The term “smiling depression” may sound confusing. After all, when many people think of depression, they often think of sadness — and not much else. This generalization can be harmful to people who experience depression but may not “look” depressed. For some, depression may look like sadness or exhaustion. For others, depression might look like a smiling face, or a person who “has it all together” — something we call “smiling depression.”
What Is Smiling Depression?
“Smiling depression is not a formal diagnosis, but it is what psychotherapists tend to call a kind of depression that an individual hides from the world,” Diane Barth, LCSW, told The Mighty. “It’s called ‘smiling depression’ because a person can seem to be happy, without cares, but underneath the ‘smiling’ facade, that person may be sad, unhappy and depressed.”
Mighty contributor Laura Coward knows what it’s like to experience smiling depression. In her post, “What You Need to Know About ‘Smiling Depression,’” she wrote:
It’s appearing happy to others and smiling through the pain, keeping the inner turmoil hidden. It’s a major depressive disorder with atypical symptoms, and as a result, many don’t know they’re depressed or don’t seek help. Those who do would prefer to keep their struggle private.
People with smiling depression are often partnered or married, employed and are quite accomplished and educated. They’ve usually struggled with depression and/or debilitating anxiety for years and have had some experience with therapy or medication. Many who know they are depressed don’t disclose it due to fear of discrimination from loved ones or employers. Their public, professional and social lives are not suffering. Their façade is put together and accomplished. But behind the mask and behind closed doors, their minds are filled with thoughts of worthlessness, inadequacy and despair.
It’s important to remember every person’s experience of depression needs to be taken seriously, no matter what it looks like on the outside. We wanted to know things only people with “smiling depression” understand, so we asked members of our mental health community to weigh in.
Here’s what they shared with us:
- It’s Easier to Cheer Others Up Than Yourself
Many folks with mental health struggles may find it easier to focus on helping others than helping themselves. But it’s important to remember you deserve compassion and support too.
“It’s easier to cheer people up but not myself. I can make them feel great when they’re going through the worst [times], but I cannot get myself happy, really happy. That happiness you see is just a way of not letting people [see] my problems.” — Sofia V.
- You Feel Exhausted From Pretending You’re OK
There are few things more exhausting than pretending you’re fine when you’re really not. If you can relate, you’re not alone. Try spending a little extra time on self-care if this sounds like you. Take an extra nap over the weekend, have some “introvert time” if you need to recharge.
“I am so tired. So, so tired, all of the time. It doesn’t matter if I’m sitting and pouting or smiling and engaging. [It doesn’t matter if I’m] dancing, running, swimming, eating, brushing my teeth, by myself or in a room full of people or sleeping. I. Am. Exhausted.” — Rinna M.
- You Feel Like Others Wouldn’t Understand
Unfortunately, when you (and others) have gotten used to you being “happy,” it can be hard for them to understand your depression, should you ever choose to disclose what you’re going through.
“Other people don’t get it. What it’s like to feel so trapped and in darkness, because I appear ‘happy’ and strong — even though [it feels like] I’m slowly dying.” — Nicole G.
- You Worry People Will Think You’re Not Trying Hard Enough
When people open up about depression for the first time, they can be met with a number of “harmless” comments that actually hurt. Statements like “Cheer up!” and “Have you tried positive thinking?” can invalidate the struggles of someone with depression. Folks with smiling depression may fear these sorts of reactions from the people in their lives.
“[I] fake it because [I believe] no one wants to hear about [my] depression. [I] fake it because [I am] tired of hearing all the ‘expert’ advice insinuating that [I’m] just [not] trying hard enough.” — Lisa C.
- Sometimes You Wear Your Mask for Yourself, Not Others
The expression “Fake it ’til you make it” can sometimes apply to people with smiling depression who believe acting happy will eventually produce genuinely happy feelings. But pattern of pushing aside your real feelings may do more damage than good in the long-run. If depression is affecting your ability to function or form relationships, please reach out for help. We encourage you to check out this therapist finder tool if you need more support.
“[I] don’t always wear the mask for other people. Sometimes [I] wear it because [I] don’t want to believe [I] feel as miserable as [I do]. [For me], it isn’t always about making other people with [me feel] OK. Sometimes it’s wearing the mask so [I] don’t lose [my] job or so [I] can just get takeout without being asked what’s wrong.” — Melinda A.
- You Can Still Laugh Even When You Feel Empty Inside
Folks with depression can laugh, have fun and experience joy while depressed. These feelings are usually short-lived, and don’t count as “evidence” that someone doesn’t have depression. We are all different and depression manifests differently for each person who experiences it.
“I can still laugh and give a big belly laugh about things, but on the inside, I feel empty. It’s a weird feeling being happy as much as you can, but your mind won’t follow suit. [I] just feel empty and the happiness isn’t genuine. It’s fake but [I] can’t change that no matter how hard [I] try for it to be a real feeling. Depression drains everything out of me. It takes an enormous amount of strength to appear ‘normal,’ it exhausts me… [My] smile doesn’t reach [my] eyes.” — Rebecca R.
- You Feel Like No One Really Knows You
Do you feel like you struggle to let anyone see the “real” you? If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. Opening up can be one of the hardest things to do. If you feel like depression is keeping you from forming relationships, we encourage you to find a therapist. Through therapy, you can experience the benefit of a safe, supportive relationship, while learning how to form similar supportive relationships outside therapy.
“The problem lies in the fact that no one truly and honestly knows me. I feel like I’m alone every day — even when I’m surrounded by people.” — Jen W.
- You Invalidate Yourself
While it is common for folks with smiling depression to downplay their struggles, it’s important to remember your feelings are real and valid. No matter how “easy” you think you have it in comparison to others, what you are going through matters.
“[I] constantly doubt whether [my] struggles are real. When [I] finally get the courage and strength to open up about [my] depression, [I] always hear, ‘But you don’t act like you have depression.’ It took me years to come to terms and believe my own struggles.” — Adrianna R.
- You Spend Your Alone Time Crying
After an exhausting day of pretending you’re fine, it’s only natural to need an outlet. The good news is crying can actually help you release the emotions you’ve spent repressing.
“Most days, I feel like I’m just barely surviving. Once I’m alone at the end of the day, all I have the energy for is crying. Crying because I’m just so exhausted with life and I’ll convince myself I can’t handle tomorrow and I need to call in sick. But when the next day actually comes, I’m too afraid to not show up. Eventually, after debating with myself for far longer than I should, I drag myself out of bed. The cycle [feels] never-ending. It’s like, if I choose one day to just stay in bed instead of getting up, it would be the most horrible thing in the world, so I eventually always get up, no matter how exhausted I am. It’s inevitable.” — Keira H.
- You Think You Need to ‘Be Strong’ for Others
Whether you are an older sibling, partner, teacher, etc. sometimes it can feel like you need to be strong for those around you. Though this feeling is real and valid, your health is important. Like the airplane mask metaphor says, you need to put your mask on before you can help another person put their mask on.
“I try to keep up appearances to protect my family because my depression upsets them. I’m not very outwardly emotional, so everything gets to me more than I show it. I can’t open up to them, because I just get told, ‘Change your thoughts,’ ‘You seem fine, why do you want to go to a therapist?’ It makes those times when I can’t control my emotions even worse. I feel alone, tired and lost.” — Jessica C.
- Your Walls Feel Sky-High
Sometimes you’ve had your walls up for so long it doesn’t seem like they will ever come down. But the truth is, you can let people in. Opening up can be a long process for some — and that’s OK! Take the time you need to slowly let your guard down to the ones who deserve to hear your story.
“Sometimes I really, like really want to show people how I’m really feeling, but I just physically cannot take the mask off. It’s like the walls just grow stronger the more I try to tear them down.” — Kira H.
- You’re Afraid of Being a Burden
Many people with smiling depression fear that opening up to the people in their lives will make them a burden to others. When it comes to people that truly care, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If you can, try to identify some safe people in your life, and open up on a hard day. You might be surprised by the support you receive.
“[I thought] if I faked being happy enough, then maybe I could get a glimpse of what it’s like to be ‘normal.’ I always feel like such a burden on the people [who] love me. [I feel] I have no choice but to pretend.” — Bree N.
- You Hide Behind Jokes
While joking and making other people laugh are not bad things, it’s important to pay attention to whether you are using those behaviors to deflect the reality of what you are going through.
“The time I’m most encouraging to myself is when I’m telling myself, I can make them laugh so they never suspect anything! I’m funny, right?” — Shelby S.
- You Experience Physical as Well as Emotional Pain
Mental illness doesn’t just affect the mind — it can also affect the body. In fact, people with depression can experience physical symptoms due to their mental illness.
“The physical pain as well as the emotional pain. It hurts to walk, get up, move, force [myself] to smile, try to look ‘normal,’ happy.” — Keara M.
- You Often Feel Like the Best Actor in the World
Though smiling depression might help you hone your acting skills, you deserve support for what you’re experiencing. If you feel able, open up to a trusted friend about your experiences. Whatever you’re facing, you don’t have to go through it alone.
“[ I believe] we are the best actors in the world. Because if I have to explain depression one more time… it’s just easier to fake it until I get home.” — Lisa K.
What Helps Smiling Depression?
When asked what word of encouragement she would offer someone struggling with smiling depression, Barth said:
Smiling depression can be helped. [It’s] important to recognize it for what it is and to seek professional help for it — and let the therapist know that you are feeling bad, even if that’s not what you’re used to doing with other people.
No matter your experience, no matter how your depression presents itself, you should know: there is no shame in feeling this way, doing so does not make you less important, valid, accomplished, successful, whatever quality you hold dear. If you think you are feeling depressed, you are not alone. There are in-person and online options for therapy and counseling. Our Mighty community can help you feel less alone. If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources. You do not need to be feeling suicidal to use these resources. However, if you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Article written by: Juliette Virzi
View original article appearing in The Mighty