Does Freezing our Expressions Mean an End to Psychotherapy and Counselling Exploration?
In March 11th edition of The Guardian Mental Health, Jay Watts wrote the following:
“The publication of a new book, The Face of Emotion: How Botox Affects Our Moods and Relationships, by dermatologist and MD Eric Finzi, together with several recent academic studies on the effects of Botox on mood, have generated a spate of phone calls this week from beauty editors to psychologists like me. Is it true, we are asked, that injecting Botox can actually change the way we feel, transforming not just our body image but also the very emotions we experience within ourselves?
The new studies revive the old “motion is emotion” theory to suggest if a woman cannot make certain expressions – such as frowning – she is less likely to feel discontent or depressed. Her brain, the argument goes, will not read muscular movement associated with anger as present, so she will not feel angry. Aesthetic procedures that freeze our expressions can thus affect our emotional lives. Should the depressed be reaching for the Botox? Can facial filler really make us happier?
When parents threaten their grimacing children “if the wind changes, your face will stay like that forever”, they offer it as a threat. Yet the aesthetics industry would see “staying like that forever” as a good thing, providing the face stuck to is one that does not show any sign of ageing, distress or – in this new wave of propaganda – anger.
Most of us think that our facial expressions reflect our feelings, experiences, age, and perhaps when we last went to buy makeup. We also tend to think people’s faces express their more general take on the world. The comedian Jack Dee, for example, has talked about how his “hangdog expression” is seen by most as saying something about his outlook. “The motion is emotion” theory argues the opposite. It is our facial expression that dictates how we actually feel, rather than revealing an underlying state. If a face is frowning – an expression often associated with anger – we may recognise this association and begin to actually feel angry inside. Others may then react to us as if we were angry, producing a reinforcement cycle where people frown back at us and we are caught in a perpetual spiral of rage.
This theory goes back to the early 20th century, when psychologist and philosopher William James argued that “a man does not cry because he is sad, he is sad because he cries”. Emotion here is seen as a reaction in the body – a set of muscular and chemical events. Recent studies have revived these ideas, claiming that freezing emotional expression through using Botox has a positive effect on depression. Journalists are being briefed that Botox may even prove a universal panacea for depression as a facial motion previously associated with anger is no longer possible, which will make us all happier. Should we throw out the SSRIs and rush to Harley Street?
Maybe not yet. All this is based on a very simplistic understanding of emotion. Within the laboratory, a face with a frown may be read as quickly as an angry one, yet our real-world experiences of each other are nearly always in interaction. Our brains pick up cues of how someone else might be thinking and feeling on a second-by-second basis. We do not see a couple of frown lines, a couple of furrows and process “sad face”, “happy face” but rather pick up cues from a mixture of facial expression, gait, voice cadence, posture, context, eye movement, as well as the fantasies and projections we bring with us to every social exchange.
The new “Botox theory” ignores this complexity, seeing emotion as little more than the awareness of a set of physical reactions. It also neglects something crucial described by writers for centuries: the horror of the uncanny. We experience this when we see an actress or woman of a certain age and feel that something is wrong. Perhaps she has the plumped out cheeks of early youth, the ironed-out forehead of Botox, yet also middle-age crow’s feet. If the work is good, we may not know explicitly what is wrong, but we sense instantly that something is awry. There is a gap between the mask we see and what we expect to be in its place.
This will have an immediate effect on how we then relate to that person. Someone may be telling us the saddest story, but if the facial cues are dissonant, we won’t be quite present either. Colleagues tell me of their feeling “something is really wrong” with new patients because they find it difficult to attune to what is going on for them, only later to find out the patient has regular Botox. And this, of course, generates its own paranoia: “Does he know?”, “Is she treating me differently?”, “Can people tell?”.
The misappropriation of the “motion is emotion” theory by a plastic surgery industry that wants to get rid of our angry faces to make us happier forecloses the real issue. People can tell when something is not right with facial expression, and that will leave women feeling more alienated, more alone, more paranoid than ever. Botox might block us from making the expressions we used to make when angry, but it can never get rid of our internal worlds. If there is anger there, why not think about it rather than try to excise it? The Botox route, fuelled by questionable “science”, denies the legitimacy of a woman’s anger, as if de-ageing and depoliticising had become one and the same thing.”
Just because we do not show an expression does not mean that the cause of depressed or upsetting feelings has gone away. Sometimes help to discover and understand these causes is needed and professional psychotherapy support is required.
The three psychotherapists at The cavendish Psychotherapy Practice at 121 Harley Street, London, are professional, experienced, confidential and ethical and can work with you to uncover the roots of your difficulties.