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Monday, December 18, 2017

Looking Happy on the Outside, But Feeling Broken on the Inside

Looking happy on the outside, but feeling broken on the inside is a common experience for people who are depressed but who want to appear as if nothing is wrong (see my article: How to Stop Pretending to Feel Happy When You Don't).

Looking Happy on the Outside, But Feeling Broken on the Inside

In many cases, it's not just a matter of putting on a facade for other people--people who smile on the outside but actually feel depressed are also often attempting to convince themselves that there's nothing wrong.  They use the happy outer expression as a defense mechanism to hide their depression from themselves as well as from others.

In other cases, people, who might be out of touch with their feelings, are unaware that they feel depressed.  But, at times, they might notice that there's a disconnect between how they appear to others and what they feel inside.

When they do sense their depression, they often brush it off, so the disconnect between how they appear and how they feel deep down is maintained.

The old saying, "You can't judge a book by it's cover" applies to this problem.  The person who gives the impression of being the happiest might be the person who is really dying inside.

Let's take a look at a fictional clinical vignette that illustrates these issues:

Fictional Clinical Vignette: Looking Happy on the Outside, But Feeling Broken on the Inside:

Toni
Toni was considered a "dynamo" by her friends and colleagues.  She had a dynamic presence among colleagues and friends.  She headed up new projects at work with gusto, mentored new colleagues with enthusiasm, and she often entertained friends at home.

She was always smiling, laughing and cheerful, offering valuable advice and encouragement.  No one would ever know that she felt broken inside.

When she was alone, Toni felt restless and irritable.  She didn't like to have free time because the sadness that was welling up inside her threatened to overtake her emotionally, so she always found things to do to keep herself busy and distracted (see my article: Are You "Keeping Busy" to Avoid Painful Emotions?)

At 32, she was on track to get a promotion to a senior position at work, and she was taking on more and more responsibilities from her director.  As the work piled on and her personal schedule got busier, she was beginning to feel exhausted.

There were times at the end of the day that she just went home and collapsed in bed.  She felt physically and emotionally depleted, but she told no one, not even her close friends, that she felt burnt out (Managing Your Stress: What Are the Signs of Burnout?).

After several months at this pace, Toni found it harder and harder to keep up her facade of being happy all the time.

There were times when she couldn't contain her tears and she closed the door to her office to cry.  Then, she would wipe her eyes, open her door, and go back out trying to appear cheerful.

Looking Happy on the Outside, But Feeling Broken on the Inside

But the exhaustion soon took it's toll, and Toni began getting headaches.

When she saw her doctor and he ruled out any serious medical problems, he told her that he suspected that she was under too much stress and she would soon burn out if she didn't make changes to her lifestyle.

Her doctor recommended that Toni use stress management techniques, like meditation, to reduce her stress.

Toni tried to follow her doctor's recommendations.  She got meditation recordings, including mindfulness meditation, and tried to listen to these recordings at least once a day, as her doctor recommended.  He also told her to come back to see him in a month.

But whenever she listened to the meditation recordings, she would break down crying, and she didn't know why.  So, she stopped listening to the meditation recordings, and when she went back to her doctor and told him about her reaction, he recommended that she see a psychotherapist.

Toni had never been in therapy before, and she told her doctor, "I'm not a weak person.  Why should I go to therapy?"

So, her doctor, who was informed about psychotherapy, told her that it was a myth that going to therapy meant that you're a "weak person" and he also went over the other common myths about psychotherapy (see my articles:  Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're "Weak"Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy Takes a Long Time, and Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy is "All Talk and No Action").

Toni thought about her doctor's advice.  She had friends who were in therapy and who told her that they were helped by therapy, so she decided to give it a try.

During her initial consultation with her psychotherapist, Toni told her about how she was crying and she didn't know why.  She told her therapist that everyone considered her to be a happy, cheerful, successful person, but sometimes she felt like a "phony" because when she was alone, if she wasn't keeping herself busy and distracted, she felt sad.

As Toni and her therapist talked about her childhood background in subsequent sessions, Toni told her that her parents always discouraged Toni from complaining.  Her mother would encourage her to smile, and her father would tell her, "Nobody likes a sad sack."

So, whenever anything bothered Toni, she would ignore it and try to overcome the problem as best as she could.  She never talked to her parents about her problems because she knew that they would lecture her about complaining (see my article: What is Childhood Emotional Neglect?).

She also described how, over time, she became a perfectionist.  She tried to do everything "perfectly" and "perfect" became her only option.  Her perfectionism was rewarded at school, in college and in her career (see my article: Perfect vs. "Good Enough").

As she continued to talk about her underlying sadness and her need to be "perfect," Toni became more attuned to her underlying feelings.  She realized that she really wasn't happy--she was depressed and she was trying to hide it from herself and others because she felt guilty about feeling depressed, "I have no reason to be depressed" (see my article: Overcoming Guilt and Shame About Feeling Depressed).

Her therapist spoke to Toni about how shame is often the underlying issue underneath perfectionism, and Toni was able to identify with her feelings of shame that she was really less than "perfect" (see my article: Overcoming Perfectionism and The Connection Between Perfectionism and Core Shame).

Her therapist also spoke to Toni about the "false self" vs the "true self" and how at an early age children can learn to put on a facade to appear to be happy when they're not (see my articles:  Understanding the False Self - Part 1Understanding the False Self - Part 2, and Becoming Your True Self).

In addition, her therapist spoke to Toni about depression and helped Toni to differentiate between feeling sad and feeling depressed (see my article: What is the Difference Between Sadness and Depression?).

Toni began to realize that, once she started pretending to be happy as a child, she became disconnected from her real feelings, and this continued into adulthood.

It was only after she felt the emotional and physical strain of taking on too much and trying to appear happy when she wasn't feeling happy that she started to break down crying.  She realized now that the cumulative effect was too much for her.

Toni felt relieved to have a time and place in therapy to be able to discover how she really felt.  She also appreciated that her therapist was objective and nonjudgmental.

As she continued to work through the childhood emotional neglect and the pressure to appear happy, she began to feel more genuinely herself (see my article: Living Authentically - Aligned With Your Values).

Rather than trying to be cheerful all the time with her friends, when her depressive symptoms were most acute, she spoke to her close friends about it, which was a relief.

The authenticity that Toni felt helped her to deal with the underlying issues that she had been avoiding all along.

Feeling authentic, rather than pretending to be happy, gave Toni an overall sense of well-being as she worked through her depression in therapy.

Conclusion
It's physically and emotionally exhausting to pretend to feel happy when you don't.

The strain of trying to appear happy on the outside when you feel broken on the inside usually catches up with you at some point.  The stress involved can cause medical problems.  And if you're already depressed, it can exacerbate your depression.

Getting Help in Therapy
Although it can feel daunting to start therapy, clients often say that they feel a sense of relief to have a time and place dedicated just to them when they can discover who they are (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy and The Courage to Change).

Being able to let go of the need to appear happy all the time is letting go of a huge burden.

Not only does letting go of this burden help you to reduce your stress, you can also learn to feel authentic without the disconnect between your outer appearance and your inner world.

If the issues in this article resonate with you, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

Resolving the problems at the root of your need to appear happy can also help you to feel more genuine and free from the pressure that is depleting you.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist (see my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy).

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients get to the root of their need to appear happy when they were feeling deeply unhappy inside.  Free of this need to appear happy, they could go on to live a more meaningful and fulfilling life.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.













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