Smiling A Lot

I smile a lot.

People say I have a beautiful smile.

I smile all the time. I smile when I’m happy, when I’m thoughtful, when I’m stressed out. At work, I can be seen pushing the crash cart down the hall with a huge smile on my face; some people say I give them a serial-killer vibe.

Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my smiley nature when it dawned on me: smiling under stress–that’s a thing. It’s called fawning.

Here’s an example. Let’s say a woman gets approached by a strange guy on the street who starts complimenting her and asking her to go out with him. The woman does not like it. Her heart rate goes up and she wishes he would go away. What does she do?

She smiles.

She nods politely and says, “You seem like a nice guy but I have a boyfriend.” Or she gives him a fake number. In any case, smiling does not mean she’s happy; it means she’s fawning.

Fawning. The fourth not-as-mentioned stress response, the one that is not fight, flight, or freeze. Fawning is described as, “trying to gain favor by acting servilely; cringe and flatter [or] to show affection in a solicitous or exaggerated way.” [1]

Smiling under stress. We all done this. It’s necessary to smile and nod at work when forced to put up with difficult bosses and clients. We fawn at home because grandma is eighty-three, it’s Christmas and she just doesn’t get political correctness or that it’s not polite to ask people about their weight. The necessity of keeping your job and maintaining deference and respect for elders is more important than the momentary discomfort which fawning causes.

I think being a women has influenced me to smile more. Thinking about the people in my own life, fawning seems to be common with women than with men. I think that as women we fawn because a part of us senses that a man is physically stronger and is more likely to prevail in a flight or fight situation. Or maybe it’s because we live in a culture that constantly tells women to smile.

Smile! Just smile! You’re prettier when you smile. Smile regardless of how you are actually feeling. It’s easy to imagine how this could cause an emotional disconnect between how a woman may really feel and the message her face is sending. Do it often enough and smiling in stressful situations becomes a habit.

Is there anything wrong with fawning? Well, it has its advantages. Get good at it and others think of us fawners as the peacemakers who establish a comfortable and welcoming environment.  For me, working as a nurse, staying calm and smiling has allowed me to accomplish life-saving tasks in high-stress situations.

On the other hand, fawning too much leaves us fawners vulnerable. We’re essentially everyone’s doormat. Others may see us smiling, think we’re okay and carry on with whatever they’re doing. We focus our energy on making other people happy often at the expense of our own happiness.

Is this behavior serving me? I’ve thought as much and I’ve found that in most cases the answer is no. There are some exceptions such as certain relatives on special occasions or when my job occasionally demands it. Otherwise, I’m going keep in mind that fawning should be the exception and not the rule. Why? Because we all deserve a life where most of our smiles are real! Rather than fawning, we can be tactful and respectful while speaking the truth.

Pete Walker, “Codependency, Trauma, and the Fawn Response (Jan 2003).

Let it Go

Reaching for our toes in yoga class, the teacher says, “Try to let go and reach further. Just let go!” In life too, she says, we should also try to just let things go.

My instructor says she was mad about something that happened a few days ago between her and her husband. She tells us, “I’m just going to let it go. There is no point in staying angry just to make him suffer!”  We laugh.

But sometimes letting go it not easy! We can tell ourselves, “Just let go!” till we are blue in the face but sometimes we just can’t do it.  After class, I go talk to the instructor. I say that in my marriage when I can’t let something go, I find it helpful to write my husband a letter. She asks smiling, “But do you ever send the letter?”  I say, yes. Maybe I don’t give him the first draft-I look it over and cross out and change some things so that the letter is loving and nice but still expresses what I am hurt about.

I got the letter idea from Thich Nhat Hahn’s book The Art of Communication. He calls these letters “Peace Treaties.” The basic form is: “Dear___, I love you but yesterday you did/said___ and now I am suffering. Please help me not suffer. Love, __”.    Also, Hahn says that in writing the letter to try not to blame or shame the other person and use loving speech.

When I first started writing these letters my husband would say, halfway joking, “Great, hate mail!” He looked at me kind of funny and was probably thinking, “Why are we writing letters, can’t we just talk?”  Yes, we can talk. But sometimes I want to write a letter! Writing a letter helps me slow down so I can say everything I need to say in the way I want to say it. Also, the other person can read and absorb the words at his or her own pace.  Sometimes we talk about it afterward and sometimes my husband writes me a letter back.

“Don’t go to bed angry” is common marriage advice. Maybe it comes from the Bible since the Bible says not to let the sun set if you are still angry or hurt. Thich Nhat Hahn says do not be angry longer than 24 hours. I think this 24-hour rule is good advice. It seems to me, if you let bad feelings sit there, it can create a kind of poison. Poison that can make you feel bad when you are cooking, at work, and just going about your day. It can even be there when you kiss your spouse.  Who wants to give/receive a poisonous kiss anyway? The only way to really ‘let it go’ is to neutralize the poison with loving communication.

Sometimes we want to toughen up and pretend something does not bother us. I know if I am hurt and angry about something 24 hours later then I really need to say something about it. This toughness, when we say, “I’m not hurt!” when we really are hurt is really just our pride talking. In true love, we have to put this pride aside and open up our heart to the other person.

Instead of saying, “Just let it go!” we can instead say, “Just write a love letter!” If it bothers you enough to write it down it is worth talking about. Loving communication is always worth the effort. One might worry about getting into an argument and making the situation worse but if you stand firm in really trying to communicate with mindfulness, deep listening, and love you will always move the relationship in a positive direction. These type of love letters are true love letters. Because you know what? True love takes work. Like reaching for your toes in yoga, we sometimes have to reach in relationships beyond our pride and comfort zone. In the moment, reaching feels good and bad at the same time, but mostly it feels good and makes you keep feeling good the rest of the day. The reach is what will make your love grow.