Our game face, or our poker face, is the face we put on for the outside world that masks what is happening for us internally. We develop it over time, some better than others, some better at certain situations than others. When we have our game face on, we can go out into the world feeling like a complete train wreck inside and still look pretty good on the outside. We may look so good that those that don’t know us well don’t know that there is anything wrong at all.
I spent a day at the beach last month with my 20-month-old nephew. He does NOT have a game face. His emotions are written all over his face and they can swing wildly, depending on what is happening.
A new person? Huge grin. “Hiiii,” he says, walking right over to meet the person.
However, if you tell him he can’t eat goldfish crackers until he has just half a grape more, you get the pouty face, and he won’t look at you.
I made the mistake of telling him he couldn’t get the goldfish crackers himself (because his hands were covered in sand), but I was willing to feed them to him one by one (because mine were not). This earned me an angry yell from him, which might be interpreted as something along the lines of, “You are the worst aunt in the world!”
Buddy, you have no idea. I wish that the worst thing that ever happened to me was that somebody wanted to feed me goldfish crackers because my hands were too dirty to get them myself.
As we get older, worse things do happen to us. Life gives us life lessons and at some point, we start to develop a game face. We put it on at school, at work, with acquaintances, with family we don’t trust, and so on. We can get so adept with it on that we can forget what it is like to have it off.
“How are you?” someone asks.
“Good,” you respond because that’s the polite response, that’s what’s expected. It doesn’t mean that you actually are good. It’s just surface-level pleasantries. If you know the person well enough, you may joke, “Do you really want to know?” And if you truly trust someone, you put down the mask. You know that when they ask, “How are you?” they really want to know the truth.
The problem with the game face is that it blunts our emotions, so we experience them less and others may not experience them at all. It is very easy to read my nephew. You know exactly when you have upset him and why he is upset. He knows all of this, too. You can react in that instant to address the problem. You move through the conflict in five minutes or less (usually), all is forgiven and mostly forgotten, and you move on.
When you have your game face on, it is harder to emotionally hurt you in the moment. However, by being less reactive to what is happening, you may also be dulling your senses and allowing some pretty hurtful things to take place without your knowledge. You may internalize them and feed on them later. You may just internalize them and have them become part of what you say to yourself, without ever processing whether you should be saying these things to yourself. You may never address the issue with the other person and the other person may never even know that there was an issue.
Think about where and with whom you wear your game face. Why have you chosen to maintain that facade with that person? What keeps you from revealing your true self to that person? Are there unresolved conflicts between you? Or does it go deeper to a lesson you learned from another person before?
Would it help to talk it through with the person who taught you to wear the mask? (Not necessarily.)
Would it help to process what is going on for you and whether you want to make any conscious changes? (Probably.)