Beneath Every Smile Lies The Truth: Recognize Coping Mechanisms That No Longer Serve You

birthdaypartyI sat across from a handsome, young black man—who was only a few years younger than I—conducting an intake. This was the first step to admitting him into the drug and alcohol clinic where I had been employed. I began trying to figure him out from the first, “Hello,” as I thought, “You’re like 12, what addiction problems do you have??” I took routine information from him—name, age, address, history of drug use, etc.—not having been particularly alarmed by any of his answers until I had to ask him about his biological parents.

“I don’t really know,” he smiled.

This was a, “new promotion,” smile. I’ll even go so far as to say it resembled a, “I just won the lotto,” smile, but it certainly wasn’t a, “Huh? Parents? I don’t know,” kind of smile.

“You don’t know?” I probed.

“Nope,” still smiling. “I was one of those babies left under a tree in a random back yard. They said I was in the dirt, and all kinds of bugs and worms were on me. Police were called. They found my mother. She said she didn’t want me and the state took me. It was in the newspapers at the time,” he said matter-of-factly.

Imagining that kind of trauma was piercing. Left for dead?! Under a tree?! I wanted to cry as he continued to smile, and even flirt. I wanted to say, “Stop the damn smiling! … It’s ok to acknowledge the hurt.”

I knew it was his story. He’d probably told it a thousand times and despite it being a shock to me, it wasn’t to him—so I didn’t necessarily expect tears. I also knew he was a young black man sitting across from a young black woman—who he apparently found attractive, as per his flirting—and to just start balling might not have felt socially acceptable.

Yet still, it was evident that this was a coping mechanism of his. Mask the pain with a smile. Whatever you do just mask the pain.

Weeks later when he continued to smile an incongruent smile I stopped him. I said, “You’ve been through so much, yet you smile every time you talk about it. You smile more than any other point in our conversation.” I paused, giving him time for contemplation.  “I think it’s a coping mechanism you use to manage and even mask the pain… I’ll take it further by saying that at some point smiling has worked—getting you through tough times, but what was once adaptive, is no longer working in your favor.”

I gave him a personal caveat, telling him that as a child I’d been criticized a lot. In response I began to be very defensive. At the time it helped. People didn’t want to say anything to me. However years later, that same coping mechanism would make it so that people would feel uncomfortable in relationship with me.

I redirected the conversation back to him, “You mask now, not only with a smile, but with drugs and alcohol, but what once served you is now hurting you.”


 Frugalistas: What coping mechanisms no longer serve you? If you have trouble finding any, think about something you’ve heard many times about yourself when you’ve gotten into arguments or trouble in relationships or at work. Some of us might not have to look far as many black women have this issue with upholding the “strong black woman,” persona, long after it’s ceased working for us. What are your thoughts on this?

[info_box type=”alert_box”]If you want to practice self-care, you have to care for your finances.  My book, The Happy Finances Challenge, is designed to help you learn to make money decisions that will lead to long-term financial happiness in just 42 days. [/info_box]


  1. This has to be one fo the saddest things I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard a lot in life. I don’t know which is sadder. Smiling through the pain or lashing out.

    1. I agree Melissa (& Thanks for taking the time to respond). This happened about 13 years ago. So I hope when this man smiles now, its from a different place. As for me, all growth takes time and is a journey, but I’ve grown throughout the years…defense is no longer my go to tool, though it creeps its ugly head when Im not loving myself. –but how about you? Can you relate to this piece or recognize yourself in this, in any way?

      1. You know, I am the type to internalize. I was friends with someone for a long time who, whenever she was in a bad mood or things didn’t go her way she’d lash out. I volunteer. One of my favorite projects is with teenage girls. Sometimes, they are sharing the most horrifying things with me and smiling through the pain. And I want to cry. But me personally, I keep everything inside. Unhealthy, I know.

        1. Lol. (@ Unhealthy, I know), but I think that’s your answer. Internalizing things is definitely a coping mechanism. You learned it somewhere. And it’s cool sometimes. It may serve you in some instances…but if you know like I know, at some point that lid’s gonna blow. (You know how many alcoholics, drug addicts, chronically depressed, physically ill and unhappy people are internalizers?) So I think this is where the question of, “does this coping mechanism serve me?” comes in, or “when does it serve me?” (because it may indeed serve you sometimes). And you might also ask, “Would it be better to talk about, own and validate my own feelings as they arise to preserve my own mental and physical health?” —I used to be and sometimes still am an internalizer. I think you just inspired a future post Melissa. 🙂

          1. Funny. I never even thought of it like that. I usually do a slow burn when I am angry. I am also typically very calm. a friend of mine calls me her “Zen friend”. Which… I don’t know how true that is. Inside I am sometimes a flurry of emotions. I definitely know that internalizing could lead to a host of problems. Physical and emotional. But, it’s tough to change. The lid has blown a few times. Not pretty. BUT also not directed at anyone that it shouldn’t be. I would love to find a better way to channel my emotions.

          2. That sounds very familiar!! Well, look out in the next few months or so about internalizing, because I intend to write something just for you! things I’ve learned along the way being a former internalizer. Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *