Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"It's Okay, You Can Smile"

For lunch yesterday I went to a fast food burger place. This doesn't sound like a big deal, but for me any outing in public has a high degree of anxiety as I try and minimize my interactions. Because of this I am often very flat in the face. Emotions aren't typically shown and I usually have a very stern, serious look about me.

I walked to the counter to order and I ordered my usual which I have ordered it so much I do truly sound robotic in my ordering. The lady rang it up and as she was getting my lemonade she said, "Sir, what type of tea would you like?" I looked at it oddly and replied, "Lemonade?" To that she laughed but I remained flat and emotionless so she responded, "It's okay, you can smile."

There are several phrases I hear a lot. One being "Are you okay?" which I blogged about sometime last year and also the one I heard yesterday of, "You can smile." I've never understood why I'm being told that it is okay to smile. I am fully capable of smiling and it the right environment I often have a hard time not smiling. But there are times, such as being in public, that smiling isn't natural and can't be forced.

After the order I sat down to eat and I looked around and saw everyone acting so, well, naturally. Their movements weren't forced and their smiles just happened. My experiences in public like this are often forced, awkward, and usually taken the wrong way. Just as I have a hard time knowing if someone is happy, mad, sad so too does society seem to misinterpret my emotions. Even though I usually appear emotionless doesn't mean I am without emotions. Quite the contrary actually! However, since I am in a constant battle to keep my environment safe and without unexpected conversations I must appear flat so as to not give anything away.

Often times people take my flatness as a sign that I'm angry, or hurt, or that I'm furious at them. This is usually not the case. Another reason why I am usually flat is the amount of processing I'm doing. If you could be in my shows for just one hour out in public you would understand. I am constantly aware of everyone in my environment as I analyze what could happen. Since I do not function well when caught off guard I must be on guard at all times. This makes all my senses go into hyperdrive and I am hearing everything all at once. If you were processing all this you too would probably be flat in the face.

Another thing I try to do is I try and appear natural. I know, that may seem funny, but it's true as if I can appear "normal" I can avoid situations like yesterday. However, I can try all I want but often times what I think I am and how I actually am are usually very different and it's comments like, "It's okay, you can smile" are a reminder of just how different how I am.

It's in these times that I feel the darkest because, without these social issues, I don't feel different at all. As I said, in the right environment I have no problem smiling. When I get a comment like the one I had yesterday I now fear how different I am and will someone ask me that next time I go somewhere? I thought I was becoming rather apt at blending in with society, but once again I was wrong.

Of course, as I usually say, I'm okay with this happening because I am able to give the color commentary as to why the event happened and what it felt like. I'm sure I'm not the only one that encounters these struggles and with awareness and understanding, well, I hope the world will someday understand that, yes it is okay to smile but I'm in no position to smile because I'm doing everything I can to simply be there without wanting to go home and hide.


  1. Aaron, you say that 'Just as I have a hard time knowing if someone is happy, mad, sad so too does society seem to misinterpret my emotions.'

    Are these difficulties connected to 'reading faces', you think, or do you find other signs of emotions difficult to perceive, too?

    The reason I ask is that my son (12 yrs old, Asperger) finds it difficult to read, or even just look at faces. However, he's EXTREMELY sensitive to tone of voice. In fact, he seems to know that I'm upset even before I've consciously thought about it myself.

    It's allways been evident to me that he's 1) empathic/sensitive to other's emotions (when he can perceive them) and 2) he himself may have strong emotions, even if he's not expressing emotions the same way as me.

    Not sure if that makes any sense to you at all....

  2. Oh yes, I have the hardest of times looking at faces and when I do I often am wrong at what the emotions are. Also, I too am overly sensitive to tone of voice.

  3. An awkward social situation can transform a good day full of lightness into a rapid decent into the darkness of depression. This is how it is for me too. I don't understand how people can smile on demand.

  4. I must admit, I have used the phrase 'it's okay to smile ;)' myself too. Now that I've read this, I'm just hoping I haven't harmed anyone... But as far as I know this phrase usually isn't meant in a harmful way. It's a cheery way of trying to show someone that it's a calm and trusting environment.
    Most people (it's the same with me) don't really know how to comfort someone and make them happy again. So the phrase 'it's okay to smile' is usually meant half jokingly, hoping for the other person to relax a bit.

  5. As I said in other posts, have someone good at social skills give you pointers. If you can get that person to observe you in some community settings and give you feedback, do it! As you may know, success breeds confidence. Avoiding issues is no way to achieve success. Rather, facing the situations head on and learn from them (if you make mistakes) is a better way... because that is the only way you can build confidence in handling tougher social situations.