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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Monday, 24 March 2014

What's in a face?

I used to think I could tell a lot about someone from their face. But I was wrong.

Obviously someone’s basic physical appearance doesn’t tell you anything about that person. However, I used to think you could read a lot about someone’s personality, thoughts and feelings through other physical cues which show up on their face and body. 

For example, body posture could indicate a number of things. If someone is strutting around you may infer that they are confident or, perhaps less kindly, arrogant. If someone is walking around in a less purposeful manner, stooping their shoulders and darting their eyes around, this could indicate that they are anxious and insecure.

The face is often thought to expose even more about a person’s personality. Perhaps if someone is smiling all the time you think of them as happy go lucky. If someone always furrows their brow you may think that they have a nervous or contemplative personality. 

The face may also expose someone’s thoughts and feelings at any one time. You look to the face to see how someone is responding to what you are saying. How they tense their mouth, move their eyebrows, where they fix their gaze and whether or not they laugh may all indicate what that person is thinking and feeling.

What I have realised over the years is that just as people lie in what they say, they are capable of performing non-verbal deceptions too. And I now strongly believe that these non-verbal deceptions are not the exception to the rule. People hide how they feel ALL THE TIME. The person who struts around is often just trying to hide their true feelings of insecurity. The person that always smiles may be covering up a deeper, darker personality. The person who never looks irritated at the controversial things you are saying may be seething underneath. 

The face that people show to the outside world may mask all sorts of thoughts and feelings. We constantly modify our facial expressions in to those that we deem socially acceptable. We want to make sure our face is responding in the ‘right’ way so that we are communicating what we want to be communicated about us.

This brings me to the topic of mental illness. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, those with mental illness may have a vested interest on hiding any negative or ‘strange’ thoughts and feelings. I often believe that it in my best interest to keep my condition hidden from others. This is why I blog anonymously. It is also why I modify my facial expressions to mask my inner turmoil. 

I want people to see me as a functioning, social person, capable of taking care of myself and others. I want them to see that I am engaged with what they are saying to me (even though I am often drifting off in to my own distressing thoughts). I want them to see someone who is capable of having fun and laughing along with everyone else. 

I often think that I must be giving off all sorts of signs in my facial expressions which indicate that I am feeling mentally distressed. The feelings which I have are so intense that I wonder how it is possible for other people not to notice. But they don’t. Not most of the time anyway. I must be some sort of facial disguising expert!

How much can you really tell about a person through their face? I would say: not as much as we would like to think. People lie about how they feel all the time and this extends to their facial expressions. 

Should we be pleased that we can hide our true feelings from our face? Yes and no. Obviously it would lead to quite a lot of social discord to always have people be able to read our thoughts and feelings from our face. We think lots of fleeting negative thoughts about others which may be best kept hidden. However, if you always hide your true feelings from your face, you can end up feeling very alone.

Many people with mental illness are having to perform a daily facial disguise operation. Society doesn’t exactly make it easy to feel okay with showing your distress to others. The pressure to conform is huge but the isolating feelings which come with conforming can be hard to bear too. I really hope that as time goes on it becomes easier to talk about mental illness. Then we can finally let our faces just relax for a little bit!

2 comments:

  1. Awesome post. So true! Unfortunately, I'm so "good" at hiding my emotions from my face that I've even fooled Psychiatrists. They misjudge how depressed I really am because I smile and chuckle at things sometimes. Bipolar disorder is described as an "affective" disorder, but I don't believe that every Bipolar patient wears his or her mood on his/her face, therefore the "affect" can be very misleading.

    In my family of origin, I was taught that "happy" or "just fine" were the only acceptable states of emotion to express, and so I learned from a very early age to be an actress in order to stay in my father's good graces.

    I've learned to warn my care providers to pay attention to what I'm SAYING and believe it even if my physical expressions contradict it. If I happen to be smiling and appear "fine" a few seconds after saying I'm suicidal, it doesn't mean I'm in any less danger than someone with a more depressed affect.

    One of the things I am so, so tired of in this life is "keeping up appearances." Being able to appear functional kept me out of much-needed treatment for far too long. In the few relationships I have now, I am really trying to drop the act. It's a hard habit to break, though.

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    1. Thanks for reading and commenting :-)

      What you are saying really resonates with me. I have the same problem with my psychiatrist. When I am depressed I still often smile and joke with him. It is especially hard to let myself show my depression because he is so nice. I try and tell him that I put on an act but unfortunately seeing is often believing and I think he thinks I must be exaggerating,

      It does seem like society expects us to always say we are happy or fine. I have learnt over the years to just say all things are okay when they are not. People often only want to hear the happy answer to 'how are you?'.

      Keeping up appearances is definitely exhausting and it is a hard habit to break. It becomes so ingrained it is second nature. I can't even drop the mask if I try to. I am so keen on making sure people still like me that I cover everything up. Even with my family. I am lucky that I can be myself at least with my partner.

      Good luck on trying to break the habit with those closest to you. Hopefully over time it will become easier to show how you really feel.

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