Published on August 7th, 2013 | by Becky Castle Miller


(Blog) What I Saw in the Mirror Terrified Me

In 2010, when I was struggling with clinical depression and emotional turmoil, I started an admittedly morbid habit of taking selfies when I was crying. (Examples in the header image.)

I hadn’t really cried in so long before my breakdown in 2009 that I had forgotten what the experience felt like, what it looked like on my face. Seeing myself sad—in the mirror and in pictures—scared me at first, because I had kept such a tight reign on my emotions for years that the wild new feelings seemed out of control.

Objectively considering my sad expression became a practice in self-examination and coming to terms with my emotional self.

After counseling, antidepressants, great support, and time to heal, I finally stopped crying all the time. I’m thankful for the full range of my emotions now, and I’m also thankful that my default emotion isn’t sadness. Crying has become less familiar (and I think that’s a good thing).

my mascara isn't waterproofSo I freaked myself out a few months ago when I went to the bathroom after an emotional evening. As I posted on my Instagram, startling yourself in the mirror is the wrong time to realize your new mascara isn’t waterproof.

As I wrote in my Fangirl Therapy column The Eyes Don’t Lie: Using Your Body Language to Understand Your Emotions, I found studying microexpressions to be helpful in naming my own emotions. Looking at myself in the mirror or sensing the muscle contractions in my face aided me in naming my emotions.

Identifying my current emotion is only a first step. It doesn’t immediately answer for me WHY I am feeling this way or WHAT I will choose to do with the feeling, but it’s a good start to that process.

Exercise: Using Microexpressions to Identify Your Emotions

If you’d like to use this tool to help you understand your own emotions through body language, I would suggest starting with Dr. Paul Ekman’s list of universal emotions.

1. Learn what they typically look like on a human face (click to see it bigger):

microexpressions lie to me

2. Stand in front of a mirror and practice making each of the expressions.

3. After you’ve arranged your face and seen how the expression looks on you, close your eyes and feel what your face is doing.

4. Try taking a self portrait of each of the main expressions on your face.

5. The next time you feel yourself ramping up emotionally, or when you want to do an emotional check-in on yourself (see Kristen’s excellent post and worksheet on emotional self-assessments), start by asking yourself what expression is on your face. Allow your face to naturally express what you’re feeling without restraining it, then look in the mirror. What emotional expression is on your face? Does it match what you thought you were feeling? For example, you may have thought you were angry, but when you look at yourself, you realize you’re showing contempt.

6. Allow yourself to experience the emotion and validate it to yourself: what you are feeling is natural, and it’s okay to feel it.

7. Once you’ve named your emotion, see if you can identify why you’re feeling it. When did the emotion start? What triggered it? A thought? An experience? Someone’s words?

8. Finally, decide what action you will take. If you are feeling contempt for yourself, can you choose to give yourself grace? If you are feeling angry, can you take out your frustration in a non-destructive way, like hitting a pillow? If you are feeling happy, can you revel in the moment?

Do you think understanding microexpressions will be a helpful emotional health tool for you?


About the Author

Becky Castle Miller

is the Managing Editor of Wyn Magazine. She is an American expat in the Netherlands, a writer/reader/editor focused on helping women make better lives.

  • Naomi



    What an interesting idea! It’s so important for us to stop and consider what is causing the emotions we are feeling. Usually, it’s not the current situation but something deeper. Here’s another way to take a minute to figure that out! Thank you.

  • Karla

    I sometimes watch myself in a mirror while crying… not sure why. I’m not as pretty as you when I do… I’m all red-faced and sobbing!

    It would probably feel silly to mirror those expressions, but I see how it could be helpful. I would probably surprise myself how some of the expressions actually come across. :)

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