Put on a happy face. Don’t let people see you lose your cool. Good vibes only. Whatever you do, don’t let anyone know you might be a regular human being — bad days and emotions included.
Why do we try so hard to pretend that everything is fine? Deep down, we know that even Instagram influencers whose lives look like paradise ugly cry in the bathtub on occasion. And on some level, we understand that people think those things about us as well.
But that pressure to keep up appearances can cause a host of problems if you’re always playing pretend. No matter how good your fake smile is, you can’t achieve real happiness by pretending you already have it.
“Lasting happiness is a result of the choices that we make and the work that we do — not quick fixes,” says Steve Shaheen, founder of New York City-based therapy practice June Health. “The often uncomfortable work of knowing and accepting our authentic selves is a powerful first step.”
Happiness Starts With Honesty
Emotional regulation isn’t easy, but it’s something we all have to learn. Although it might feel good to yell at our boss or tell an in-law where to shove it, outbursts have consequences. How can we reconcile our need to be ourselves with the demands society places on us?
Without an easy answer to that question, many of us try to fake it. But acting like we’re someone we’re not to please others isn’t a strategy for long-term happiness.
“The whole point of the ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ strategy is to benefit from what psychologists call the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ — the idea that by pretending that you feel confident, you’ll actually start to feel confident,” says Brandeis University Professor Andy Molinsky. “But this transformation doesn’t happen magically. You also need to dedicate time, effort, and attention toward learning, which is the true engine of self-development.”
Putting on a confident face isn’t always unhealthy, but we can’t lie to ourselves and others for long. Instead of skating by under the crushing weight of imposter syndrome, we should acknowledge our gaps and give ourselves credit when we take appropriate risks.
Asking someone on a date, requesting a raise, presenting in front of the class: Social challenges petrify all of us to some degree. When we succeed, however, we show ourselves that the butterflies in our stomach don’t always portend a poor outcome. Only when we refuse to acknowledge the disconnect between our feelings and the external world do we get into trouble.
Carl Rogers, a prominent 20th-century psychologist, believed that disconnects between our inner selves and our outer selves create conflicts that can harm our relationships and mental health.
“As we prefer to see ourselves in ways that are consistent with our self-image, we may use defense mechanisms like denial or repression in order to feel less threatened by some of what we consider to be our undesirable feelings,” writes Seth McLeod of Simply Psychology on Rogers’ theories. “A person whose self-concept is incongruent with her or his real feelings and experiences will defend because the truth hurts.”
We can’t escape the pain of the truth, but we can see our ability to accept pain and move forward, anyway, as a positive trait. Once we do that, we can start to accept all of the other faces we present to the world — even the ones we don’t like as much.
Finding the Courage to Be Happy
Ideally, the world would accept us, flaws and all, so we wouldn’t need to put up a front when we don’t feel happy. The world doesn’t always work that way — but the truth is, we don’t need it to.
Once we understand that we don’t have to be robots of perfect happiness, we can embrace our imperfections. When we do need to take a chance, we can do so knowing we’ll love ourselves, regardless of the outcome.
It’s that unconditional self-love that many psychologists see as the seed of true happiness. “Happiness and self-acceptance go hand in hand. In fact, your level of self-acceptance determines your level of happiness,” writes Robert Holden in Happiness Now!
Once we accept ourselves, we can see that happiness isn’t a short-term state. Emotions like joy and elation come and go, but the sort of happiness that stems from self-acceptance lasts through the highs and lows.
Accept yourself as you are. Work to be the person you’d like to be. And when you need a break from the struggle, give yourself that grace. Bad days happen, even to happy people.