What is a face? To answer this question, we must also consider heads and brains. The brain, head, and face are located together because we evolved from worm-like creatures.1 As worms move through mud, it is helpful for them to analyze new soil along the way. The head and its various sensory organs are placed in the front of the animal to relay information about the immediate (and impending) environment. This is why the mouth, tongue, nose, eyes, and ears are grouped so close together. A face is a cluster of sensory organs, and in mammals, its appearance offers insight into intentions and well-being.
Fish, amphibians, and reptiles cannot make facial expressions and can only open and close their eyes, nose, and mouth. Unlike mammals, these animals do not have muscles that attach to the skin of the face. Therefore, their facial skin is immobile and essentially devoid of expression. The facial muscles of mammals act as sphincters, constricting the area they circumscribe (eyes and mouth) or as tractors, pulling at their attachments (cheeks, brow, chin). These various muscles bring the faces of mammals to life, allow communication, and when contracted, alter the animal’s outlook on its environment.
The facial muscles of mammals interact extensively with unconscious areas of the brain. Many specialized neurological modules send output to and/or receive input from the facial muscles. These include the fear and grief systems, and this is how stress is able to act as a puppeteer for our facial expressions. When the facial muscles are chronically activated by negative emotions, they undergo repetitive strain. As we will see in this chapter, the partial contraction of facial muscles has numerous harmful repercussions. Most mammals have little awareness of their facial tension and, like a puppet, almost no capacity to exercise deliberate control over their facial muscles. This chapter will focus on how to develop those capacities.
Illustration 8.1: Facial muscles of A. human; B. Chimpanzee; C. Macaque monkey; D. Mouse.
Refrain from Subliminal Grimacing and Frowning
I woke up one morning an hour before my alarm clock sounded. I realized I was too roused to get back to sleep, so I practiced a few yoga poses and laid back down to meditate. I was doing so concertedly, concentrating on abating my chaotic thinking patterns. I turned my attention to the recurring waves of negativism crashing on the shoreline of my consciousness. I was trying to methodically break them up by examining the sensations involved. After several minutes of this, the turbulent waters in my mind went still. It took me a minute to realize how I was able to do this. I was slowly relaxing a low-grade, persistent grimace from my face that I must have learned to ignore many years previously. This grimace that afflicts all of us is subtle and barely perceptible in a mirror. I stayed in bed for a full hour, trying to keep the contorted expression from repossessing me. As soon as my mind wandered, the tension around my eyes and nose would resurface, and my contentious thoughts would return.
We are constantly bracing our facial musculature. This causes repetitive strain, trigger points, muscle shortening, and the development of stiff, achy dormant muscles in the face. Though this has not been thoroughly investigated scientifically, I imagine that the pain messages sent to our brain’s emotional centers from strained facial muscles are particularly tormenting. Spend some time contemplating this and attempt to bring awareness to the feeling of grimacing.
You might be a little skeptical. You might not believe that the source of your mental hardship is your frown. Nevertheless, imagine a diminutive monkey. Imagine this monkey was horrendously traumatized as a baby and ever since has trod around with a wry wince on his little face. Just imagine how this would affect his inner world, his encounters with others, and their impressions of him. He would inevitably perceive things as more adverse than they are due to the powerful interrelationships between bodily expression, emotional condition, and social feedback. Monitor your face carefully the next time you are speaking on the phone. Are you unwittingly using expressions of pain and subordination?
Illustration 8.2: A, B, C, & D. Monkeys wincing
The “facial feedback hypothesis” holds that facial movement and emotional experience constantly interact with each other below the level of conscious awareness.2 Charles Darwin was among the first to suggest this. He wrote: “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensifies it. On the other hand, the repression, as far as this is possible, of all outward signs softens our emotions. (…) Even the simulation of an emotion tends to arouse it in our minds.”3 Multiple concurring studies have supported this view.4 For instance, people asked to hold a pencil between their teeth (forcing them to smile unconsciously) report better emotions during this episode than control groups that held the pencil between their lips. Botox injections have been shown to decrease negative affect by reducing tension in the eyes and forehead.5 Individuals who have had Botox injections exhibit decreased activation of brain areas that process negative emotions such as the amygdala.6 Frowns tie you to aversive mental states. This suggests to me that a frown burned in from years of repetitive strain anchors you to them.
Breaking My Nose Damaged My Facial Composure
A few days after discovering the wince on my face, I had a cup of coffee and bedded down in my closet for three hours in a search for the source of tension in my mind. I was in total darkness, wearing noise-reducing earmuffs, in corpse pose, with my breath metronome. I went into the experience believing that some repeating thought pattern maintained my restlessness. I waited for this pattern so that I could observe it and figure out how to interrupt it. However, the substrate of this pattern was not psychological as I expected. Instead, it was, again, facial.
I must have been ignoring the sensation for 15 years, but it was clear and unmistakable when it finally reemerged into consciousness. Lying in the dark, I felt a tingling sensation in the muscles surrounding my nose. I realized that these muscles were highly contracted. The muscles involved included the procerus, the nasalis, and the levator labii. For the first time, I could tell that even when I thought I was relaxing my face, these muscles were still in overdrive. All at once, I felt practically like I was hanging from the ceiling, suspended by chains with a meat hook piercing the bridge of my nose.
It took an hour of meditative thought and exploration even to notice. However, once I became aware of the sensations around my nose, they were impossible to ignore. Within a few more minutes, I realized that these sensations were the consequence of having my nose broken inside a McDonald’s at age 17. The blow had shattered my nasal bone in several places and fractured my septum and maxilla. It split my nasalis muscle into two parts, and it must have also affected the nearby musculature and nerves. I realized that this injury had entrenched my wincing.
For the first several minutes, I had no voluntary control over these nasal muscles. I eventually “found” the muscles by trial and error over the course of an hour. Actually, I first had to learn to clench the muscles before I could learn to relax them. Each time I actively tightened or relaxed the muscle, it would tingle and feel numb due to the nerve damage. Of course, my experience was extreme, but we all hold our faces in a fixed expression of emotional trauma.
Having my nose broken damaged my nasal muscles and nerves and gave my face a dull, inattentive look that I tried to compensate for by keeping my nose and eyes tight. Especially in social situations, I attempted to make up for the hypotonia with hypertonia to bring some life and energy back to damaged facial expressions. This made my social interactions neurotic. The unremitting wincing compromised my composure and social standing, resulting in sympathetic upregulation.
Coincidentally, this type of damage also happened to my cat, Niko. The little guy approached a bird’s nest, and a protective mother bird dove down and pecked him between the eyes, creating a deep gash down to the bone. Niko’s face looked dim for at least a month because his brow and nasal muscles had been injured. He looked disfigured for a few weeks, but eventually his eyes returned to their former state. Luckily, unlike me, Niko did not try to compensate for the damage by bracing. This is why he didn’t experience any lasting effects.
Much of our facial tension comes from attempts to compensate for appearing haggard, unattractive, or inattentive. Sometimes, we use our facial tension as an outward apology for our appearance. It often says: “Hey, believe me, I know that I don’t look so great right now.” Telling myself the following helped me: “I know that I’m ‘ugly’ at times. I’m not afraid or ashamed of appearing grotesque, and in that I retain dignity. There is no reason to apologize for my unsightliness with a grimace.” How do you brace your face when you feel ugly? Identify it and stop it.
Submissive Mammals Have More Facial Tension
Of course, facial bracing also comes from our perceived place in the status hierarchy. More dominant people and primates don’t just brace their bodies less; they also brace their faces less. By contrast, the least dominant primates have permanent appeasement expressions plastered on their faces.
Introverted and shy people tend to become tense in social situations. Their chakra-like modules develop tension quickly, and they exhibit various forms of the energy-wasting behavior discussed in Chapter 5. They quickly start to squint, sneer, and hold tension all over the body. Social pressures add up fast, and after just a few minutes of interacting with others, the introverted person starts to feel drained, exhausted, and like they want to escape. Many introverted people fake being extroverts until their trigger points have gone from latent to active, then they feel spent and try to get away from the crowd so that they can relax and refuel. I know this behavior pattern well. It was my social reality for years.
Chapter 5 discussed systematically removing extraneous bracing efforts from daily activities. Activity 2 from Chapter 5 asked you to notice your bracing habits while you brush your teeth. Now you must do the same thing for socializing. How do you tense your face unnecessarily when talking to others? How does it extend down your neck and into the rest of your body? If you systematically eliminated the bracing from all your chakra-like modules during conversation and socialization, you would become the most adept extrovert ever. You could work a room full of people without ever tiring. Using the exercises in this book, along with self-awareness and diaphragmatic breathing, you could make this your social reality.
Facial Tension and Personality
There is a perpetual clenching, squirming, and cringing going on behind our faces that robs us of our facial poise. The muscles tighten when we are at the gym, when embarrassed, or when the phone rings. We should see this as gratuitous affectation. Micrometabolic studies of the anatomy of your facial musculature would reveal that some facial muscles hold more tension than others. Everyone has a different pattern of tension involving different parts of the face. These patterns are as distinct as fingerprints. Some people may have tighter lips and others tighter foreheads. Even the three auricular muscles surrounding the ears hold tremendous tension in some people but not in others.
Young infants’ faces show high base rates of random combinatorial activity, enabling parents to shape a repertoire of conventional displays.7 Infants more or less unconsciously assess the feedback that people give them and alter their facial patterns accordingly. Trial, error, and trauma program young children to brace their eyes, cheeks, and jaws in certain ways. This, in turn, distributes tension to different anatomical areas and results in a unique pattern of chronic muscular contractions.
I believe that these distinct patterns have strong associations with different features of personality. For instance, I am convinced that people who hold trigger points and shortening in the muscle between the eyebrows (the procerus, which causes the brow to furrow into a frown) are more keenly possessed by anger. These people wear a low-grade menacing glower that can contaminate their minds. Any form of facial tension tarnishes our thinking to some degree.
Have you ever noticed that a friend’s face can change drastically if they go through a prolonged period of grieving? Again, this is due to tension, and without massage, it will never totally reverse even after the person’s reason for mourning subsides. I believe that the blow to the face I experienced as a teenager made me an inveterate sneerer. Similarly, the pea-sized knot that I had one centimeter below each eye made me a perpetual squinter. Where do you hold your facial tension?
You can also use a facial mask to get instant biofeedback about the tension in your face.
Master Expressionlessness and Own Your Face
The most important step in relaxing the facial muscles is to learn how to make a face with absolutely no expression. To do this, you must allow your face to go dead by turning your face off at the source. At first, this will look off-putting and very unattractive. Expressionlessness is the visage that many of us try to avoid making because it can convey exhaustion and disdain. Withholding your customary facial bracing can make you look evil, cruel, or irate. I was inspired to try expressionlessness after seeing my friend with schizophrenia on tranquilizers and sedatives. The physical ravages of stress and heavy facial bracing were more apparent than ever because they were contrasted with his complete facial limpness. He looked “burned out” and completely out of touch with reality. We all fear the social consequences of looking that way. But our face can never truly rest unless we do.
The strange truth is that this hideous non-expressive face is actually the most beautiful version of you waiting to emerge. The ghastly aspect is only due to the incongruity between the relaxation and the trigger points. Once the trigger points are gone, the relaxation will look natural. Practicing expressionlessness using the exercises in this chapter will get rid of the active trigger points, and using the facial massage techniques in the next chapter will get rid of the latent ones.
Working on your expressionless face will be difficult at first. You have to teach yourself to turn off each portion of your face individually. It will help to focus on relaxing the muscles around your eyes, relaxing your cheeks, and allowing your jaw to gape and go slack. Think of it as an extension of corpse pose—a corpse face. Focus especially hard on maintaining it when you are by yourself and before you go to sleep. You want to sleep every night as if every muscle in your face, jaw, and throat are paralyzed. How you look at yourself in the mirror is also decisive. When we look in the mirror, we usually don our customary “social mask.” Instead, ensure that your expression is not tense and that you don’t grimace, sneer, squint, or raise your eyebrows.
When you look at the ground, your face is capable of becoming very calm. It is easy to be calm when looking down because you are not challenging anyone when your gaze is below their eye line. However, when you look up again, this calmness disappears in fear of offending someone. In the next activity, don’t let it disappear.
We walk around with tense faces because we are concerned that if someone sees our expressionless face, they will assume we are angry. But when actually affronted, we feel entitled to be able to drop all formalities. Many people are only expressionless when angry. I noticed this one day when I became outraged, and suddenly, all the social facial tension I had been trying to let go of disappeared on its own.
The indignation and anger you used in the exercise above are negative emotions, so don’t use them too often. Boredom is less extreme and almost equally as helpful. If you ever feel the need to regain your repose, pretend you are bored.
After you spend a few months pairing expressionlessness with diaphragmatic breathing, you will have alleviated much of your facial tension. While working on expressionlessness, you may have to deaden your smile and some of the light in your eyes. However, after a short hiatus, when you reemploy many of your old expressions, you will find that they are unadulterated by the pained tension that previously accompanied them. It is akin to breaking an unhealthy system into its component parts and removing the unhealthy ones to build it back up anew
At first, it will be uncomfortable to stay calm while keeping a straight face. You may notice that you easily break into a nervous smile, a spontaneous laugh, or a blush. This is because when you start out trying to look expressionless, your body will compensate by adding tension in other areas. Facial expressionlessness will cause you to unconsciously tighten your neck, constrict your vocal folds, or speed up your heart. Notice this. It is often a balancing act so that when you relax one aspect, another tightens up. This happens because your body keeps combinatorial records of the postures that are safe to have all at once. You have to create new, healthier records where all the optimal postures are being used together simultaneously.
We don’t feel comfortable socially when our faces are at rest, so facial rest is usually paired with distressed breathing. Taking on an expressionless face generally causes us to breathe shallowly, squint, and look at the floor. At first, it will be hard to do it while maintaining eye contact. But this is all reversible. Practice expressionlessness with paced breathing, wide eyes, and looking upward, along with the fixed gaze exercise from Chapter 4. The more you can breathe diaphragmatically while maintaining a non-expressive face, the more natural and healthy-looking it will become.
Use Expressionlessness in Social Situations
We use facial tension to communicate things like: “Sorry for interrupting you,” “I may be wrong about this,” or “I hope you like me.” Thus, the tension becomes an integral part of our social self-presentation. When you remove it, you must radically rethink your social deliveries. Your very personality will change. When allowing your face to be calm, you have to come to grips with the fact that some people won’t like the way you look and will question why you have allowed your face to be so lax. At first, I took expressionlessness too far. I stopped smiling at service employees, I treated other people like robots, I stopped connecting with people emotionally, and I had the appearance of deadness. Avoid this. Use it alone, use it in public, but don’t take it too far, especially in the company of friends.
Although you may try to present a completely calm face, you probably still look defensive. This is because you assume that other people will interpret your expressionless face as competitive, and you make a preemptive negative face. This keeps it from being truly calm. All you must do to ensure a socially sensitive expressionless face is to widen the eyes and breathe diaphragmatically. Trust that taking long, deep, slow breaths will wipe away the negative aspect. Welcome looking like a doe in the headlights, acting like you are imploring someone, or appearing naïve. Don’t be afraid of playing the part of an inquisitive toddler with puppy-dog eyes. Sometimes, the most powerful countenance is that of a fun-loving child.
An authentically calm face is actually endearing. Chapter 4 discussed how subordinate apes avoid eye contact and how direct looking can be a threat signal. Expressionlessness can change this. When a chimpanzee gazes at another that is not using any apprehensive signals (such as pursing the lips, frowning, or glaring), it does not appraise it as threatening. Expressionlessness free from negativity will make your eye contact more inviting, opening social doors for you.
Allow me to offer some words and phrases that may help guide you in finding your new look. Ultimately, you want to imbue your expressionlessness with a cool, elegant, urbane sheen. I am not talking about being distant, detached, aloof, or unsociable. Rather, think about these words: dispassionate, collected, imperturbable, unflappable, unruffled, serene, free from agitation. You want a sedate disposition stemming from self-discipline. You want temperate self-assurance that suggests indifference. You want an easy casualness even under heavy provocation.
You might also try to incorporate a look of stoic decorum. I find the definition of the word “stoic” to be inspiring: “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” When I started focusing on appearing stoic, suddenly, I lost the tough guy shtick because stoicism is not a competition. It is an internal discipline. Make your appearance resigned to drama with no trace of protest. Create your own calm facial expression that you truly believe is warm and positive. If you believe it, it will come across as clear as day. The ultimate extension of this is to make your facial expressions and eye contact emanate a relaxed loving kindness.
Social Disapproval of Your Expressionlessness
I remember when I first started forcing myself to walk on the sidewalk with an expressionless face. I was genuinely worried that someone driving by would become infuriated with me because my face was too calm. I was concerned that someone would literally see my face through their windshield from 20 to 30 feet away, pull their car over, and try to fight me over it. I had to overcome delusions like this before I could let my face tranquilize. Do you? Start making this expressionless face alone in your room so that social concerns don’t start to manipulate your facial muscles without your awareness. Next, try it walking around your home or neighborhood. Slowly work up to being in a store, a restaurant, or other public place while sporting your new calm demeanor.
When used during conversation, people will question the authenticity of your expressionlessness, thinking that it is artificial. One thing they will do is stare at you while you are looking at something else. Bullies do this often. They will leave their gaze on you, thinking that if they look long enough, you will revert to a more submissive facial posture. They anticipate you will look down, lower your chin, raise your eyebrows, or squint your eyes. Don’t submit to their visual inspection of you. By under-reacting to them, you will show them that it is not a ruse.
Bullies will also show false tension in their faces or pretend to lose their composure to bait you into doing the same. Once you follow their cue, they instantly revive their composure to make you look stupid. Many people do this. Most of them do it half-consciously. It is a manipulative ploy.
Demonstrate a psychopathic indifference toward other people’s interpretation of your calm facial posture. When they see your expressionlessness and respond with a deadpan look of their own, don’t judge their version negatively, even if it looks smug. Instead, act as if you are glad to see that they are trying to be as calm as you are. It is not your responsibility to sink to the level of the other person’s demeanor. Instead, make it your responsibility to pull them up to your level.
We are already accustomed to receiving disapproving nonverbal feedback from others when we let our faces relax. Many of us had parents who would become outraged if our face was too calm, thinking that we were being flippant, sarcastic, or obstinate. I have seen many children look afraid to appear calm around their parents. Kids learn by trial and error to make pained expressions to defer to parents and teachers. This kind of early environmental feedback makes us feel defensive whenever we sport a calm look.
Despite being a decent father in many respects, I have a friend who is often too dictatorial with his young daughter. To assuage his wrath, she squints, curls her top lip, pouts, and pleads with him in a high voice. Daily. Her brow wrinkles in a half-circle from furrowing and raising the eyebrows at the same time. There is no telling how many other internal chakras she strains to “buy mercy.”
Other parents spoil their children, sparing their chakra-like modules but causing them to be undisciplined and disrespectful. A good proportion of beautiful and composed people were spoiled as children. Some parents can instill discipline and reverence without traumatizing, and this takes an incredible amount of parenting skill. This is the best kind of parent to be, but also the best kind of friend to be.
When people see you are stolidly composed, they will assume you are likely to mistreat them. When you are kind to them, they will be surprised because they assume the only thing holding most people back from acting abusive is their lack of composure. Usually, the person with more composure acts more abusive. This is normative and commonly accepted. As your composure improves, you may have to fight the urge to take advantage of others. You may have the impulse to be rude, scornful, or otherwise exploit your privileged position. If you are not a bad person (and, dear reader, I am sure you are not), as your composure improves, you will become less offensive. This is because you will find you have less to act defensive and oppositional about.
The Effect of Tension on the Body During Development
We have discussed how taking on facial and bodily muscle tension is an evolved strategy that communicates submissiveness to avoid being challenged and attacked. There are numerous similar strategies involving body plan changes even just in primates. For example, male orangutans are capable of exhibiting a pronounced developmental hiatus when they reach the females’ size. What happens next varies. Some males go on to develop into full adult body size, along with other mature characteristics such as facial flaps. In contrast, other males will enter a prolonged period of physical juvenility (arrested growth and development) but otherwise full sexual maturity.
Environmental feedback determines whether male orangutans enter this prolonged juvenile phase or not. If their environment stifles their serotonin and testosterone levels, they are more likely to put off full maturity for a few years to avoid competing with the fully mature males. 8 Fascinatingly, suppression of maturity in orangutans is seen even in males that consider themselves subordinate to a human groundskeeper. If the keeper is replaced or the orangutan successfully challenges the keeper, the orangutan will quickly develop its cheek pads and full size.
Male gorillas do not mature into a full silverback for three to eight years after reaching sexual maturity. Some take much longer than others. This gives them more time to develop skills and relationships before they attempt to become an alpha male. This phenomenon in orangutans, gorillas, and many other animals is called sexual bimaturism.9 It is evident in humans as well. Males hit puberty two years later than girls. This is widely thought to delay the age in which men are thrust into stressful and potentially dangerous competition with older, more dominant, sexually active males.
A similar process may be going on with our bodies and faces. The combination of distress and repetitive strain may program muscles all over the body to become weak (hypotrophic) to display our place in the pecking order. In other words, the tension keeps us from being as muscular and healthy as we could be. I previously thought that most of the variability in beauty and robust body type was explained by genes. I thought alpha animals attained their status by a stroke of genetic luck. Now, I am convinced that much of it comes from environmental feedback and developmental plasticity. Bad social environments influence children to strain their faces while good ones encourage children to relax them. Tension alters our physiognomy. Over months and years, some people look depleted and sickly while others look handsome and brawny. Most of us passively allow the environment to determine how this plays out. The Program Peace exercises can help you actively optimize it.
Remember from Chapter 5 that muscles that do not rest cannot heal. Relaxed muscles are capable of full recovery and thus are more responsive to exercise. Now that your facial muscles are capable of resting fully, they are capable of becoming more muscular.
Facial Exercises That Will Make a Relaxed Face Robust
Use the exercises in this section to contract your facial muscles beyond their normal range and out of partial contraction. To do this, flex them as hard as you can while breathing diaphragmatically. Some of the muscles are involved in superiority displays, others in inferiority displays, but I recommend pairing them all with proper breathing to unlink them from the sympathetic stress system. This will make the superiority displays indubitable and the inferiority displays playful rather than subordinating.
Diaphragmatic generalization will reduce the activation threshold for these muscles, encouraging them to contract spontaneously, effortlessly, and more frequently. This will free up previously frozen contractions and help you become more expressive. Exercising these muscles to the point of fatigue and then letting them rest completely will also help them grow stronger and more prominent.
Use Expressionlessness in Social Situations
I remember when I first started forcing myself to walk on the sidewalk at night with a calm face. I was actually afraid that someone driving by would become angry at me because my face was too calm. I was literally concerned that someone would see my expressionless face in the dark through their windshield, from 20 to 30 feet away, pull the car over, and try to fight me over it. I had to overcome this fear before I could let my face tranquilize. Do you? Start making this expressionless face alone in your room so that social concerns don’t start to puppeteer your facial muscles without your awareness. Next, try it walking around your home or around the neighborhood. You want to work up to being in a store, a restaurant, or dealing with a register clerk while sporting your new calm demeanor. Doing this while breathing diaphragmatically slowly teaches your heart that it is safe.
Sometimes we use our facial tension as an outward apology for our appearance or lack of beauty. It often says: “Hey, believe me, I know that I don’t look so great right now.” Telling myself the following helped me: “I know that I’m ‘ugly’ at times. I’m not afraid or ashamed of my hideousness, and in that revelation I retain dignity. There is no reason to apologize for my unsightliness with a grimace.”
Facial tension can also say other things like: “Sorry for interrupting you,” “I may be wrong about this,” or “I hope you like me.” Thus the tension becomes an integral part of our social self-presentation. When you remove it, you have to radically rethink your social deliveries. Without the tension, your personality must change. When allowing your face to relax you have to come to grips with the fact that some people won’t like the way you look and will question why you have allowed your face to be so lax. At first I took expressionlessness too far. I stopped smiling at service employees, I treated other people like robots. I stopped connecting with people emotionally and had an appearance of deadness. Avoid this. Use it alone, use it in public, but don’t take it too far in the company of friends.
When you make a face that is completely calm, you probably look defensive. This is because you assume that other people will interpret your expressionless face as competitive, and you make a preemptive negative face. This keeps it from being truly calm. Making an expressionless face can be socially insensitive. All you have to do to make a socially sensitive expressionless face is to widen the eyes and breathe diaphragmatically. Trust that taking long, deep, slow breaths wipes the negative aspect from your face. Try combining a calm face with puppy-dog eyes. Embrace facial naïveté like a trauma-naïve sea slug.
People will question the authenticity of your expressionlessness, thinking that it is artificial. One thing they will do is stare at you while you are looking at something else. Bullies do this often. They will leave their gaze on you, thinking that if they look long enough, you will revert to a more submissive facial posture. They anticipate you will look down, lower your chin, raise your eyebrows or squint your eyes. Don’t submit to their visual inspection of you. By under reacting to it you will show them that it is not a ruse
Bullies will also show false tension in their own face or pretend to lose their composure to bait you into doing the same. Once you follow their cue they bring their composure right back in an effort to make you look stupid. Many people do this, most of them do it half-consciously. It is a manipulative ploy. Demonstrate a psychopathic indifference towards other people’s interpretation of your calm facial posture. When other people see your expressionlessness and respond with an expressionless look of their own, don’t judge their version negatively even if it looks smug. Instead, act as if you are glad to see that they are trying to be as calm as you are.
When people see that you are stolidly composed they will assume that you are likely to mistreat them. When you are kind to them, they will be surprised, because they assume the only thing holding most people back from acting abusive is their lack of composure. Usually, when one person’s composure is better than another’s, the person with more composure acts more abusive. This is normative and commonly accepted. As your composure improves, you will have to fight the urge to take advantage of others. You will have the impulse to be rude or scornful or to otherwise exploit your privileged position. If you are a truly good person, as your composure improves you have less to act defensive about, and thus you will notice that the things you say are more humble and less oppositional. Don’t ever lose your composure. It is not your responsibility to sink to the level of the other person’s composure. Instead, make it your responsibility to pull them up to your level.
When we allow our faces to relax we often get disapproving nonverbal feedback from others. Many of us had parents who would become angry if our face looked too relaxed thinking that we were being flippant, sarcastic or obstinate. I have seen a number of children that look afraid to appear too calm around their parents. Many children learn by trial and error to make pained expressions to defer to parents. This kind of early environmental feedback makes it so that we feel defensive whenever we sport a calm look.
Young infants’ faces show high base rates of random combinatorial activity, allowing parents to shape a repertoire of conventional displays (Charlesworth & Kreutzer, 2006). Infants more or less unconsciously assess the feedback that people give them and alter their facial patterns accordingly. Trial and error programs young children to brace their eyes, cheeks, and jaws in certain ways. This in turn distributes tension to different anatomical areas and results in a unique pattern of atrophied/painful facial muscle mass for each person.
My friend is too dictatorial with his young daughter despite being an excellent father in many ways. To assuage his wrath she squints, curls her top lip, and pleads with him in a high voice. Her brow wrinkles in a half circle from furrowing and raising the eyebrows at the same time. There is no telling how many other chakras she strains to “buy mercy.” Other parents spoil their children sparing their chakra-like modules but causing them to be undisciplined and disrespectful. A good proportion of beautiful and composed people were spoiled as children. Some parents can instill discipline and reverence without traumatizing and this takes an incredible amount of parenting skill. This is the best kind of parent to be, but also the best kind of friend to be.
An authentically calm face is actually endearing. In Chapter 4 we discussed how subordinate apes avoid eye contact and how direct looking can be a threat signal. It is important to point out that expressionlessness can change this. When a chimpanzee gazes at another without any apprehensive signals (such as pursing of the lips, frowning or glaring) is not threatening. Expressionlessness that is free from negativity will actually make your eye contact more inviting, opening social doors for you.
Ultimately, you want to imbue your expressionlessness with a cool, elegant, urbane look. I am not talking about being distant, detached, aloof, or unsociable. Rather, think about these words: dispassionate, collected, imperturbable, unflappable, unruffled, serene, free from agitation. You want a sedate disposition stemming from self-discipline. You want temperate self-assurance that suggests indifference. You want an easy casualness even under heavy provocation. Also try to incorporate a look of stoic dignity. I find the definition of stoic to be inspiring: “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.” When I started focusing on appearing stoic, all of a sudden, I lost the tough guy shtick because stoicism is not a competition, it is internal discipline. Make your appearance resigned to drama with no trace of protest. Create a calm facial expression that you truly believe is positive, once you do this will come across as clear as day.
The Effect of Stress on the Body During Development
I believe that facial and bodily muscle mass tension is an evolved strategy that communicates submissiveness and prevents an individual from being challenged and attacked. There are examples of this in nature. Male orangutans are capable of exhibiting a pronounced developmental hiatus where they reach the size of the females and then what happens varies. Some males go on to develop full adult body size, facial flaps (flanges), and other secondary sexual characteristics, whereas others enter a prolonged period of physical juvenility (arrested development) but otherwise full sexual maturity. Environmental feedback determines whether they enter this prolonged juvenile phase or not. If their testosterone levels are stifled by their environment, they are more likely to put off full maturity for a few years. The reason being that they don’t yet want to compete with the fully mature males. Fascinatingly, suppression of maturity in orangutans is seen even in males that consider themselves subordinate to a human groundskeeper. If the keeper is replaced or if the orangutan successfully challenges the keeper, the orangutan will quickly develop cheek pads (Maple, 1980).
Male gorillas do not mature into a full silverback for 3 to 5 years after reaching sexual maturity. This gives them more time to develop skills and relationships before they attempt to become an alpha male. This phenomenon in orangutans, gorillas and many other animals is called sexual bimaturism. It is evident in humans as well. Males hit puberty two years later than girls, and this is widely thought to delay the age in which the male is thrust into stressful and potentially dangerous competition with dominant, sexually active males.
A similar process may be going on with our bodies and faces. The combination of distress and repetitive strain may program our muscles to become weak (hypotrophic) to display our place in the pecking order. In other words, the tension keeps our faces and bodies from being as muscular, and healthy as they could be. I previously thought that most of the variability in beauty was explained by genes. Now I have become convinced that it comes from developmental plasticity. Bad social environments influence children to strain their faces and good ones to relax them. Over months, and years, some people look depleted and sickly and others look handsome and robust.
Spend time contracting different muscles of the face while breathing diaphragmatically. Some of the muscles are involved in superiority displays, other in inferiority displays but I want to recommend pairing them all with proper breathing to unlink them from the sympathetic stress system. This will make the superiority displays indubitable and the inferiority displays playful rather than subordinating. It will make all of the expressions effortless. Diaphragmatic generalization will also reduce the activation threshold for these muscles, encouraging them to contract spontaneously. This will free up previously stifled emotions and help you become more expressive. Combining this with exercise will increase neural control of the muscles and help them grow stronger and more prominent. Here are a few facial exercises to try:
Illustration 8.3: A. Nostrils flared; B. Jaw wide; C. Squinting; D. Eyebrows raised; E. Brow furrowed and lowered; F. Chin raised; G. Corners of mouth lowered; H. Sneering; I. Nose crinkled; J. Lips puckered.
Chewing activates more muscle than any of the facial expressions. The muscles of mastication (including the masseter, pterygoid, and temporalis) are large and highly susceptible to strain. I had a medical doctor diagnose me with temporomandibular joint dysfunction. He said that the range of motion in my jaw was heavily encumbered and that, as a whole, my jaw was badly “closed down.” Exercise 8.5 below, along with the jaw massage described in the next chapter, healed this. It ended the pain and cracking. It melted the knots away. And it resulted in the same doctor rescinding the diagnosis.
My mother, an art historian, has cataloged and captioned many photographs of early California pioneers. She spent considerable time analyzing portraits of these hard-working, rugged people who survived on a dangerous frontier. She said many of the individuals photographed reminded her of wolves. She explained to me that they appeared wild and undomesticated. Their faces seemed less encumbered by a social mask and were emblematic of a cunning, phlegmatic, dauntless animal intent on survival. Don’t wear the face of a tame, housebroken pup. Wear that of an unbroken wolf.
“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error…the world will seem to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being happy. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are deeply etched with such disappointment.” — Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)
The fate described by the dismal quote above is escapable. But we have to take the reins. It is our responsibility, and not the world’s, to create happiness in our lives. A great first step is to keep the etching of disappointment from happening. It is said that by old age, you manifest the face you deserve. But even some toddlers have purple creases under their eyes (usually because they are modeling their parents’ expressions). The muscular contortions that lead to the disfigurement of our faces and bodies start in infancy. However, it is never too late to intervene.
Learning to embrace expressionlessness and practicing facial exercises will help keep your facial muscles from taking on additional strain as you age. However, they will not totally release your facial bracing patterns. Only soft tissue massage in the form of compression or percussion can do this. The next chapter will show you how to remove the tension from your facial muscles, making even the most expressionless face in the world look absolutely natural.
Chapter Eight: Bullet Points
- We brace the muscles in our face throughout the day, resulting in continual wincing, grimacing, and frowning.
- Facial bracing causes the muscles to become stuck in partial contraction and develop trigger points and adaptive muscle shortening.
- The repetitive strain of facial muscle is disempowering because it anchors you to negative thoughts and emotions.
- The activation of latent trigger points in the face destroys our composure and contributes to social fatigue and introversion.
- Practicing a resting face, corpse face, or expressionlessness will stop the accumulation of strain and make your face agile and “light on its feet.”
- To make expressionlessness effortless and ensure that it does not offend people, it must be combined with diaphragmatic breathing, widening of the eyes, fixed gaze practices, and positive intentions.
- Expressionlessness will reduce strain and keep latent trigger points from becoming active. However, removing the trigger points requires massage and hard contraction of the muscles involved.
- Exercising the facial muscles by contracting them beyond their normal range until they reach fatigue, and combining this with diaphragmatic breathing, will strengthen and revive them.
- Brown, F. D., Prendergast, A., & Swalla, B. J. (2008). Man is but a worm: Chordate origins. Genesis, 46(11), 605–613.
- Buck, R. (1980). Nonverbal behavior and the theory of emotion: The facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(5), 813.
- Darwin, C. R. (1872). The expression of the emotions in man and animals. John Murray.
- Lewis, M. B. (2012). Exploring the positive and negative implications of facial feedback. Emotion, 12(4), 852–859.
- Lewis, M. B., Bowler, P. J. (2009). Botulinum toxin cosmetic therapy correlates with a more positive mood. Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, 8(1), 24–26.
- Hennenlotter, A., Dresel, C., Castrop, F., Ceballos Baumann, A. O., Wohlschlager, A. M., & Haslinger, B. (2008). The link between facial feedback and neural activity within central circuitries of emotion—New insights from botulinum toxin-induced denervation of frown muscles. Cerebral Cortex, 19(3), 537–542.
- Charlesworth, W. R., & Kreutzer, M. A. (2006). Facial expressions of infants and children. In P. Ekman (Ed.), Darwin and facial expression: A century of research in review (pp. 91–168). Malor Books.
- van Schaik, C., & MacKinnon, J. (2001). Orangutans. In D. MacDonald (Ed.), The encyclopedia of mammals (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.
- de Waal, F. (2006). Our inner ape: A leading primatologist explains why we are who we are. Riverhead Books.