Posts Tagged ‘retroflection’

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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Welcome to 2011. The noughties, a term that has caused me irritation for an entire decade, is over, and the serious business of working out what to call its successor comes to the fore. My money is on ‘the tweenies’.

For me, New Year invariably brings up the context of beginnings and fresh starts. Some years, I have rejected the idea of resolutions, curtly observing that any day can provide a fresh start to anyone in need of one, it’s just a matter of will. Other years, I have appreciated the contextual springboard, and made and broken well meaning aspirations with the best of them.

This year feels like another springboard year. In the midst of my habits and time commitments, many a creative or well intentioned seed has failed to be planted, watered, and grown. What I enjoy about New Year is that it’s a point in the year where my wider social context is geared towards the idea of planting just those seeds that have been hitherto neglected.

The seed currently in question is this blog. For a while now, I’ve been holding ‘psychotherapy’ and ‘blogging’ in my thoughts, feeling something spark between them, and wanting to unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. However, like many, I am at times afflicted with the common vice of thinking too much about a thing and so not getting stuck in and doing it.

In gestalt terms, this blocking process is down to two modifications to contact called egotism and retroflection.

The gestalt concept of contact is ultimately about connection; with other people, the world around us, ourselves. To check what you’re in contact with right now, answer this question: what are you aware of right now? As you read this blog entry, do you stay focused on and interested in what you’re reading? Or have you started scratching an itch, daydreaming about something else entirely, or noticed how hungry you are? As you experience each of these things, you make contact with them; contact is an active process and you do it every second of every day.

Modifying contact is about exerting a degree of control over what we make contact with. This can be a healthy process. Sometimes, I feel like visiting violence upon my laptop when it crashes at an inopportune moment. However, I choose to modify how much contact I make with that destructive urge in order to save myself having to buy a new laptop and potentially losing useful data.

Modifying contact can also be a very limiting process. What happens is that a naturally arising impulse is unable to reach fulfilment. Consequently, the extent to which a person modifies their contact making determines the extent to which that person limits their fulfilment. Back to my egotism and retroflection for a worked example:

Egotism means to think about doing something rather than experience doing something. For example, do I really need to think to myself ‘this orange juice is really tasty’ to enjoy how tasty the orange juice I’m drinking is? No. What I do in that moment is make contact with the thought, which necessitates breaking contact with experiencing the tasty orange juice.

Healthy egotism is taking time to reflect in order to better consider the wider implications of an action. I had good reason to think about my blog instead of starting one on impulse; what about the ethical considerations? What if a client of mine started reading my blog? What if someone read my blog for a while and then contacted me for therapy? What are my motivations for starting a blog? These were valuable questions to chew over. Eventually, however, egotism exhausts the energy of the original impulse (which is, of course, the whole point of the modification) and the end result is… no action.

One of the things therapy has helped me learn about myself is that if I think about something too much, I’ll start imagining doing it instead of actually doing it, and be unlikely to do it at all. Imagining doing something instead of actually doing it is a form of retroflection, the process of doing to yourself what you want to do to the environment.

We visited healthy retroflection earlier when I chose not to attack my crashing laptop. Instead of throwing the laptop out of the window, running into the street, and jumping up and down on it repeatedly Basil Fawlty style, I imagined doing that instead. Just like with egotism, far less satisfying than fully going into and experiencing the original impulse, but in this case saving me from further frustration and incurred expense. Eventually, however, retroflection also exhausts the energy of the original impulse (equally the whole point of the modification) and the end result is… no action.

Imagine living a life in which most of your energy goes into contemplating the issues surrounding what you’re interested in doing, and then only ever daydreaming about what it would be like to do it. This is what I mean by saying the extent to which a person modifies their contact making determines the extent to which that person limits their fulfilment.

So I’m taking the opportunity of New Year to springboard my blog out of contemplation and daydreams, and into full and vibrant action.

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