Expressions of Emotions can be Misleading!



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Recently, I have come across the book How Emotions Are Made by Lisa Feldman Barrett. What I have found fascinating are her challenges to the pervasive “classical” belief that emotions and their expression are universal and consistent across societies and cultures. In this “fingerprint” model, as Barrett articulates it, emotions are perceived as fixed constants which have long been assumed without question. For instance, Facebook derives its ‘reaction’ options from Darwinian theories of facial expression - smiling for happy, pouting for sad, to name the most obvious. Similarly prevalent are the emoji characters, now so commonplace in human interactions worldwide.


Children are taught at an early age how to recognise facial configuration for specific emotions such as fear, anger, sadness and happiness, to help them to communicate and relate to others. Barrett demonstrates that this process of emotion perception should not be seen as fixed but rather socially constructed. Indeed, facial electromyography (EMG), in which electrodes are used to measure muscle movement on subjects’ faces when presenting various emotions, in fact often fails to show predictable patterns of consistent muscle movement that could be mapped onto expected feelings. It seems therefore that emotions cannot be objectively perceived.


It might be very helpful to apply this understanding that emotions are not only more subjective but the product of active construction, to our daily lives. By having greater appreciation for the subjective nature of emotions we might re-categorise them. As a therapist, I find Barrett’s constructive model highly salient for arguing that we must read, frame and interpret our feelings and our body symptoms with a more positive and healthy perspective. For example, if you feel jittery, rather than believing that you are suffering from anxiety, perhaps you have had too much coffee? Or when you are so exhausted that you think you might be depressed, maybe you just need some more sleep.


I believe that we might use her arguments to challenge the way in which we educate ourselves and others. This might occur by being more mindful of the way in which we influence our children to relate to and communicate with others without assumption of old stereotypes. We should not assume that everyone uses the same overt expressions to show their feelings. Re-categorisation strikes me as a critical tool for my work and the work of others in my field, for constructing our realities in a more positive way, resulting, ideally, in greater compassion for ourselves and others.


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