Posts Tagged ‘emotion’

Update (18th September 2011): I’ve noticed that this post gets a regular number of visits from people doing web searches that feature ‘frozen face’ as a search term. If you have reached this post in this way, I would be interested in your reaction to what you read here, and how (if at all) it relates to the reasons for your search. E-mail me at: simon@silvercatpsychotherapy.co.uk

I was at a training event recently, and a colleague described someone who had trouble with their facial expression. They had a kind of set expression on their face that they found difficult to change deliberately. This was in relation to a discussion about the link between facial expression and emotional attunement, particularly in terms of empathy, and it reminded me of my own experiences of what I’ve tended to refer to as ‘frozen face syndrome’.

I’d like to put all that together here, and will start with a brief memory:

I’m sat with a very expressive friend, and she’s telling me about something that happened between her and someone else a couple of days previously. As she’s telling me, I’m listening intently and finding something strange. I realise that her eyes darting around as if scanning my face. Soon after that, she exclaims, ‘well respond then botox boy!’.

Sometimes, life has an interesting way of bringing things into my awareness. Previous to being named botox boy, I hadn’t been aware of my general lack of sensation in my face. As I reflected on this encounter, I became increasingly aware that my face felt numb and actually quite stiff, as if the muscles were literally frozen. I realised that I found it difficult to change my facial expression deliberately, and more, realised that I mostly wore a single, quite blank, expression on my face for most of the time.

I’ve already blogged about how I view emotion as the necessarily physical expression of inter- personal need. The place of facial expression within this is as the (wait for it, wait for it) interface between emotional systems; facial expression communicates emotional need and understanding. The discussion I mentioned above was about the part played by facial expression in attuning to and empathising with the emotional experience of another person.

In 1975, Tronick et al devised the still face experiment in which mother and infant interact normally for a while, before the mother presents a totally blank face. Baby tries to get its mother to respond with facial expressions but eventually grows anxious and distraught. The implication for attachment theory is that baby needs to be able to ‘read’ its caregiver’s facial expression in order to create a stable attachment.

More than that, facial expression communicates to someone else what’s going on within our own emotional system. To go back to that handy interfacing word, you could say that faces allow nervous systems to communicate with each other in quite a direct way about emotional sensation. And that’s an important aspect of empathy; being able to gauge the emotional sensations of another.

So what’s the deal with frozen face syndrome? Think Poker Face; the whole point is to not be emotionally read. Interestingly, in looking at the Poker Face lyrics, whilst the opening stansa isn’t exactly W.B.Yeats…

Mum mum mum mah
Mum mum mum mah
Mum mum mum mah
Mum mum mum mah
Mum mum mum mah

… there’s an awful lot of mum going on (altogether now in your best Austrian accents, ‘tell me about your mother’!). Only a half-jest, as even a parent in a state of rage is less frightening for a pre-verbal child than a parent with no discernible emotional state. Thinking about it, the same is probably true for adults too; I tend to be more frightened by the ‘cold blooded killers’ in films who kill with no expression on their faces than the ones with faces contorted in hate or rage.

The more obvious lyrical meaning comes from the chorus:

Can’t read my, can’t read my
No he can’t read my poker face
(She’s got to love nobody)
Can’t read my, can’t read my
No he can’t read my poker face
(She’s got to love nobody)

The whole song being of the hiding behind an unreadable mask whilst manipulating others kind of affair. Incidentally, I heard a guy doing an acoustic cover of this song a few weeks ago; the slower tempo and unglossed production made the whole thing sound like a beautiful ballad about emotional isolation.

My own experience of working with my frozen face in therapy was one of emotional rediscovery on two fronts. On the one hand, I found that I was Poker Facing, and spent some time exploring my own anxiety about having other people see me express myself emotionally. On the other hand, my frozen face helped me to place specific emotions into a kind of stasis so I could avoid experiencing them.

I started massaging my face to help get some mobility back in the muscles, and gurning as ridiculously as possible at mirrors. If all this frozen face stuff is resonating with you, I’d highly recommend experimenting with those two activities. And if you get the paranoid idea that someone is watching you through the mirror, then don’t worry, I went through that stage too. There is someone watching you through the mirror; the disowned critical part of yourself that attacks you for expressing whatever it is you’re holding back (I’m focusing on emotional expression here, but freezing your face could be about holding back a whole host of things).

The thing to remember is that freezing your face involves using voluntary muscles to counter-act automatic muscle action; the voluntary action has just been held in place for so long that it’s become automised and structural. This is what Wilhelm Reich originally called character armour; using voluntary muscles to create stiffened muscle structures that protect the self from something (we tend to brace ourselves for impact after all). Gestalt therapy incorporated this idea into its general approach to bodywork, reconceptualising character armour as a form of creative adjustment. Freezing facial muscles is a great demonstration of retroflection; using voluntary muscles to hold in an outward movement. Undoing retroflection involves reversing the sequence of events by finding out what’s being held in and supporting a completion of that outward movement.

Ultimately, the aim is to regain choice regarding the creative adjustment; in facial freezing, the stiffening of those voluntary muscles becomes rigidly automised. Massaging your face may feel quite silly, but it’s a great first step in gently easing any rigidity that has set in. And as that takes effect, you’ll find that the emotions being held back will start to come more strongly into your experience. The ridiculous gurning has the twofold effect of regaining control over stiffened voluntary muscles, and bringing that critical voice into awareness where it can be reasoned with.

The most interesting thing about this for me is just how revealing facial expression is. If you poker face me, then you’re actually sending quite a clear message: I need to hide something from you. That insight allows me to focus not on finding out what’s being hidden, but on exploring the need to hide.


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It seems to me that there is a bizarre fascination in our current age of explaining present day behaviour by reference to a wholly imagined pre-historic past. Considering the hyper-adaptability of human beings to present situations, it strikes me as odd that one would attempt to explain current behaviour as an evolutionary adaptation to an ancestral environment. Evolutionary psychology; it’s not big, and it’s not clever.

This is, of course, my gestalt bias shining through; in gestalt, the focus is on describing what’s happening in the here and now, not speculations about the there and then. That isn’t to say that the past is unimportant (he who fails to learn from his past is doomed to repeat it and all that). But what’s important about the past in gestalt is the way in which past events are kept active in the present.

Consider armistice day, the holocaust, or the 9/11 attacks; these are events where we ‘keep the memory alive’ through commemoration. The events themselves are over, but their echoes are active present day forces. Jews continue to commemorate Passover specifically in order to keep that ancestral event alive in the present as a mobilising force within their faith. The gestalt bias is against the dry, historical analysis of the event as it happened, and in favour of the electric, living meaning of the event’s active influence in the present.

All of which meanders me in the general direction of emotion and the purpose thereof.

Every theoretical system has its biases, and gestalt is no exception. Along with gestalt’s bias towards here and now experience, I have been thinking recently about gestalt’s bias towards emotion and feeling. There is a general wisdom in gestalt that emotions are Good Things, and that feeling one’s emotions is better than not feeling them. I agree with this outlook but have been fairly vague on why I agree with this outlook. So I have been exploring my thoughts about the nature of emotion in order to arrive at a good understanding of my stance on the matter as distinct from what I’ve simply picked up (ie introjected) through training, practice, supervision, and my own therapy.

What I’ve arrived at is a relatively simple maxim: emotions mobilise situations for action.

A simple maxim, but one that requires some unpacking.

Let’s start with another foray into my good friend, the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Emotion: 1570s, “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation,” from M.Fr. émotion (16c.), from O.Fr. emouvoir “stir up” (12c.), from L. emovere “move out, remove, agitate,” from ex- “out” (see ex-) + movere “to move” (see move). Sense of “strong feeling” is first recorded 1650s; extended to any feeling by 1808.

And compare with Cambridge Dictionaries Online:

Emotion: a strong feeling such as love or anger, or strong feelings in general.

Emotions are active forces. Whilst the dictionary definition above captures the sense of strong feelings, it loses much of the background sense of emotional activity. All emotion is bodily activity. That doesn’t mean I reduce emotion to mere ‘chemical imabalance’, only that I recognise the physical basis for the experience of emotion. All emotion involves physical, bodily activity. Hence the background sense of agitation and outward movement expressed in its etymology.

Given that any mobilisation of the body involves a significant investment of energy and resource, the kinds of activity that emotions support deserve attention. This is where simple here and now description of what actually happens comes into its own. What actually happens when someone doesn’t just feel sad but emotes sadly? What happens when someone emotes angrily or expresses fear or hate or love?

What happens is that the situation they are part of responds.

At the heart of gestalt sits field theory, the observation that behaviour is a function of an organism in an environment. In crude terms, my issues are the result of my interactions with my environment, making my behaviour as much an expression of my environment as an expression of myself. I cannot be separated from my environment; at all times, I must exist in some situation or other.

Emotions are distinct from feelings in that where feelings are sensations, emotions are actions that arise out of feelings. There is a notable difference between feeling angry and being angry. That difference is physical activity. Feeling angry is becoming aware of a certain range of sensations that make a range of activity possible. Being angry is an elevation of those potentials into actual bodily expression.

The end result, if a feeling is allowed to grow into an emotion, is that some outward movement is made. Expressions of anger tend to involve raised voices, growling noises, and hitting things. Expressions of sadness tend to involve fallen faces, shedding tears and softer voices. And both have different effects on the situation a person exists within.

When someone cries with sadness, the most common supportive responses tend to be to offer comfort and to ask what’s wrong. The emotion of sadness mobilises the situation for supportive action. When someone growls with anger, again a common response is to find out what’s going on, what’s got that person mad. Where there’s a clear physical threat, the situation can then divide into support for physical violence and peacemaking. Anger mobilises the situation for conflictive action and resolution.

These are simplified examples but my general point is that emotion isn’t just about feeling something in a private internal world. Emotion is physical activity that gets responded to; British culture may be commonly described as generally repressive of emotional expression but even that is clearly a response. And a very instructive response. Where emotional expression meets with hostility and repression the lesson is clear: there is no support for your feelings here, this situation will not mobilise to support you. Other strategies then have to be found for dealing with forbidden feelings without emoting them.

So, how does this underpin my opinion that emotions are Good Things?

Because emotional expression allows for an open and honest expression of need. The result of suppressing emotion isn’t that the feelings out of which emotions arise go away (though we may block our awareness of them); the result is that we find different ways of coping with them that, to a greater or lesser extent, result in our genuine needs being frustrated. And repeatedly frustrated needs become cravings that continue to seek completion in the present out of our awareness.

I say open and honest because I’m not suggesting that emotional expression should always result in a meeting of needs. Rather, it allows for open and honest negotiation, based on the complex needs of other people, and the range of support available at the time. Emotional expression simply allows people to be aware of the range of need in a given situation. When emotions are suppressed, the underlying needs continue to seek completion but secretly and manipulatively.

Feeling one’s emotions instead of not feeling one’s emotions means knowing what one needs instead of not knowing what one needs. Furthermore, being able to express emotions means that when what you need is available, you will be able to get it. When emotions are suppressed to the point that feelings give rise to an automatic shutting down of emotive activity, it becomes impossible for the original need to be met. Think of your need as sitting in a room with a locked door; it isn’t enough to know intellectually what’s behind the door and what it needs. At some point, to be truly satisfied, the door has to be opened to allow what’s needed to get through. Feeling is becoming aware of the need behind the door; emotion is opening the door.

In order to enjoy the taste of your food, you need to chew it and savour it; physical activity that takes effort. Likewise, in order to enjoy human interaction, to be truly satisfied as a social animal, you need to engage in another physical activity that takes effort; emoting.

So, emotions are Good Things, and their purpose is to mobilise situations for action.

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