I used to have such an intense fear of smiling that it actually started to impact my personal and professional life.
One day I got to work and I overheard some co-workers talking about me. I stayed just outside the door of the room they were in and had a listen:
Co-Worker 1: I’m supposed to run this form by Neil.
Co-Worker 2: Have fun dealing with that guy. He never smiles.
I quickly hurried away before they could notice me.
I was totally caught by surprise by their words.
I thought that I was a friendly guy. Sure I was shy and quiet but I threw out the odd joke now and then. I thought people liked me.
Overhearing those two co-workers made me pay close attention to my behaviour over the next week. I discovered that I didn’t smile almost at all. And what I thought were gentle jokes came off as very hard sarcasm since I didn’t follow up the joke with a smile.
I was so embarrassed.
But worse I had no idea how to begin smiling.
I had gone through life without smiling for so long that it was just part of who I was. Whenever I tried to smile it seemed forced and phony. I worried that people would think that my smile was weird.
When I began to seriously deal with my shyness I discovered that many other people who were shy or had social anxiety also had a trouble with smiling.
Shyness and fear of smiling are linked.
It took me a long time to feel comfortable smiling around other people. I had to read a lot about the psychology of smiling as well as deal with my social anxiety.
I’m writing this article to explain in simple words why you as a shy person are afraid of smiling and how to overcome that fear. I want to share what I have have learned.
A person struggling with shyness or social anxiety can find it difficult to smile even in the most simple of interactions. For example I used to be unable to smile even when picking up a coffee at Tim Horton’s (a popular Canadian coffee chain).
Instead I would remain stone-faced as I took my coffee and the girl at the register smiled at me.
Why You Need To Smile
It is vitally important that you learn how to overcome this fear of smiling. One reason for this has already been hinted at with my experience overhearing my co-workers.
In social interactions non-verbal gestures and expressions provide context to the words we say. Without this context our words would lose a lot of meaning. Or it could distort the meaning to something opposite of what we intended!
Just look at the misunderstandings that sometimes happen to people when they communicate through email or text message. This is because email and text messages don’t include our body language and our facial expressions, the things that help us determine the true meaning of what people say.
When we don’t smile people being to view us as serious or even humourless. In their minds we are classified as the person who doesn’t like to talk to other people.
Why is this?
Smiling acts as context in our social interactions. It very quickly lets people know that you are at ease with them, that you find them pleasant, and that you’re enjoying their company.
When we fail to smile the other person begins to wonder if there was something they did wrong that caused you to dislike them.
This isn’t your fault. Humans are simply socialized to view smiling like this. It’s how we were raised to read people. Or maybe it’s genetics. The jury is still out.
But because this is the way humans are it is important that you learn how to cope with your fear of smiling and smile more often.
There are other benefits to smiling aside from its role providing context to conversation. Studies have found that women consider men who smile more attractive than men who have gloomy expressions. And the same goes for men’s perception of female attractiveness.
Maybe more convincing is a 1989 study from Psychologist Robert B. Zajonc (see citations at the end of this article) that found that simply smiling actually makes you happier. It turns out that just forcing yourself to smile, even if there is nothing to smile about, makes your brain generate happiness.
With smiling, as with many things, the mind follows the body.
Why You Fear Smiling
Usually the fear of smiling is the result of you being afraid of social rejection.
After all, what if you smile and the other person doesn’t smile back?
When you don’t smile when talking to someone a part of yourself believes that the other person doesn’t truly want to hear what you’re saying. A part of yourself believes that you are not good enough to keep the other person’s attention.
Because you this you pull back from the conversation and try to invest as little of yourself into it as you can. If you end up being rejected then at least it won’t be as embarrassing than if you appeared really invested in the conversation.
The lack of smiling is a safety behaviour. In other words you don’t smile because you want to protect yourself.
And your lack of smiling is probably just one of many safety behaviours that you have. Others could include quietness, avoiding people, blushing, and more.
You also may feel self-conscious when you smile. Perhaps there is some flaw that you think you have such as crooked teeth. This also stems from the belief that you are not good enough. It’s important to remember that the person who most notices your flaws is yourself.
Start A Smile Habit
I used to absolutely hate smiling in pictures. I felt that I looked weird and silly. But then I started a Smile Habit where I would take 5 minutes at the start of every single day and I would stand in front of a mirror and just practice smiling over and over again.
I tried every single variation of smiling that I could. Closed-mouth. Opened-mouth. A little bit of a smirk on the left side.
Two things happened:
- I felt great every morning. The study I mentioned above actually is true. Just the act of smiling does make you feel happier for no reason.
- Smiles came more frequently in my social interactions with people throughout the day.
Number 1 is great. But number 2 is what we really care about in this article. So why exactly does smiling at yourself in the mirror cause you to smile more often later on? Where did the fear of smiling go?
You see having a morning smile habit stimulates a memory effect that is known in psychology as priming.
Here’s the technical definition: “Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to one stimulus influences the response to another stimulus.”
Basically what it means is that by forcing yourself to smile for no reason in the mirror you train your brain to be more likely to smile later on.
It turns out that your brain only has a certain amount of short-term memory. And it’s very lazy about making the long journey to long term memory. It avoids it whenever it can. So when you talk to someone in the afternoon and it’s time for your brain to provide a facial expression for you to use it goes into short-term memory, sees a bunch of smiling leftover from the morning, and decides to put a smile on your face.
This mechanism can even bypass fear. With enough practice it can become an automatic reflex.
Now here’s the bad part: if you walk around with a frown all the time then that’s what’s going to be stored in short-term memory and that’s what the brain will put on your face as an automatic reflex.
I’ve been priming with my smile habit for almost two months now. At first it was a chore to set the five minute timer but now if I don’t do it I feel weird and have to go back to the bathroom and do my five minutes.
And I smile more often at work!
I hope that this helps you as well!
Adelmann, Pamela K.; Zajonc, Robert B. (1989). “Facial efference and the experience of emotion”.
Zajonc, R. B.; Murphy, Sheila T.; Inglehart, Marita (1989). “Feeling and Facial Efference: Implications of the Vascular Theory of Emotion”