Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘smiling depression’

What Is Resting Sad Face?

Resting bitch face is a thing, you’ve probably heard. Some people – usually women, though I suppose some men have it too – look mean when their face is still and their muscles are slack. People who see them assume that they are grumpy at the least or maybe sulky or angry – hence the name resting bitch face.

I have resting sad face. Once when I was working at a restaurant, the manager saw me sitting while on my break and told me that I should smile. I replied that I was paid to smile at the customers, not on my break. Of course, that was a bad response, though I know that women are often told to smile more (men, not so much). I probably would have gotten along better with my coworkers if I had smiled more.

But I was suffering from depression at the time, or at least the depressive phase of bipolar disorder, and was untreated. Smiling was something I had neither the inclination nor the energy to do. Sad was my natural expression.

When I didn’t have resting sad face, I had resting worried face. (A different manager asked me, “What does a girl your age have to worry about except ‘Am I pregnant?'” As it happened, that was the one thing I knew I didn’t have to worry about.) I was also suffering – again, untreated – from an anxiety disorder.

What I haven’t had is the mask of “smiling depression.” Many people with depression pretend to be happy most of the time, at least in public. You can see it dramatized in depression medication commercials when someone holds a happy face symbol in front of their face. (In real life, I’ve noted that the depression or sorrow sometimes leaks out around the eyes, though, even past the mask.)

There are two different kinds of smile – the “Duchenne” smile (named after a 19th-century scientist whose major contributions centered on mapping the muscles that control facial expression) and the “Pan Am” smile. The Duchenne smile is the sincere smile of a truly happy person. It’s easy enough to tell when someone is giving you a Duchenne smile. The muscles at the corner of their eyes crinkle, making little crows’ feet. It happens automatically when you think of a happy memory or greet a person you like a lot.

The Pan Am smile is the one where the smile does not reach the corners of the eyes. (It got its name from airline attendants who were required by their job to smile at all times, whether they were at rest or not, happy or not.) No one has resting Pan Am smile face. It’s impossible. It takes a number of facial muscles to smile and when you’re resting, you don’t use those muscles. No, the Pan Am smile takes intention.

The Pan Am smile, however, is the one a person uses when they do have smiling depression. (I used it once when, at a different job, we were all posing for individual portraits. My results were so fake-looking that the photo was never used. They didn’t even let me see it, much less anyone else.)

I’m kind of hoping that these days, I have at least resting neutral face. That sounds like the right expression for a stable person.

Keep This Blog Alive!

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.


Fake It Till You…Can’t

I used to have a couple of suits hanging in my closet. One was oatmeal-colored. One was blue tweed. One was rust-colored. I had a couple of silk blouses and a jacket or two that I could wear over a dress.

I called them my “Respectable Business Lady” disguises.

At the time I was working at a 9-to-5 job where the dress code was pretty casual. Fridays were jeans days, not casual days. But every so often I had to go to meetings or business conventions, and for them, I needed the disguises. I was dressing to “fit in” and to give an impression that I was competent and stable.

I don’t honestly know if the suits worked as a disguise, but I made it through meetings and conventions fairly successfully (I think), if I was allowed to collapse afterward, at home or in a hotel room. I think the disguises were as much to remind me how to behave as they were to convince people that I was indeed respectable and a business lady.

Nevertheless, I can’t really buy into the “fake it till you make it” philosophy that has been so popular in self-help books, including those promoting business and entrepreneurship help. I had no notion of becoming a respectable business lady by wearing those suits. I was always going to be awkward and out of my league. I was only trying to pretend by using protective coloration.

The essence of “fake it till you make it” is practice. As the saying goes, you get good at what you practice. Unfortunately, you can’t practice not having bipolar or another disorder. You can practice assorted coping mechanisms and get better at doing them, but they’re a solution to some of the symptoms, not the disease.

I don’t think that “fake it till you make it” really applies to people with mental health problems. No matter how much or how long you fake it, your mental disorders are not going to disappear, though they may ease up at times. I certainly don’t think the business lady disguises made me go into remission for a week or a weekend. They were merely a coping mechanism and nothing I practiced enough to get really good at.

One danger of trying to fake your way through mental illness is that you can fall into the trap of what’s called “smiling depression.” When this happens, people don’t notice that you’re miserable because your smile makes it seem you are happy. It’s another disguise, but not a permanently successful one.

Once I was teaching a class, and several women gathered around another woman and asked her what was wrong. “I didn’t think it showed,” she said. “No, honey,” I said, “it leaks out around the eyes.” She wasn’t crying or anything like that, but we could all tell something was wrong, despite her smile. We offered her conversation and sympathy until she pulled herself together a bit.

I’ve never been able to school my face into any kind of smiling depression anyway. If some people have “resting bitch face,” I have “resting sad face.” I can’t count the number of times when I didn’t feel particularly sad, but someone asked me what I was sad about. Of course, I was probably suffering from low-grade depression, like a low-grade fever, but at the time I was undiagnosed and had no idea that I had a mental problem that caused me to look that way.

Basically, what I’m saying is that when you have a mental illness like bipolar disorder, you can fake being psychologically together for a while, but you can’t sustain it forever. Certainly not until you “make it.” After I took off my Respectable Business Lady disguise, I would revert to my original self, as far from a respectable business lady as ever. Sometimes it would take me days to recover enough to feel that I was functioning again on any sort of level.

I think it’s better, ultimately, to admit who you are and what you need rather than to try to disguise or fake it. Even if your authentic self is depressed and miserable, getting help for it is still better than trying to cover it up.

Tag Cloud

%d bloggers like this: