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Do You Smile Even When Your Heart Is Breaking?

Hidden emotions are neither gone nor forgotten.

Key points

  • People can feel pressured to hide their true feelings for a variety of reasons.
  • Hiding feelings is effortful and can distract from tackling important issues.
  • When we hide or fake feelings, we risk losing another’s trust by being perceived as inauthentic.
  • When we withhold our true feelings, we deprive our relationships of opportunities for meaningful growth.
 Krystine I. Batcho
Source: Krystine I. Batcho

Do you wear your heart on your sleeve? Or do you smile even when your heart is breaking? Some people hide their emotions behind a public face. The discrepancy between the private and the public is common enough to have long been a theme in popular music. Perhaps the prototype for such emotional disguise was expressed in The Great Pretender recorded by The Platters in 1955. “Oh-oh yes, I’m the great pretender. Pretending that I’m doing well. My need is such I pretend too much. I’m lonely but no one can tell. ... I seem to be what I’m not, you see.” Forty years later, Tony Rich reiterated the theme: “I’m dying inside and nobody knows it but me. Like a clown, I put on a show. The pain is real even if nobody knows. And I’m crying inside and nobody knows it but me.” The pretender is not unique to any particular genre or generation. In 2020, Matthew West sang in Truth Be Told: “I say I’m fine, yeah I’m fine oh I’m fine, hey I’m fine but I’m not. I’m broken.”

People hide their true feelings for a variety of reasons. Some might believe that they would lose respect or love if they admitted to being sad or frightened or inadequate. Some might believe that no one will care or that they don’t deserve the attentive nurturance their injured feelings need. Some disguise their love in order to hurt another who has disappointed, betrayed, or abandoned them. Others hide their feelings as a defense when they believe their love might be viewed as a sign of weakness to be exploited. In Talk Back Trembling Lips, Ernest Ashworth sang: “If I let you know how much I love you, you’ll do things to me you shouldn’t do. ... Every time you up and hurt my feelings I pretend it couldn’t matter less. I’m just hiding all of my emotions behind my broken heart I guess.”

Altruistically, the emotional ruse is sometimes intended to protect another such as a child or to buoy up the spirit of someone who is struggling physically or psychologically. Someone might not want their negative feelings to bring others down. Keeping our own sadness, anger, disappointment, or grief private may prevent them from jeopardizing the emotional wellbeing of others. The film Life is Beautiful tells the story of a father who hides his fear and despair in a concentration camp during the Holocaust to preserve his son’s resilience and will to survive.

What is gained or lost by hiding one’s feelings? Does the selfless person pay a cost for keeping their true feelings hidden? There is a longstanding popular belief that emotional pretense can be beneficial. The song Smile first appeared instrumentally in the Charlie Chaplin film Modern Times in 1936. The song was recorded with lyrics by Nat King Cole in 1954. “Smile though your heart is aching. Smile even though it’s breaking ... You’ll get by if you smile through your fear and sorrow. ... Hide every trace of sadness. Although a tear may be ever so near. ... Smile, what’s the use of crying. You’ll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.”

Empirical research, however, presents a somewhat different picture of the impact of maintaining an emotional front. Telling one’s romantic partner about one’s feelings is associated with healthy communication and positive effects on the relationship. Conversely, suppressing negative emotions is effortful and can diminish cognitive resources needed to enrich a relationship. It takes considerable effort to sustain masked feelings. In A Little Bitty Tear, Burl Ives describes how hard the pretense can be. “You said you were leaving tomorrow ... I had it made up not to make a frown, but a little bitty tear let me down. Spoiled my act as a clown.”

Research has shown that hiding negative emotions is associated with depressed mood, increased stress, lower levels of wellbeing overall, and decreased relationship satisfaction. People often mask their negative feelings by faking positive ones. Going the extra step of pretending to feel what we think is best for others can be exhausting. The hope that one will come to feel the faked emotions with enough practice rests on a risky choice. One might learn to be happy by “faking it until you make it.” But meanwhile, the relationship may well suffer the consequences of diminished authenticity. Research has shown that partners need to trust one another’s authenticity in order for the relationship to remain vibrant. Even when well-intended, hiding or faking emotions deprives others of opportunities to understand and interact with your authentic self. Withholding genuine feelings doesn’t give another the chance to apologize, forgive, or grow.

People can feel tremendous pressure to project emotions they believe are expected or will be accepted or valued. In the workplace, research suggests that hiding and faking emotions is associated with lower levels of job satisfaction and work performance, and higher levels of emotional exhaustion, sleep disturbance, and counterproductive work behaviors. In personal and professional contexts, when hiding or faking feelings, it is important to consider who gains and who loses and what is gained and what is lost.


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