put on your shoulders this season goes on and on. “Perfectionism is one of the main reasons we don’t admit to ourselves that we’re sad,” reveals Barth. Simply asking, “Why does everything need to be flawless?” helps you confront the unfair demands you’re putting on yourself, she observes. And most of us are stumped when we first ask ourselves this question, a fact that only serves to prove the futility of perfectionism.
Instead of trying to conform to an unfair ideal, give yourself permission to lower your expectations and look back on imperfect times that brought you joy. Barth recalls a holiday early in her marriage when she and her husband tried to wrangle a temperamental oven — and an even more temperamental pie. “Long story short, the pie went sailing across the kitchen, but we just scooped it up and served it anyway. Forty years later, it’s still one of our favorite memories; I can’t remember how the meal tasted, but I remember the laughter.” Indeed, laughing at “imperfection” punctures the mask of smiling sadness and opens the door to joy.
4. Defuse hidden anger with self-care
When your sister calls at the last minute to let you know that she’s bringing an extra guest to your holiday dinner, you tell her it’s fine … but secretly you feel like snapping at her. Such irritability is a common symptom of depression, and one we work hard to cover up. “Women don’t give themselves permission to feel irritable, even though it’s a common experience, particularly over the holidays,” says psychotherapist Maggie C, Vaughan, MFT, PhD, author of Depression Relief Journal. “Irritability is a cousin of anger, and we tend to worry about being able to manage it in culturally ‘acceptable’ ways.” No wonder you smile through a gauntlet of annoyances from the cat tackling the Christmas tree to your partner forgetting to pick up eggnog.
Rather than ignore the irritability welling up inside you, allow yourself to feel it, urges Vaughan. “Women often have a hard time showing up for themselves,” she says. “Just making a self-care plan will give you a sense of relief.” She suggests scheduling 20 minutes a day for anything from journaling to walking and making yourself accountable to it by writing it down.
Just knowing you have a strategy in place to counteract stress helps tamp down anticipatory anxiety, the fear that bad things loom ahead. By building resilience, your self-care strategy diminishes depression and triggers optimism.
5. Boost energy with an ‘emotional roll call’
You’re drained from playing so many roles this holiday, from “head diplomat” negotiating with squabbling family members to “chef-in-chief.” But you never let the mask slip, and no one would know you feel like you’re treading water. “Faking being happy and in control is exhausting,” confirms Degges-White. And the extra effort you put into hiding your emotions only compounds your sadness and sense of overwhelm.
When you feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders, find solace with an “emotional roll call,” she suggests. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I feeling anger? Am I feeling sadness? Am I feeling dread?’ Going through each emotion like this until one resonates with you will help you focus on what you need in the moment.” Then ask yourself what’s one small thing you can do to restore your energy and sense of control. Maybe that’s listening to an audiobook on your commute or unwinding for a few minutes by sitting by the fireplace.
She adds that this “roll call” helps you make sense of your emotions and begin to let them go. After all, awareness is the key to soothing smiling sadness and shining a light on all the joys of the season.
6. Ask yourself the ‘miracle question’
‘Tis the season for miracles, and it turns out, just envisioning your very own mini version of one can make your days brighter. “Imagine you’re asleep and a miracle happens, and your most pressing problem is gone,” says Schleider. “When you ‘wake up’ the next day, how would you know this miracle happened? What would be a clue tipping you off that your problem is gone? Then pinpoint the smallest step you can take to make this ‘miracle day’ come true.” That could mean texting an estranged family member or simply allowing yourself some much-needed downtime.
This strategy is part of a strengths-based therapy approach, notes Schleider. “You have well-developed skills in life that have gotten you this far. Allow yourself to think about the future you want.” Indeed, looking ahead with hope and self-kindness are the keys to curbing depression and putting a true smile on your face.
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