This evening, I remembered a seminar I attended more than 10 years ago on patients with learning disabilities. I recall hearing the words ‘handicapped smile’, and thinking how frequently my learning disability patients smiled in an odd manner, which I experienced as out of context or inappropriate. I had wondered at the time whether this smiling was intentional, or simply due to involuntary muscle movement with no awareness of its social purpose.
What is the ‘handicapped smile’?
The ‘handicapped smile’ (Valerie Sinason, 1992) is essentially referring to the tendency of people with learning disabilities to smile however distortedly, in order to present a false or more positive self to the external world. People with learning disabilities are more likely to have experienced bullying, physical/sexual abuse, neglect and trauma. The handicapped smile may be a way of protecting themselves from the pain of this by creating a false self which is more acceptable and anticipated to result in more favourable social responses.
How does this relate to us?
The concept of the handicapped smile may equally apply to all of us. Although our smiles may be more ‘appropriate’ (i.e looking presentable during group photos at a party), the act of smiling for us may serve a similar function to the handicapped smile. The need to create a ‘favourable’ self may compensate for underlying feelings of sadness, anger, insecurity and dissatisfaction. It is worth noting that people who lack confidence and feel insecure about themselves can spend a great deal of time on personal grooming in order to present a polished and flawless social image.
A Song about Social Smiling
I have heard this song perhaps a thousand times over the last 20 years. However, it is only today I began to link it with the concept of the handicapped smile. Sung by Jagjit Singh, this Hindi song asks ‘why are your lips smiling whilst your eyes hide such sorrow?’. The song goes onto adding ‘Those tears that you are constantly drinking will turn into poison’ which is referring to a process of internalisation. The more we suppress our unacceptable and unwanted feelings, the more these become displaced and can become emotionally destructive. Tears that are ignored, unattended or quickly hidden turn to psychic pain. Forced smiles or ‘false selves’ trying to create the illusion of happiness can lead to a profound sense of loneliness, detachment from the world and an overall lack of fulfilment.
Each time I hear this song, I am filled with the same emotions. What I find most endearing about it is how the singer is noticing the ‘real’ person beneath the smile as opposed to the false self and how he is intuitively picking up on the hidden pain of the person he is addressing.
I hope you experience a connection with at least one person in your lifetime who has the capacity to see YOU and not just your smile. Enjoy the song!