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A Lifestyle Lesson in Smiling

On the surface, smiling usually seems like a good idea. When we turn the sides of our lips to the sky, it’s usually out of delight, joy, gratitude, or some other high-vibing frequency.

But sometimes we smile to appease, please, or to move through a difficult situation without feeling the difficult emotion. This is called reaction formation. Literally, it means we form our reaction based on the social circumstances around us.

The difference between a genuine smile and reaction formation is important – critical to our health and happiness. Reaction formation is taxing to the nervous system in our body, creates confusing stories in our minds, and is ingenuine, inauthentic, and a downright lie in our relationships.

But smiling goes even deeper, and it’s worth understanding a little bit of science to know why.

Our tenth cranial nerve is called the vagus nerve. It governs the autonomic, automatic, unconscious parts of our nervous system and it’s connected to everything in our body. It brings messages from our brain down to our other organs, and it sends information from those organs back up to the brain.

For today’s lifestyle lesson, it’s important to understand that the vagus nerve also serves as a direct superhighway of communication between your heart and your face. How your facial muscles move sends signals that influence the rhythm and pacing of your heartbeat. And how your heart beats influences how we move our facial muscles.

In this way, what we wear on our face is embedded into our heart – the center of our being.

So when we’re genuinely smiling, we’re telling our heart that all is well, life is good, and we are at peace and alignment with the world. When we’re smiling out of reaction formation, we are basically trying to lie and tell our heart that we’re fine even when we’re not.

But our hearts know the difference and will beat accordingly, either creating synchronicity and symphony in our bodies or creating dissonance and despair. Ultimately, this has great influence over how healthy we can be, and reaction formation can literally make us sick.

But smiling can make us well.

As you smile more genuinely, you create more coherence in your heart rate, which creates more regularity in your breath rate, which increases your oxygen levels, which feeds your brain better, which makes every single part of your day easier, and that is the circumstance in which health blossoms.

Here are three lifestyle practices to help you stop using reaction formation in your life.

SEE: Notice when you smile when you don’t mean it.

Most of us don’t even realize we use reaction formation, but most of us also use reaction formation on a daily basis.

We smile at our kids to cover up our concern. We smile at our boss so they’ll keep walking by our desk. We smile at the stranger who asks “how are you?” We even smile to ourselves in the mirror to reduce the wrinkles we see.

As you move through your day, notice how many times you smile out of a place of stress, turmoil, or people-pleasing instead of a place of genuine satisfaction, tenderness, or pleasure.

STOP: Choose one safe person or situation where you’ll stop smiling when you don’t mean it.

Unfortunately, the world is full of loops and hoops we need to jump through, and often times this means gritting our teeth through relationships that don’t always serve us (until we evolve to the point we’re ready to remove ourselves from them, of course). This means that if you stop smiling at work, in public, or at your kid’s PTA meeting, people are going to notice, ask questions, and have all kinds of projected reactions that have nothing to do with you.

For this reason, I don’t suggest ceasing reaction formation all at once. Instead, choose one or two people you trust the most and stop using reaction formation with them. You might even tell them you’re doing this so they can support your evolution in this area of your life.

When you notice yourself smiling for the wrong reasons with them, just catch yourself and stop doing it.

START: Begin exploring what makes you genuinely smile.

Is there a comedy you love to watch? Are there people who make you laugh? Do you love gazing at your sleeping child or cat? Do you adore looking out your window at the sunrise?

Notice what makes you genuinely smile, and do more of it.

It’s that simple, but it’s not necessarily easy.

Reprogramming takes time and attention, so you’ll need to be intentional about creating more smiles in your daily life. Because your face is directly connected to your heart, the benefits can be off the charts amazing.

You might notice you have more energy because you’re not wasting so much through reaction formation. You might notice your skin clears up and your body feels lighter. These are all instant benefits of genuinely smiling to nurture your heart.

MAGIC MANTRA: I smile because I’m happy.

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