The Perils of Surface Acting

I’ve been reading a book for a discussion group here on campus. (The Spark of Learning, by Sarah Rose Cavanagh) Today, it introduced a topic I hadn’t seen verbalized before: Surface Acting. This is when you suppress everything you might be feeling (stresses, worries, physical condition, etc.) to present an “everything is wonderful” front to the world. As the book says, it happens during teaching quite regularly, but I think it’s something most people do on a daily basis. Certainly if you’re interacting with acquaintances or strangers, you’re more likely to try and come off as “everything’s great.” (Or is that just me?)

The thing is, I surface act. A lot. Sometimes, I’d go so far as to say I surface act more often than not. (Though as I think about it, I tend to think that’s more of a confirmation bias than anything else.) If you were to ask Denisa about this, she’d likely not tell you anything, because she’s a considerate person. But she’s pretty much the only person I don’t surface act around, and she’s often very surprised by how I’m actually feeling when we come home from an event. I’ll talk about how my head is killing, or how I was really upset about something, or any other thing that went wrong over the last bit. Almost always, she had no idea about any of that.

I suppose there are two potential reasons for this. Either she’s very bad at detecting surface acting, or I’m a really good surface actor. I tend to think it’s my surface acting skills at work, judging from how people interact with me. I’ve got a lot of practice doing this, and I know that’s really not a good thing, emotionally or mentally speaking.

Because as the book says, surface acting is super draining. It’s probably one of the reasons that I end up coming home feeling much worse than I’ve been portraying: all that surface acting has left me exhausted. I don’t know, however, if I can kick the habit.

I don’t like people knowing how I’m really doing. I would rather they all think everything’s peachy keen. My gut says I’m far from alone on this. Judging from social media, most people like to put a positive spin on their forward facing lives. We generally talk about what’s going well and ignore or brush to the side things that aren’t. People ask us how we’re doing, and we say we’re doing fine or great. (On the other hand, in cultures that don’t use “how are you?” as a form of greeting, asking that question can get you very detailed, honest answers. I learned very quickly on my mission not to ask people “how are you?” after one grandmother told me all about her diarrhea for fifteen minutes. Yikes.)

Some level of surface acting feels appropriate to me. There’s no need to go around telling everyone everything all the time. But it would be better for me to surface act less with close friends and family. In other words, it shouldn’t just be my wife who gets to know exactly how I’m doing. I end up shouldering too much on my own, even though I realize many friends would gladly help me if I were to have a bit less of a poker face.

I’m good at coming off as happy and positive most of the time. (Whenever I get to the point where you can see I’m not doing so great, you can know that I’m really not doing so great, as a rule of thumb.) I’m not sure how I might go about changing my approach to this, but I know the first step is recognizing there’s a problem. Until I could put a name on what I did, it was harder for me to see it. Now I can. Maybe that will help.

Time will tell, I suppose. Do you have experience with this? How have you handled it?

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