Smile and Wave

Naomi talks about the importance of expressing how you really feel when asked, ‘How are you?’ and the many ways you can answer that question.

20th February 2024, 8.47am | Written by: Naomi

For those of you who have seen Madagascar, you will be all too familiar with the loveable posse of penguins and their iconic phrase, “Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave”.

When I am met with any form of the dreaded “how are you” question or concern over my mental well-being, it is this same phrase that my mind continually reverts back to (minus the iconic cartoon penguins).

Smile and wave. Slowly back away. Say you’re fine and it’ll all be okay.

For years, this was my mantra.

‘How are you?’, ‘I’m fine’. ‘Where’s your mental health at?’ ‘It’s all good’. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Oh, nothing really’. Smile. Wave. Deflect. Avoid. It became an ingrained instinct that I thought was protecting myself and those closest to me.

In reality, the last thing I wanted to do was smile. Having had depression since a young age, there reaches a point where you give up replying honestly to the “how are you” questions. Ten years in, I’ve used up all the words to describe how I feel. Most days, my answer was the same – an underlying feeling that refused to be shaken like a dark cloud that hung low over your head – but after a while of saying the same old answer, you begin to feel like a scratched record. A burden. A failure for not feeling different. Some days I wasn’t even sure how I was feeling or why, never mind how to put it into words.

What I wish someone had told me in those moments was just how valid those feelings are. Feelings are not linear. They don’t queue up nicely at the door and come in one at a time when invited. They are messy and unexpected, and they take time to navigate and process, and it can sometimes take years. And most importantly, they do not have to conform to what others expect us to feel.

I remember the first time I sat down with a friend and was honest about how I was feeling. She had asked me how I was doing, and despite my brain immediately running for the “smile and wave” exit sign, I took a breath and decided to be open with her. I explained my history with depression and that the “How are you” question was a really difficult one to answer with the triggers it brought up for me. She sat. She listened, and when I was finished speaking, she asked, “How would you prefer me to check in on you?”

I felt like a mask had been lifted. This was the first time I had truly sat with my feelings and accepted them for what they were. I did not minimise them. I did not run from them. I held them and recognised that they were MINE and they were valid.

That is the message I want to share with you – whatever your feelings are, whatever your answer to the “how are you” question – your feelings are valid, they are worthy of being heard, and they are yours to feel. Just because your feelings, your needs or your boundaries are different from other people’s, it does not mean that they are any less worthy of respect and care.

Let’s normalise the question, “How would you prefer me to check in on you?” and create an environment where those we speak to know they are safe to be vulnerable in a way that is most comfortable for them. Whether that be checking in through memes or GIFs, giving a 1-10 scale to gauge where they are at, encouraging them to express themselves and their feelings through art and other creative outlets, or perhaps asking more specific questions about their mental health status throughout the week instead of the generalised “How are you?”. Together, we can break down the stigma surrounding mental health one conversation at a time.

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