My Facial Expression is None of Your Business

[Snark Warning]

I am not a cheerful person. I don’t wear my happiness on my face, and I do not consider it my moral duty to brighten the day for perfect strangers.

I am an introvert despite the fact that I’m usually pretty friendly and sociable when spoken to. Most of the time, I inhabit a world that nobody really knows. When you see me sitting still with a facial expression that is technically neutral but that many would characterize as “glum”, I’m actually anything but. Usually I’m making up music, writing my next blog post, planning out my love life or my career, or analyzing people I know, all silently in my mind.

But most people don’t bother to ask what I’m doing that’s taking up so much of my attention that I haven’t bothered to plaster a smile onto my face for others’ benefit. Instead, they assume.

And so it begins. “What are you looking so miserable about?” “What’s wrong with you?” Or, simply, “Smile!”

Some of these responses are passive-aggressive attempts to chastise me for not doing my womanly duty to keep everyone around me happy at all times. Others are genuine attempts to understand me, or genuine concern that I might be in a bad mood.

What they all have in common, though, is the shared assumption that underlies them–that there is something “wrong” with my facial expression and that this fact is anybody’s business but mine.

It’s not only people that I choose to associate with who claim the right to dictate what should be on my face. What woman hasn’t walked down a city street, perhaps on the way to work or to run errands, and encountered a random man yelling at her to “Smile!” or “Put a smile on that beautiful face!”?

Such remarks, which feminists call “street harassment” and most non-feminists call “a compliment,” represent the most glaring and offensive of non-physical intrusions into a person’s private self. My facial expression is even less the business of a total stranger on the street than it is of a person who does know me.

(Speaking of feminism, my inner feminist compels me to ask: how often are men publicly berated for the arrangement of their facial features? Quite the contrary, moody, brooding men are often considered very sexually appealing in that mysterious way. A moody, brooding woman, on the other hand, is usually called “difficult” euphemistically, or just “a bitch” if we’re really being honest.)

This issue is intimately related to something I wrote about just recently, on the concept of Debbie Downers and how sad or negative people are constantly accused of “bringing people down.” In contrast, this situation is even more absurd because the facial expressions in question usually aren’t even negative; they’re just neutral. They’re just missing that socially mandated smile. But if you read my argument for why people shouldn’t allow themselves to be “brought down” by “Debbie Downers,” you’ll see that it applies just as well for those of us who, for whatever personal reason, choose not to go about grinning like maniacs.

Furthermore, lest anyone attempt to feed me platitudes about how people who concern themselves with my facial expression are just worried about my mental wellbeing, let me ask you this: when you’re concerned about someone, do you ask them privately if everything’s okay, or do you draw attention to them in a group setting and demand to know why their face looks the way it does?

(For the sake of your friends, I hope you choose the former.)

What strikes me as most ironic about all of this is that, for all the constant blather I hear about how the unappealing configuration of my face means I’m “selfish” and “don’t care” that I’m “upsetting” people and whatnot, I’ve chosen a life that’s infinitely more helpful to those around me than many other possibilities. I’m going to be a therapist, which means that, yes, it’ll be my actual job to help people feel happy. If that’s not more important than my transient facial expression, I honestly don’t know what is.

Moral of the story (or tl;dr, for my fellow internet nerds): If you don’t like what my face looks like, don’t fucking look at it.

An example of my neutral facial expression. No, it is not a personal insult to you.

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On People Who Think They’re so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3” on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”

Types of Moronic Blog Comments I Get

[Snark Warning, obviously]

When I receive comments like this either on this blog, on my Tumblr, on Facebook, or in person, I kind of want to shoot myself in the face.

“Yeah well, I’m [insert group name here] and this doesn’t apply to me.”

I will personally give you $20 if you can find a post on this blog claiming that all x are y. When you’re writing about culture and social science, as I do, a certain amount of generalization is necessary to be able to make a point. I’ve decided not to insult my readers’ intelligence by littering my blog posts with inane truisms like “but of course there is an exception to every rule” and “this may not apply to every individual but” and so on. Apparently, though, people don’t understand this, so I probably need to add a “generalization warning” to the two warnings that I already have.

“That’s just your opinion.”

Gee, brilliant observation, Einstein. This is my blog! Of course it’s just my opinion! I will gladly pay up another $20 if you find a post in which I claim to be the supreme authority on some subject or other.

“Don’t be so judgmental.”

Or what? I’ll be a Bad Person? I never claimed to be a perfect saintly individual who doesn’t judge people. Most people judge people. Granted, most people do not have a blog, so perhaps that’s what sets me apart. In which case, go ahead and state the problem as it really is–I’m a woman, I’m sharing my opinions, and my opinions aren’t always Nice and Kind and Loving. Oh noes!

“Check your privilege.” (and variations thereof)

I’ve already written about this so much that I hardly have anything to add and will simply direct you to this, this, and this.

“I like you better when you aren’t so angry.”

Yeah, and I like the world better when it doesn’t have any problems for me to get angry about. I also like YOU better when you don’t demand constant cheeriness from me. What can I say, we all have our likes and dislikes!

“lol”

I’m sorry, you must’ve gotten lost on the way to your junior high and accidentally ended up on my blog. You should probably get going now.

“Great post! I found it very interesting! For information about a new, low-cost solution to increase the size of your peni$ please visit http://www.cheapbigpeni$.com&#8221;

Enough said.

Got a Job? No Fun For You

[Snark Warning]

I read one of the advice columns in this month’s Cosmo. A woman was writing in and asking if it would be okay to wear a top that reveals her tan lines to work, provided the top was modest and work-appropriate. The response was, no, it wouldn’t. Why? Because you wouldn’t want your boss to think that you spend your free time lying around at the beach:

Even though the best of us can fall victim to zebra skin by accident, exposing your sun stripes at work would be flaunting your bad judgement (baking does lead to skin cancer, after all). Perhaps worse, as far as your boss is concerned, it suggests you spend lots of your free time being at one with your beach towel–not exactly impressive.

“Not exactly impressive?” What does that even mean? Apparently, you shouldn’t let your boss know that you actually have fun on your days off. Oh, heavens no! You ought to be at home, catching up on emails.

(As for the skin cancer thing, I’d just like to point out that even if you wear sunscreen, you’re eventually going to get a tan if you spent a lot of time outside. Trust me, my mom slathers my little brother and sister with sunscreen obsessively, yet at the end of the summer they still have those cute little freckles and tan lines.)

Naturally, I immediately thought back to an earlier post I wrote about why adults are always so miserable and try to make me as miserable as they are. Now I’m not surprised. Apparently, once you’re all grown up and have a job, you’re not even allowed to have a good time when you’re off work. No wonder adults are always in such a crappy mood, and no wonder they want to warn me that in a few years I’ll be in a crappy mood too.

What shocks me is that Cosmo isn’t exactly a serious, business-y magazine. It’s mostly read by people who like to enjoy themselves every now and then (or every day/night, as the case may be). If even Cosmo is saying that you can’t have fun once you’re a grown-up (or, at the very least, that you have to do it in secret), what’s the world coming to?

This doesn’t even make sense to me, because I would hope that my boss would want me to come to work refreshed and in a good mood. I would want him/her to know that I’m not going to be asking for time off to go see a therapist about how miserable I am because I never have fun.

(I’m hoping, perhaps in vain, that since I’m going into the mental healthcare field, things will be different for me. After all, if there’s anyone who knows that relaxing and having fun is absolutely necessary, it’s a therapist. In my opinion, therapists should be able to model healthy behavior for their clients. If a client casually asks me what I did over the weekend and I’m forced to either lie or confess that I spent the entire time huddling over my laptop in a corner, crying, and biting my nails off while my husband played with the kids, that’s not good.)

Where did we go wrong? Why is it that in other countries and cultures, it’s perfectly normal to take a nap after lunch before coming back to work? Why is it that the United States is the only country I could find that does not mandate a minimum amount of paid vacation time for all employees? Why is the United States one of the only developed countries that does not offer paid maternity leave (to say nothing of paternity leave)?

One thing that never fails to surprise me about American culture is how fixated it is on work.  Russians, for instance, seem to view work mostly as a means to an end (money, security, providing for one’s family), whereas for Americans, it’s an end in itself. I rarely hear my parents talking about work when they’re home, and the only time I’ve seen them doing work-related things at home is when my dad starts maniacally writing some sort of equations on a napkin. My parents don’t have smartphones or tablets. If you send an email to their work address on Friday evening, you won’t receive a response till Monday. And yes, they go to the pool on weekends, and evenings, and any other time they fucking feel like it. That, in my opinion, is how it should be.

Why Are Adults So Negative?

[Snark Warning, TMI Warning]

No, really, that’s a legitimate question. Why are people older than me–even by just a few years–so eager to put down all of my hopes and dreams?

Let me give a few nonspecific examples of Things Older People Have Said recently to me:

  • “You know, guys really don’t go for complex women.” (Women like me, that is, in the context of that conversation.)
  • “Oh, trust me, by the time you have a job, you’re not going to care about making a difference. It’ll just be about how you hate your boss and can’t wait to go home by the end of the day.”
  • “You’re never going to be successful if you don’t learn how to be pushy.”
  • “It’s going to be even harder to make friends after college, you know.”
  • “You’re gonna go for a PhD? You do realize how much work that is, right?”
  • “Psychologists don’t make that much money. You should try to get an MD instead.”

Perhaps you Well-Meaning Adults are all under the impression that I have excessively high expectations and need a Dose of Healthy Realism to prevent myself from getting disappointed later on. Perhaps you just don’t realize what weight your words can carry for someone who is younger and looking for someone to help them find their way.

Well, this might be news to you, but I have a mental disorder that basically means that my expectations are already unhealthily low. That’s what depression does. It robs you of all the hope and optimism you used to have. Every bit of genuine excitement that I have for the future is something I’ve worked very, very hard to muster up. And guess what you’re doing. You’re taking it away from me.

People. My disorder does a perfectly fine job of putting me down all on its own. It really doesn’t need any help from you. I don’t need to be reminded of how hard it’s going to be to make friends, get a job, find a partner. Trust me, I’ve been over this in my mind over and over and over again Many, many sleepless nights. I’ve been over it until I’ve cried my head off and wanted to kill myself. Really. I do not need your help.

You know what, I appreciate that maybe your life didn’t turn out the way you wanted. And that sucks. I’m sorry you have a shit job, I’m sorry  you have an awful time meeting people and dating. If you’d like, feel free to tell me about that. Or go tell a therapist. Or whatever. But your experiences do not give you the right to take my hope away from me. Especially when you’re some measly three or four years older! Jesus Christ! You’re still finding your own way. You’re not dead yet. At least wait till you get your own kids before you start dispensing your Divine Wisdom to someone else.

I’m seriously considering kicking these people out of my life, because as much as I’ve always believed that friendship with people older than me is important and extremely valuable, I can’t have these people making me feel crappy all the time.

Why does this happen? I think we have a cultural stereotype of young adults as exceedingly cocky, optimistic, and entitled. Well, guys, you know what they say about people who assume. First of all, as I’m pretty sure everyone I’m acquainted with knows, I’m not even from this country. Take everything you know about “American Young Adults” and toss it the fuck out, because I grew up with a different cultural background, one in which humbleness and realism are prized qualities.

Second, even supposing I were the most typical American girl you can imagine, you should still quit it with the damn stereotypes already. Everyone has their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Some people come from broken families. Some people grew up poor. Some people have a disability, maybe one you can’t see. Some people read a ton of books when they were kids. Some people grew up being bullied in school. Some people have depression, anxiety, OCD, ADHD, a substance abuse disorder, autism or Asperger’s, or some other condition. Some people are just plain different!

So throw out those silly magazine articles about “Today’s Entitled Bratty Self-righteous Cocky Inept Stupid Young Adults” and see what’s right in front of you. Some of us are just trying to get by. Some of us are just trying to scrounge up every last shred of hope we have and keep on living. Just because I’m young doesn’t mean I think it’s all rainbows and butterflies ahead. I work hard to keep my chin up. Don’t you dare take that away from me.