The Answer To Any Resting Bitch Face, and Personal Happiness

I originally published this post on Medium on June 15, 2016. 

You know when someone smiles at you so big — so surprisingly big— that you’re immediately happier? You get that instant rush of warmth that only comes from the validation of another human. It’s different than the warmth you feel in awe of a pretty sunset, or when your dog runs to the door to greet you. This simple teethy smile makes you feel so comfortable, so seen, that you’re struck by a deep sense of belonging you didn’t even know was missing.

You also know the opposite feeling? When you’re walking toward someone and they’re walking toward you. You’re all set with your shit-eating grin, making eye contact but holding back slightly until you’re close enough for them to really see it. You take your smile from 75 to 101% as you cross paths and then boom… all you get is a cold stare.

What follows is a spiral of self-doubt: did I do something? does he not like me anymore? And probably some anger: eff her. But mostly, what remains is the opposite of that feeling we get from the big smile. An unsettled feeling, a feeling of slightly less belonging, less trust, less comfort in our place on earth.

I’m not sure when I (or we, assuming I’m not the only one) started letting other people’s smiles determine my mood. I do know when I realized I was doing it.

I’d been living on an ashram in India for over a month. I was happy as I’ve ever been: I was learning all the time. I was doing simple work, but tasks that helped the ashram function, and I felt like I was really contributing. I was eating well, sleeping and generally taking care of myself. In sum, I felt really good.

But at least once a day I’d notice this energy plummet. I’d walk past someone who didn’t return the permanently-plastered U shape on my face and I’d fall into a few moments — or a few hours, depending on how blank their stare and from whom — of self-doubt. I’m overstaying my welcome here. I served him breakfast with the wrong hand. She thinks I’m a spoiled American.

I realized my own self-worth, sense of belonging and happiness was see-sawing constantly— at the command of something so simple and out of my control as someone else’s smile.

Once I realized this (not a groundbreaking revelation, I know, but it felt like it) I took to my journal. In writing I vowed to change what was happening. I couldn’t come up with any socially acceptable way to force people to smile at me. But I decided I could pretend everyone I encountered was giving me their biggest, cheesiest, ear-to-ear grin all the time. That would solve my problem.

And actually, it did. I started seeing the corniest smiles on everyone’s faces. I’m not even sure where my imagination stopped and reality began, but all I saw for weeks was teeth and gums.

Then I left India and returned to the RBF that is New York. It’s one thing to contrive a smile or two every day. It’s another to pass 10,000 cold stares on one city Avenue. (I ❤ you nonetheless NYC.)

For a few months I forgot about my old habit. I allowed the faces I encountered to influence my mood and my energy. I developed my own RBF.

Then last Sunday I was teaching one of my brand new yoga classes. As it is for most industries, New York is an incredibly rewarding yet challenging place to teach yoga. We have some of the world’s most experienced teachers here. Expectations and intensity are at a worldwide high.

It was the beginning of class. One girl in the back row had arrived early and was leading herself through advanced breathing exercises— something you don’t often see at this studio. I started teaching and asked the class to take a few breaths together with their eyes closed. 23/24 people in the class did so. This girl did not. She simply stopped her own exercises and stared at me with snake-slit eyes.

I realized I had a choice in front of me: to let her glare change my energy, or to pretend she was smiling at me so freakin wide.

I opted for the smile. With that version of this student’s expression in mind, I kept my energy high and even gave her adjustments and special attention during class — things I’d do automatically for someone who actually issmiling at me, but not without some apprehension (admittedly) for someone I’m afraid might never want to come within 100 ft of me again.

As class let out I hung around to meet my new students. The first person to introduce herself and thank me for class was that very girl whose artificial smile I had plastered to my mind during class.

So now I’m back at it. Evil eyes or loving gaze, what I’m seeing when you look at me is your widest smile. It allows me to give you back my biggest, most heartfelt smile in return and maintain control over my own energy, sense of belonging and happiness.

If you happen to catch me in RBF, please let me know. :)

Joanna Cohen