The Story Behind the Smile

D. is a young man who was interviewing for his second position as a computer engineer since graduating from college.  He sought my help because he couldn’t seem to ‘get passed the phone interview’ and there had been quite a few of those. He didn’t know why he didn’t get the call for the second interview especially since he believed most of the interviews had gone remarkably well.

Because of the particular challenges he faces, D. has a great deal of difficulty with social communication. As a result, responding to social cues is neither easy nor natural for him. Our sessions involved breaking down the components of communication, of which many of us take for granted, into smaller, more manageable parts. With practice and determination, D. developed this skillset until he was able to answer mock interview questions more easily, naturally and authentically. At one point, I exuberantly exclaimed “That’s fantastic, you nailed it.” And to my complete surprise, D. flashed a megawatt smile that I had never before seen. It was a magnificent, light-up-your-face kind of magic smile. It was downright captivating and one hundred percent sincere.

I told D. that he had a fantastic smile and encouraged him to bring it to his interview. He said, “I don’t like to smile very often.” He explained, “Once, a long time ago, I think when I was in 4th grade, a girl told me my smile was too big, she said it took up too much of my face. So, I try to avoid smiling as much as possible.”

So that means for approximately the last fifteen years you believed that what this girl, from 4th grade, said about your smile was true?  You assumed  that her comments about your smile were accurate? Did it ever occur to you that she might be wrong, that perhaps she was self-conscious about her smile or that she might have even secretly liked you? He answered easily that he had never considered any of those possibilities.

D. is not alone, of course.

Many of us carry similar scars from our childhood into our adult life. Most of us can all too easily recall the time that we felt maligned by teasing or taunting for being too fat or skinny, for ears that were too big, for hips too wide, for noses too big, or for calling into question our athletic, hands-on or creative capabilities…the list is literally endless.

D.’s recollection of his 4th grade embarrassment is an important reminder of what can occur when we don’t take the time to re-examine those experiences, when we presume they are part of our destiny. Think about the last time you dared to venture out of your comfort zone. Chances are that just as you were beginning to find reasons not to do this new and uncomfortable thing, you also heard the haunting lilt of some of those old messages, “You won’t be successful at that because you’re too– bossy, lazy, inflexible, clumsy, sloppy or unrealistic…”

With greater awareness, however, we have the opportunity to learn that those scars/messages don’t have to define who we are or limit what or who we can become. With insight, we can develop a new lens by which we develop the freedom to redefine ourselves. Then we can choose– what we want to be or what we want to capable of experiencing. When we are unencumbered by these limitations, we are no longer tethered to those earlier defining monikers, and then we can be truly open to exploring new experiences. And that is a whole lot to smile about.

Iris Karas