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

(Fangirl Therapy) The Eyes Don’t Lie: Using Your Body Language To Understand Your Emotions

Have you ever wished for the ability to read someone’s mind?

We can’t poke around inside people’s thoughts, but we can learn to read their faces, and sometimes that’s just as good as reading their minds.

Microexpressions flash—unconsciously—across someone’s face for less than a second. They’re so quick, they reveal themselves before the person can control his or her facial muscles.

Understanding microexpressions, as well as other body language, can give you an advantage in your interpersonal interactions. The ability to know when someone is lying is a tempting prospect.

I have found even more value, however, in using microexpressions and body language to understand myself.

This morning, I reached up and rubbed my eyebrow with my hand. It wasn’t an itch, but the movement was as compulsive as a scratch. My hand briefly shaded and covered my face, and I recognized the motion: it’s a marker of shame.

My physical movement revealed my feelings to my mind before my heart could understand them. Identifying my sudden shame helped me zero in on that emotion and ask: 1. why I was feeling it and 2. what I would do about it.

Don’t let anyone tell you television can’t be educational. I first learned about microexpressions from the American television show Lie to Me. It ran for three seasons from 2009 to 2011.

Like many crime-fighting shows, Lie to Me was based on real science, then dramatized. In the show, Dr. Cal Lightman is the fictional version of Dr. Paul Ekman, who pioneered microexpression research in real life.

In the show, The Lightman Group consults as human deception detectors, using their knowledge of body language and facial expressions to uncover the truth.

For example, in the first episode, Dr. Lightman interrogates a suspect about a bomb plot. Without the suspect saying a word, Lightman figures out where the bomb is planted by watching the man’s face. As Lightman mentions the wrong range of locations, the suspect flashes “happiness” for less than a fifth of a second. When Lightman guesses correctly, the suspect flashes “contempt,” confirming the guess.

The longer I watched the show, the more I noticed myself catching people around me—and myself—in untruths and emotional coverups. And I started identifying my own feelings based on my physical markers.

This was a breakthrough for me in my pursuit of emotional health.

I began seeing a licensed counselor in 2009 after an emotional breakdown that stemmed from a combination of clinical depression and years of repressed feelings. I had been ignoring my emotions for so long that I no longer knew how to identify them, experience them, and feel them in healthy ways.

I had to relearn how to open myself to authentic emotions. Part of this process was pausing to name what I was feeling and give myself conscious permission to accept the emotion, feel it, and then decide how I would act. Paying attention to my physical signals helped me separate and name the individual emotions and begin to process them.

Dr. Ekman, the real-life researcher, has focused on seven microexpressions that correspond with what he considers to be the universal emotions: fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, contempt, disgust, and anger. These are emotions that seem to occur in people across all cultures, and the facial expressions that go with the emotions appear similarly on most human faces. This was a good basic list for me to start with as I reacquainted myself with my feelings.

Happiness. Am I smiling fully, all the way up to the wrinkles at the corners of my eyes? Or am I only smiling with half my mouth, or shrugging, disbelieving my own smile? Asking these questions helps me notice if I am faking happiness (for myself as much as for anyone else). I don’t have to pretend to be happy when I’m not; in fact, I shouldn’t.

Surprise. Was I surprised by something I just discovered, about myself or someone else? Did my mouth open and my eyes widen? Or did I start to show a marker of contempt, like one raised corner of my mouth, a self-satisfied “I already knew (or guessed) that”?

Anger. My nostrils may flare and I may pull up my nose into a wrinkle between my eyebrows, lifting my top lip to bare my teeth or grit them. Sometimes I blush when I’m embarrassed, but that’s rare. I’m more likely to blush when I am angry, and I can feel my cheeks flaming. When I’m particularly furious, I almost feel like sparks flash out of my eyes.

I also feel anger in other places than my face. I may raise my hands near my face and rub the back of my neck or head. This can be a sign of masked aggression. Am I having to fight destructive urges, like hitting or throwing something? Do I feel words boiling inside me wanting to be shouted? Are flashes of heat coursing through my body? Paying attention to the early anger markers in my face can help me choose to control my actions before I get to the more physical manifestations of anger.

Sadness. Tears in my eyes aren’t enough of a sadness indicator for me—tears can also be happiness or exhaustion or overwhelm. Are the corners of my mouth tugging down against my efforts to hold them up? Do I have a heaviness in my chest or a pressure when I try to breathe?

If you’re interested in learning more about microexpressions for your own development (or, hey, to learn to “read minds”), check out The Ekman Group. If you’d like to train yourself to recognize microexpressions and test your current ability to catch them, look at this Humintell training on microexpressions.

You can watch Lie to Me via Amazon and Netflix.

To discuss this column and learn an exercise that can help you use your body language to understand your emotions, go to my blog post What I Saw in the Mirror Terrified Me.

Fangirl Therapy title image created from a photo by Marcelo Brito Filho on Stock.Xchng.

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