A Fake Smile Will Not Cure Depression, So Do This Instead

I’m sure most of us have been to a carnival or fair where they reserve some of the most “fixed” and frustrating games around. And for some reason we always want to play them because we think the outcome might be different this time.

I recently learned the official name for a particular game that I would normally try to describe by saying, “you know, it’s the game with the wooden board that has a bunch of holes with things popping up, and you try to smack them back down with a wooden mallet, but then they just pop up somewhere else?”

Well, apparently the official name for this game is called, “Whac-A-Mole,” and it was invented by Aaron Fechter in 1976, and has been frustrating ambitious customers like me ever since.

As many of you may have experienced, once the game starts, the moles will begin to pop up from their holes at random. The object of the game is to force the individual moles back into their holes by hitting them directly on the head with the mallet, thereby adding to the player’s score. The quicker this is done the higher the final score will be.1

So, how does this relate to real life?

Well, as a counselor with my clients I use this imagery often when it comes to depression and suppressing our emotions. It’s common to think that if I ignore what I’ve experienced, and push away the emotions that are connected to these experiences that, well, they’ll just go away.

What we end up doing is suppressing our feelings and denying the significance of our experiences. We put on a big fat fake smile in the hopes that if we smile on the outside maybe it will somehow erase what’s going on inside of us.

We discover at some point that our life starts to become similar to a Whac-A-Mole game, where the things I smack back down through denial and suppression come popping up in another area of life and usually at a very inopportune time.

We try and manage these emotions when they pop up (like smacking down the annoying moles) by gritting our teeth and putting on a fake smile to make it appear that everything is ok. But if we were honest with ourselves that fake smile only ends up making us feel worse because there is a major chasm and incongruence between what’s going on inside of us and what we are portraying externally.

In researching a bit about the “Whac-A-Mole” game I found that this very term is used colloquially to denote a repetitious and futile task: each time an adversary is “whacked,” it only pops up again somewhere else.2 So, basically, the fake smile, the denial, and the pushing down of our emotions is a futile task because inevitably that pain and those emotions will pop up somewhere else without warning and without our consent.

So, what’s the remedy? What do we do when we feel terrible on the inside, but we’re afraid of being real with how we’re doing on the outside?

1. Find someone trustworthy to confide in.

Whether that’s a counselor or a wise friend who is trustworthy, it’s important to retrace your steps and identify what the source of the depression is. Whatever experience or difficulty has led to feelings of depression, a fake smile will never solve the internal state of sadness. Therefore, having a confidant to explore the cause of this sadness will help to bring clarity to your thoughts and emotions.

2. Take up journaling.

Journaling is great whether you are introverted or extroverted, whether you process externally or internally. However, for those introverted folks who are more comfortable processing internally, journaling is a really healthy and therapeutic way to get your thoughts and feelings on paper. When we can objectively see what we are thinking, and get more connected with how we are feeling, it releases some of the pressure and sadness we’ve been bottling up inside.

3. Take a deep breath and go for a walk.

Without getting too technical, there is a type of therapy that is practiced by many therapists called Didactical Behavioral Therapy (DBT).3 One element of this type of therapy is helping clients realize that what they do with their body has a huge impact on their internal experience.

For instance, if a client struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, one practical DBT technique is to encourage the client to slow down their response time. So, when they receive a text message, instead of compulsively reaching for the phone to respond, the client could acknowledge they have received a message, but wait to respond for five minutes. This slowed response time helps to reduce the amount of anxiety that builds in a person’s body, therefore reducing the likelihood of a panic attack.

Similarly, slowing down, breathing, and going for a walk is something we can do with our physical body that releases real healthy hormones (like endorphins)4, that will help bring clarity of mind, and even if it’s slight, an emotional release. Coupled with deep breathing, these physical exercises can help a person become more attuned to what is happening inside of themselves emotionally and mentally, thereby allowing them to process whatever is causing their sadness.

The point is to identify, through simple techniques like these, what is causing those annoying moles to pop up. And instead of denying the moles, or smacking the moles down, only to find them popping up elsewhere, you begin to acknowledge the reasons why they’re surfacing in the first place.

This takes courage, I know. But as we face our fears and our difficult experiences with courage, there is peace, hope, and joy waiting on the other side of our bravery.

You’ll also like 6 Practical Tips That Have Helped Me Conquer Depression, Battling the Mind Monster: A Letter to My MomWhen Someone You Love is Depressed7 Tips For Battling Baby Blues, and How to Move On From the Loss of a Dream

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