Facing Up to Facial Expression

Let’s face it, the face says it all! But does it? After all, the face is as good at masking emotions as it is at expressing them. In both of these ways, facial expression serve powerful functions – one, to suppress what arises in us and two, to express the emotions present. Certainly, it is far more threatening to your mature progress and wellbeing to hide your inner turmoil so that nobody but nobody gets a look into your interiority. However, we mask those feelings that are too threatening to reveal and we learn that lesson very early on in life. So many adults I have worked with relate stories of, as children, having to have a happy facial expression and daring not to show such emergency feelings as upset, anger, fear, disappointment and hurt. They unconsciously realised the dangers of emergency emotional expression, namely, that a parent or a significant adult would not be able to cope with distress. Children, in their wisdom, create the defensive response to such a threat and put on the happy face to offset the threat. To paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot, they ‘put on the face to meet the face.’ Infants and children are far more expert than adults at reading faces – and for good reasons. They carry their defensive masks into adulthood and some crisis – physical, emotional, social, occupational – may need to occur before they come into conscious realisation that they allow nobody to get to know them. The daunting tasks are to make new choices to be authentic, real, spontaneous and open with others and to let go of the need to protect others, particularly parents and siblings, from encountering distress. Individuals have told me that ‘my mother will fall apart if I tell her how I really feel’ or ‘my father won’t be able to cope with my telling him about my depression’. However, if the truth be told, it is the person themselves, now as adults, who are afraid of ‘falling apart’ for they, like their parent, have not learned to accept and resolve distress. When nobody takes responsibility within such families, then no change occurs and the unresolved vulnerability of emotional repression passes from generation to generation. Be assured that we all have immense power to resolve emotional and other distresses, but not too many people are told that.

If it is important for the person who smiles all the time to become conscious of their typical facial expression, it is equally crucial for those who wear their hearts, not only on their sleeve, but on their face, to own what belongs to them and not put responsibility onto others for resolution of their inner issues, or, indeed, for their overall wellbeing. If tone of voice can pose threats to the wellbeing of others, so too can facial expression. As we have seen, children need to put on the defensive face to meet the defensive face of the adults who are responsible for their care; however, adults need to get to know themselves, establish independence in relationships and take complete responsibility for their own mature progress. ‘The face that stops the clock’ is worn by the person who has not yet faced-up to being truly adult.

One of the perplexities about reading facial expressions is that it involves so many bodily organs – the eyes, the eyebrows, the forehead, the eye-lids, the cheeks, the jaw, the nose, the lips and the teeth. So, for example, we experience ‘the eyes as being the windows of the soul’, ‘the raised eye-brow’, ‘the furrowed brow’, ‘the rapid eye-blink’, ‘the sucked-in cheeks’, ‘the jaw set against the world, ‘the lips sealed’, ‘the nose in the air’ and ‘the teeth bared.’ Putting the various signals together we can experience the overall facial expression as dark, startled, shocked, hard, soft, guarded, relaxed, surprised and so on. However, we tend to interpret facial expression more in emotional terms such as hostile, appeasing, terrifying, angry, tense, sad, jealous, cheerful, mischievous, depressed, anxious, closed, open, threatening. Whatever way we interpret another person’s facial expression, it is expedient that we own our interpretation as being about ourselves and not put the responsibility onto the other person. In any case, a person who shows a defensive face is not in a place to take responsibility for self, not to mind anybody else!

It is the mature response to look to what action we need to take to ensure that our wellbeing is not jeopardised by what belongs to another; we can hope that they will face their own inner demons.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of Whose Life Are You Living?