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How Depression can be a Smiling Assassin
What is Smiling Depression
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions that can strike adults and children alike. The typical symptoms of depression are well described in most of the articles and literature published online.
However it is less known that there are some atypical forms of Depression that can fool people around them. One deceptive form of Depression is “Smiling Depression”, where the affected person does not exhibit the normal signs of Depression such as low energy or low mood, and the stuckness of a lack of interest in life.
This form of Depression is subject to debate amongst professionals who clinically report seeing clients who present as happy and coping, but report that internally they feel the same way as your typical depressed person. This type of depressed person is showing a false social mask towards others in order to hide from them the fact they are depressed.
This social mask is a feature of all humans. We each wear a social mask in public and in relationships as our ego projects a socially acceptable camouflaging presentation of ourself when relating. This social mask is part of our safety making, as it gives us the best chance of being socially accepted and included into a tribe or group as against existing in isolation.
The second safety making aspect of the social mask is that it allows us to hide aspects of ourself which make us vulnerable or judged and so prevents us being attacked or scrutinised beyond “face value”. When viewed in this way it makes sense that some people can coverup their depression via deploying a smiling or happy social mask to others.
Human Doing vs Human Being
It might not be safe in a workplace or group to reveal the vulnerability of depression as it might be expected to generate scrutiny, judgement, rejection or even bullying. In a society that promotes perfectionism and high standards, no one wants to reveal weaknesses and perceived flaws as it may feel socially safe not to drop the mask and reveal one’s true self or feelings.
The reason we call this “the smiling assassin” is that a person who manifests this type of depression may fly under the radar of loving and concerned others, who fail to spot what’s really going on, and so do not offer support to the sufferer who really needs some sort of intervention and help. The risk with this sort of depression is that any untreated depression sufferer can over time simply slide deeper into the malaise, and their thinking may become more extreme over time, till they start to seriously contemplate suicide.
This form of suicide is well known to professionals who hear from loving partners, work colleagues, or family, who are confused that the now dead person simply gave away no indication they were either depressed or thinking of suicide. The first indication is too late as normally the person has successfully taken their own life, or is now seriously injured after having tried to take their own life.
The Rigid Perfectionist
In my experience the most prone personality type to suffer the Smiling Depression affliction is the Rigid Perfectionist personality. These type of adults have invested much of their life in trying to be perfect, achieve the best results, compete and win, and have an underlying anxiety state about being OK unless they are achieving a perfect score or result, or doing something to keep showing others how good they are. These type of people are on a treadmill of doing and achievement where they are bound into conformity by expectations, rules, judgements and laws about what is the “right” thing to do, whilst at the same time they are doing more and more to please others and get acknowledged as the good or the best.
Their self esteem is low, and they compensate by having externalised esteem via way of having all objects, experiences and other successful persons around them, to prove to themselves and others that they are acceptable and OK via achieving. This is a treadmill of constant effort as there is no arriving, just constant doing, as you are only as good as your last achievement, and their anxiety prevents them stopping to enjoy their objects, achievements or relationships.
They have in effect stopped being human beings and have become human doings as they are compulsed in having to do something useful. Sitting still and doing nothing, creates huge anxiety at the idea they are wasting time and “should” by way of an internalised rule, be doing something useful at all times.
They fear failure, judgement and criticism, and are often haunted by a fear that they are a failure or fraud, and that they need to work harder to keep their coverup and self-perceived sham running. In this state they cannot admit to anyone, and sometimes even themselves, that things are not OK and that they are not coping.
This type of person lives in denial until the lack of sustainability to function long term in this way catches up with them. It can happen suddenly by way of a crisis, either by having a significant “doing” project crash and burn, or they themselves have a sudden health crisis such as chronic fatigue syndrome or some other physical health condition cripple them and force them to stop or to slow down significantly.
However some get depression but add it to the long list of burdens they carry on the treadmill, and they smile to everyone else whilst crying inside. The mental health aspect of this means their negative depressive mind starts to amplify their own negative critical mind about who in their own self belief they really are. They start to question their meaning and purpose in life as to is this all there is, if the treadmill is the only way to navigate life.
The smiling assassin starts to take over and question life itself, and their value in it, and the value in continuing life on a treadmill that is slowly burning them out and leaving them feeling trapped and despairing in a lifestyle that somehow they created themselves. These sort of people do not tend to burden others but instead resign themselves to their fate, and attempt to win again by beating their blues.
The Smiling Assassin is Your Opponent
However the smiling assassin is a formidable opponent as it already lives within and knows your every insecurity, doubt and thought. An external shock such as a real failure, negative feedback, criticism from others, being humiliated, or rejected, can become the knives and rope that the smiling assassin will use against the sufferer.
Resilience to negative outcomes from the audience from where you garner your self-esteem can be a critical trigger. Hyper-sensitivity in the rigid perfectionistic personality means they present a polite or professional social face when criticised or shamed, but they internally feel like they just took a dagger to their heart.
They can ruminate on past hurts and incidents and go into despair. As despair builds then the perfectionist is prone to put the blame back on themselves as a failure and as a fraud and is ashamed to reach out for help. They smile to others and soldier on till one day they may not simply show up anymore.
As a doer the suicide plan is simply another task to tick off in their day. As intelligent and achieving people who have the energy to function, they are not collapsed like typical depression sufferers who may fantasise about suicide but simply have no energy to get off the couch or out of bed to fully think it through, plan and execute such a plan.
These personalities also resist therapy as it would confirm that they are failures. Their intellect rationalises their way out of thinking they have a problem that needs outside help, so they soldier on. They can tell themselves they have it all in life and have ticked all the bucket lists and so they should be happy.
The shame that they carry also inhibits their self worth in a way that they feel they are not worthy of bothering others or seeking help. The shame also then re-shames them for having feelings of failure or unhappiness so it becomes an internal toxic circular thinking pattern.
These sort of people do respond well to the classical treatment approaches for Depression, but they may already be doing some of them. An example is that they may already go to the gym regularly, do yoga or meditation or a mindfulness practice, yet the smiling assassin allows that to be part of their functioning self, but is not threatened by these resilience building strategies.
Lack of Meaning and Purpose
The reason the smiling assassin survives is that the main issue that needs to be tackled within the sufferer is a deep unhappiness due to a lack of meaning and purpose. All the wealth, all the wonderful experiences, all the objects that glitter, all the achievements that are obtained, may amount to very little in the realm of happiness.
We see this in lawyers a lot. They are a breed who strive and achieve well at school, get the highest percentile leaving scores, and find status in graduating at law school after a long journey through University. They earn a good income and work in well appointed offices.
Yet our practice is full of lawyers in despair. They went into law because mum or dad expected them to, put pressure on them to as it reinforced the good family name, or matched the achievements of their siblings. However it was not their truth or their passion.
They found wealth, status, achievement, pressure, long hours, and encountered unethical or corrupt persons whom they then had to act for, or defend. They found emptiness in what they were doing but felt powerless to change their lot given they and possibly their parents had sacrificed so much to get to this point. They simply felt the weight of expectations to put on a social smiling mask and soldier on.
They might have value conflicts in the work that they do. They may find that they have to defend the guilty, protect abusers, represent debased characters, and assist with strategies and advice that does not live in truth or justice, which might have been the ideal that attracted them into law in the first place.
Others report not feeling good about billing clients every 10 minutes, under pressure to find creative or false ways to account for billable time, such that they meet their targets and so keep their jobs, get a promotion or be offered better work or partner status. A value conflict can eat away at a person who possesses a moral compass, and lawyers tell me that your moral compass is often the first casualty in working for a legal firm, where it’s all abut winning, stringing out cases, and profits at all costs.
The lack of connection to their meaning and purpose haunted them every day. Their doubts were met internally with shame that they did not feel grateful for the sacrifices others had made for them, and how fortunate they should feel to have become a success.
They carried on for years this way seeking a way out. Some like them quit and walked away but many like them continued on with a feeling of being trapped on a treadmill where they had no option but to keep moving forward. The smiling assassin found a home in such a person after a time.
Therapy Can Help You Find Truth
The therapy approach must consider and include evaluating the life choices and payoffs that have been made. This must look at the sufferer’s aspirations and dreams, and how these were not met, recognised, or were humiliated out of them, such that the person started to live out of truth within themselves.
Recognition of such a dilemma is the starting point to bring resolution to this type of Depression. In our experience we have found this dilemma to be common in high achievers from wealthy or family systems where the parents have rigid perfectionistic or narcissistic personality types.
The child was not seen and heard in its uniqueness. The parents had a plan for them that represented the parents’ ideals, expectations, demands and egos. The child had to adapt to get love and acceptance, but had to kill off exploring what might be their own gifts, expressions, talents or passions in this life. It mattered not, for the child was asked to dream the parents dream and not their own, as the parents would always go on to tell that child and adult they knew what was best for them.
The child starts to feel shame that they have their own needs and wants which are not recognised. They lie outside of what the parents impose on them as what is claimed to be best for them.
The dynamic creates a shame based suppression of spontaneous expression or exploration by the child. They suppress their felt impulses to be, act or do differently to the idealised image now imposed on them by the parents.
Even the arising of such thoughts and impulses which are about what the child wants, elicits shame and guilt that somehow they as a child are selfish to have thoughts, dreams, impulses or desires outside the model of self created for them to comply with. This becomes a pattern that persists into adult life.
It is no wonder that later in life this suppressed life force comes back with intensity and creates illness or crisis in the life of the unlived child who is now an adult. If the sufferer gives in to their fate, they will typically manifest Depression or psychosomatic or psychogenic illnesses in their bodymind, including depression or suicidal impulses.
Yet others have an early life or mid life crisis and rebel, ripping up the life script written for them without their input or permission, and quit high paying jobs, stifling proper relationships and marriages, and finally explore via released impulses of freedom, play, fun and curiosity, what life is and start for the first time, to live from their original self.
The old saying, “What’s not in truth eventually collapses”, is so true in this situation. Far better that a person rebels and releases their suppressed life force and free-will, than to snuff out their life force in despair and revenge against those who cast them into this psychic prison built on good intentions, but devoid of respect of the rights to a person being the determinant of their own free will and life purpose.