We all know the weird feeling of someone telling us something while our personal experience doesn’t quite match the words uttered. This often leaves us doubting ourselves and not sure of what is real and what is not; if we are being gaslit or if our radar is off. While sometimes our neuroception (the perception our nervous system has of our environment and of the people in our lives) can be askew, there are also times when our nervous system perceives accurately what is really going on, but does so at such a fast speed that we are unable to consciously be aware of it. This is until we train ourselves to see things we would otherwise miss, or literally overlook because they happen too fast, literally in split seconds. Such is the case for most of us when trying to see micro facial expressions.
Paul Ekman is the pioneer who scientifically mapped micro facial expressions (facial expressions that show on the face for half of a second or less), which reveal our true feelings and our desire to concede them. There are seven facial expressions found across cultures throughout the world and in both sexes. They are truly universal! Ekman’s contribution to the world —he was named one of the 100 most influential person in the world in 2009— benefitted diverse fields of work such as: The Defense Department, The U.S. Secret Service, diverse law enforcement agencies, as well as the world of psychiatry and psychology, to name a few. The television series “Lie To Me” is based on his work; a FBI detective using micro facial expressions to differentiate truth tellers from deceivers.
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My main interest in sharing this knowledge is to help us better navigate our relationships, whether they are intimate, professional or casual; as well as our relationship with ourselves. In fact, being aware of facial micro expression can be specifically helpful to partners who want to be better attuned to each other, making them better co-regulators of each other’s deeper emotional states. These seven universal emotions are: surprise, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, contempt and happiness.
Obviously, without adequate training most of us can’t be expert at properly catching all micro expressions in real time. It is therefore important not to pretend knowing what someone else is really feeling by imposing our perception on someone else’s reality. Let’s remain humble! On the flip side, our willingness to pay greater attention to these universal signals, which we all send and receive, can allow us to catch more of the non-verbal interactions we have with others, especially with those we care about –or those who may want to do us harm. Among many, here are two ways our increased awarness of micro facial expression could serve us greatly in our intimate relationships.
1) Couples, parents, loved ones and friends who want to be safe harbors to each others, can avoid countless misattunements when they pay greater attention to each others’ facial expressions. For example, if you can catch the micro expression of anger on your partner’s face before it escalates in an all-on-fight, you are better able to help him/her express his anger without the anger hijacking your partner, and the relationship. You both avoid a trip in hell and increase your chances of resolving your disagreements. This is called a win-win! But one can only do that when one pays attention to his/her partner’s facial expression and is not consumed by his/her own emotional hijack either. The same applies to micro expression of fear or sadness. If we can read concealed sadness or fear on the face of those we care about —emotions often accompanied by shame and guilt— we can help provide a corrective experience of empathy and connection to someone who might not have had such attunement when in that emotional state in his/her family of origin. This can be a profoundly healing experience, especially when offered with love and consistently.
2) If we allow ourselves to practice making these facial expressions in a mirror, as suggested in the video above, we are more likely to sense in our own body when these emotions are moving through us and when we are trying to conceal them from ourselves and those around us. This may bring greater awareness on which emotions we are more likely to want to hide from others. If we are open to it, this may help us be more honest when those in our safe tribe point out the emotional life we try to hide. Doing so could, when done with empathy and love, empower us to normalize our emotional life. If we chose to, we could practice asking for help when our nervous system is about to get hijacked by difficult emotions.
If disgust and contempt are emotions you encounter in others’ faces towards you, be vigilant. If it shows regularly, be warned! Of course, the same applies if you are the one sending these micro facial expressions towards others. The smirk, which accompanies those who see you with contempt shows a profound disrespect of your humanity. If contempt has invaded your intimate and/or primary relationship, be mindful that your relationship is on thin ice. John & Julie Gottman’s research shows that couples who express contempt towards each others have very limited choices: continue to live a miserable life together, aim towards a divorce attorney, or do serious couple therapy to begin healing the deep disrespect that has replaced the intimacy and love they once shared.
Lastly, let us appreciate the beauty of a genuine smile. The kind of smile that make us want to smile back from a genuine, heart felt, wrinkled-proud-around-the-eyes space!
A note of caution before we wrap up. Some of us have a resting face which might have a flavor of some of the facial expressions mentioned above; and I’m not talking about the genuine happiness face. Before we jump to conclusions that someone is experiencing a specific emotion that he/she is wanting to conceal, it will serve us well to be aware of one’s natural resting face AND to double check if indeed our interlocutor is feeling an emotion he/she is not aware of, or trying to conceal. Questions like “is it possible that you are feeling…?” or, “it seems to me that you might be feeling… am I right?”, might be better way to use this information, rather than pretending that we know what is really going on with someone else. Bottom line, let’s use this knowledge to get closer to those we care about, rather than accusing them of deception. That is unless we have accumulated enough clear evidence that someone’s micro facial expression only confirms something we already know.
Nathan Bergeron, LMFT, L.Ac. ©